Islamophobia after 9/11

Naomi Altman

The United States is the land of the free. However, on September 11th, 2001, that ideal was challenged with four coordinated terrorist attacks carried out by al-Qaeda, an Islamist extremist group. America was permanently changed following the attacks. While there were new security measures put in place and counterterrorism became more of a national priority, there was a more sinister change of prejudices lurking beneath the surface. The attacks were carried out by a terrorist group that affiliated themselves with Islam. Because of this, many Americans associated Islam with terrorism. From 2000 to 2001, hate crimes against Muslims rose an astonishing 1617% which marks the highest number of Islamophobic hate crimes ever in the US. In just 2001, there were 481 reported hate crimes against Muslims. While the number has gone down, it has never gone back to the levels that it was at pre-9/11. Mosques were burnt down and Muslims were followed with death threats and harassment in the weeks following 9/11 according to congressional testimony. People were physically abused just for “being perceived as Muslim”. This included Arabs and Middle Eastern people who were assumed to be Muslim based on their appearance. This also includes followers of the Sikh faith since observant men wear turbans. While the perpetrators were indeed Muslim, they were first terrorists who distorted their religion to advance their political agendas.

In writing this article, the main question that arose for me was why were Muslims in the US (and people perceived to be Muslims), held responsible for a fringe radical group’s actions in Iraq? An immediate comparison rose to mind. The Ku Klux Klan is a radical Christian group that most Christians don’t associate with. In fact, many Christians (and others) don’t consider the KKK to even be a Christian organization. With this in mind, why is the association between Islam and al-Queda not replicated with Christianity and the KKK? Results from implicit association tests (IAT) – which measures underlying attitudes and beliefs – show that 42% of the 327,999 people who took the test from 2004-2005 have some sort of preference for “other people compared to Arab-Muslims” (26% have no preference and 31% have some preference for Arab-Muslims). This means that many people have an easier time associating names that ‘sound’ Arab or Muslim with words that are not positive. This correlation of negative words to Arab/Muslim names highlights the prejudice that exists in our society. While there is not something inherently different about the nature of these two extreme religious-affiliated groups, they are treated differently in the US. One as a reflection of a whole religion, and one as an exception. This is demonstrated by our collective implicit bias against Arab-Muslim people. 

If we want to keep our American values after 9/11, we should work to stand up against terrorism AND Islamophobia. We can fight against terrorism and be supportive of all religions; they are not mutually exclusive. It is true that 9/11 changed America for good. We uncovered hidden biases that have always been there. If we want to grow from 9/11, we must actively work to prevent islamophobia.

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