By Ray Hanania
Next week, Americans and many other people around the world will commemorate the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that took down two of the planet’s tallest towers, damaged the Pentagon, destroyed four commercial airliners and took the lives of nearly 3,000 people.
But what few will remember, and what will surely be ignored by the mainstream American news media, are the thousands of Americans who were punished by the subsequent hate backlash simply because they were or “looked” Middle Eastern. Dozens were murdered and thousands were victimized in a wave of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate; many of the victims were not even Arab or Muslim, but “looked” like they were from the Middle East.
We don’t know the real depth of the backlash because the US government has never officially acknowledged them as being victims at all. In many cases, incidents that saw Arabs and Muslims killed or injured in the wake of 9/11 were described only as “crimes,” rather than “hate crimes” directly connected to the attacks.
Despite that marginalization, which is an everyday experience for many Arabs and Muslims and those who “look” like us in America, the individuals who were killed or injured as a result of the hate backlash were as much victims of the terrorism of 9/11 as were the 2,977 people killed at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon or the field in Pennsylvania where United Airlines Flight 93 came down.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the few organizations that has recognized these victims, identifying many of them in a 2002 report.
According to the FBI, official hate crimes against “Muslims” rose from 28 from Jan. 1, 2001, to the date of the terrorist attacks to more than 481 in the last three months of the year. HRW reported that the individuals most likely to be targeted were Arabs, Muslims, Arab women who wore hijabs, Sikhs who wore turbans, and any dark-skinned Asians, including Indians and Pakistanis. In Chicago, even Mexican-Americans were targeted, so some wrapped Mexican flags around the hoods of their cars to identify themselves as not being Arab or Muslim.
Arab stores in Chicago’s “Little Palestine” were vandalized, with windows and fixtures broken. Muslim worshippers at mosques were targeted and attacked. The day after the attacks began, dozens of ordinary Americans gathered outside one mosque in Bridgeview, Illinois, to hold hands, encircling the building.
Exactly how many Arabs and Muslims were targeted as a result of the terrorist attacks orchestrated by an extreme faction of religious fanatics who asserted, falsely, that they represented Islam is not known. But many were fired, ostracized, removed from client-facing duties or denied jobs. It wasn’t all out of racism or hate, but because of a simple fear that Arab and Muslim employees might cause a negative public reaction.
Some of the anger was also driven by ignorance and a lack of education about Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East. I experienced that first-hand as a Christian Arab. In a public appearance I made soon after 9/11 — believing that the best response to the hate backlash was to confront it publicly, openly and head-on — I was confronted by an elderly woman who whispered in my ear after my talk: “I can’t believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab.”
HRW lists seven individuals who were murdered as a result of the post-9/11 hate, but there were undoubtedly many more. The HRW list includes the case of Adel Karas, a Coptic Christian from Egypt who was killed four days after the terror attacks in his convenience store in California. Nothing was stolen and no suspect was ever arrested. Other victims included Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh who was shot and killed at his gas station in Arizona by a man who publicly declared his intent to avenge 9/11, and Abdo Ali Ahmed, a Yemeni-American who was killed in California. Police found a note that had been left on Ahmed’s car days before vowing to kill him and others because of the 9/11 attacks.
While more than $38 billion has been paid to the families of 9/11 victims under a program mandated by the US Congress, the victims of the subsequent hate crimes cannot even get official acknowledgement of their suffering.