By Maha Hilal*
Every year on September 11, the United States mourns the innocent lives that were lost in the terrorist attacks of 2001.
Each year I remember these victims, too. But I also mourn the often forgotten victims of the never-ending wars and draconian counter-terrorism policies of the post 9-11 world: the Muslim community.
In a speech to Congress shortly after the attacks, then-President Bush addressed a portion to Muslims. “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends,” he said. “Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.” Yet despite Bush’s attempt to distinguish between the “good” and “bad” Muslims, the war on terror has targeted the Muslim community at large almost exclusively.
Abroad, several Muslim nations have been devastated by U.S. invasions and military operations. As of 2015, Physicians for Social Responsibility estimated that 1.3 million Iraqis, Afghans, and Pakistanis had died in the course of the war on terror — a figure the group called “conservative,” noting that it doesn’t include figures from other war zones like Yemen and Somalia. Civilian casualties run high in all of these places, and alleged combatants have died by the hundreds in U.S. military custody.
Domestically, law enforcement has systematically singled out Muslims for special abuse.
Muslim congregations and student groups have suffered intrusive surveillance. And federal agencies have systematically entrapped alleged Muslim “terrorists,” with one 2014 Human Rights Watch report finding that informants had played an active role in hatching at least 30 percent of the plots they prosecuted suspects for.
Meanwhile, so-called communication management units — where federal prison inmates are barred from virtually all contact with the outside world and other inmates — were built and used to warehouse Muslim prisoners. At one point, over 60 percent of inmates housed in them were Muslim, despite Muslims making up just 6 percent of the prison system.
In the even more extreme Guantanamo Bay prison, that number rises to 100 percent.
But it doesn’t end there, because the laws and policies of the war on terror have created a culture of fear — one that teaches American society to fear Muslims, and one that teaches Muslims to fear the U.S. government. While it’s gotten worse under Trump, it’s not something that started under him. The Bush administration built the violent infrastructure of the war on terror, Obama expanded it, and Trump is simply building on it still.
Earlier this year, President Trump signed two executive orders, commonly referred to as the Muslim Ban and Muslim Ban 2.0, which halted the issuing of visas to people from seven (and later six) majority-Muslim countries.
While many were surprised by this overt act of racism and xenophobia, the war on terror has taught Muslims like me that this is nothing new. The orders came amid a surge of hate crimes against Muslims, which recently reached their highest levels since 9/11 itself. Furthermore, the number of hate crimes this year has far surpassed that of 2016 — by 91 percent, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations.
“While the bias that motivates a hate crime may be unusual in its ferocity,” a Human Rights Watch report explained way back in 2002, “it is rooted in a wider public climate of discrimination, fear, and intolerance against targeted communities, which may also be echoed in or enhanced by public policy.”
As a Muslim American who has lived in the United States for most of my life, September 11 taught me a few things. It taught me that collective responsibility is at the heart of the laws and policies that have unfolded in the war on terror — that we’ll be targets till we prove we’re “good” Muslims who are uncritical of foreign policy and who believe in the American dream.
It taught me that religious freedom is a value that the United States cherishes, until of course Muslims try to claim it. Then it becomes a security concern.
It taught me that this is actually what many groups have experienced in our country. Different groups are targeted at different times under different umbrellas for our “national security,” which is nothing more than legitimized and institutionalized racism and xenophobia.
This year will mark 16 years of the war on terror — 16 years of military and militaristic means to allegedly abate the terrorist threat, but which have in fact terrorized my own community.
This year, as part of the DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, I’m leading a campaign called #MySept11MuslimStory to provide a space for Muslims to share their stories on the consequences they’ve experienced post-9/11 — not just from the U.S. government, but from society at large. This is my way of empowering the Muslim community to resist the oppression we’ve experienced on the basis of collective responsibility.
The war on terror was supposed to be about making our country safer. But as a Muslim American, I don’t feel any safer. Instead, I suspect those feelings of safety were never meant to be extended to me, or my community. As we prepare for what’s ahead, empowering ourselves couldn’t be more important.
*Maha Hilal, Ph.D., is the Michael Ratner Middle East fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. She’s also a steering committee member of DC Justice for Muslims Coalition, an organizer with Witness Against Torture, and a board member of the DC chapter of the National Lawyers Guild.