American Muslims Are in a Painful, Familiar Place
When President Biden landed in Tel Aviv days after Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre of more than 1,400 people, he told an audience of Israelis that this was not just Israel’s Sept. 11, that “it was like 15 9/11s.”
The comparison, which emerged widely and immediately, seemed apt on the surface: a brutal attack that shocked a nation and changed the course of its history. Indeed, it’s been dizzying to witness the speed at which the same patterns we saw after Sept. 11, 2001, are playing out. The mourning of a terrorist attack has been interrupted by the swift bombardment of civilian neighborhoods. American officials,pundits and companies have quickly rallied around Israel in its war on Gaza, which has rapidly intensified by the day. In the first week of the war, Israel dropped more bombs on Gaza than the United States did on Afghanistan in a year. Civilian casualties in Gaza have climbed exponentially. And in the West Bank, recent images of Palestinians being tied, blindfolded, stripped and allegedly subjected to attempted sexual assault by Israeli soldiers and settlers recall Abu Ghraib.
In the United States, it’s as if the country has turned back the clock two decades, but not in the way that Mr. Biden suggests. For those who experienced waves of harassment and government surveillance in the years after Sept. 11, the president’s pledge of “unwavering” support for Israel set off alarm bells. I’ve been speaking with lawyers, community groups and advocacy organizations that worked closely with Muslims after September 2001 about what they’re seeing. Not since that time — not even after the election of Donald Trump, who signed an executive order banning visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries within days of taking office — have I heard so many Muslim and Arab community members say they feel isolated. After living through and reckoning with the devastating aftermath of the war on terrorism, it seems the lessons of Sept. 11 have been forgotten.
There seems to be a sense of both resignation — we’ve been here before — and shock — but we’ve been here before.
In the wake of Sept. 11, the U.S. government activated the full force of the national security and law enforcement apparatus to prevent another terrorist attack on American soil. And it bore down on one particular group: Muslims in America. Mass arrests and a national registry of immigrant Muslims led to the deportation of thousands. F.B.I. and police informants, sent to monitor mosques and Muslim neighborhoods, were later found to have been overzealous and accused of entrapping people who committed no violent crimes. The government’s focus on potentially dangerous Muslims spread to American media and society. According to F.B.I. data, hate crimes against Muslims spiked in 2001. Though that pattern slowed in later years — assaults skyrocketed again in 2015 and 2016 — rates have never dipped back to their pre-2001 numbers.
Today, many Muslims in the United States fear a new outbreak of violence. Days after the attacks in Israel, the Biden administration announced that local and federal law enforcement officers across the United States are “closely monitoring” for connected threats. Within a week of Oct. 7, scattered reports were made to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of F.B.I. visits to mosques, and women in hijabs were reportedly being assaulted in several cities.
Though communities were braced for what was to come, no one could have predicted that the first hate crime would be the killing of a 6-year-old Palestinian Muslim boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, whose mother was rushed to the hospital after also being repeatedly stabbed. Joseph Czuba, their landlord, was charged in the killing. (He has pleaded not guilty.) According to the boy’s mother, Mr. Czuba had become violent after the news of Oct. 7 and yelled, “You Muslims must die,” before stabbing Wadea 26 times. While speaking at Wadea’s funeral, one religious leader, Imam Omar Suleiman, wondered in his remarks: “Have we not learned anything from 9/11? Do we really want to live those dark years again?”
Perhaps because those “dark years” were not so long ago, attacks like the one on Wadea feel as though they are opening a barely closed wound. One Illinois resident told me that community members are now planning patrols for their children, not dissimilar to those started by some mosques after Mr. Trump was elected. “This is exactly what we were afraid of,” Abed Ayoub, the director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, told me recently.
What happened to the Muslim community in the United States after Sept. 11 — the surveillance, the targeting, the fear — was intimately tied to many Americans’ belief in the righteousness of what our government was doing abroad. As the United States invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq, both wars that wrought devastating civilian casualties and paved the way for political chaos, the public perception of Muslims in America plummeted to new lows. Within a year of the Iraq invasion, a Pew poll found that a larger number of Americans believed Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence. By 2014, Muslims ranked lowest in another Pew poll of how the American public views different religious groups.
That unfounded perception has remained in the years since. The sudden arrival of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria only deepened the suspicion of Muslims in America as an ever-present threat. Once again, Islam appeared in close connection to terrorism in the American imagination as images of masked figures carrying out gruesome executions reinforced twisted stereotypes of Muslims. The ISIS phenomenon of the Western recruit meant that any wayward Muslim teenager could be a threat and that even the most assimilated people had the potential to become terrorists.
Since the Israel-Hamas war started, these long-held suspicions now appear to be seeping into the public debate again over showing support for Palestinians in Gaza, more than 8,000 of whom have been killed since the bombardment began, according to the Gazan health ministry. The false connection between supporting civilians in Gaza and the terrorist activities of Hamas is manifesting across our country’s public institutions. From college campuses to places of work, people are facing retribution for expressing support for Palestinians that is being misconstrued as anti-Israel or pro-Hamas. Companies have rescinded job offers, journalists have been fired for sharing posts, and students whose organizations have signed statements have been smeared publicly. The scale of suppression of speech by social media platforms, such as the shadow banning of Gaza-related posts and the blocking of accounts on Instagram, has been alarming enough that Human Rights Watch has started to document it.
Perhaps the Sept. 11 comparison and the good-guy/bad-guy binary can be evoked successfully because there has been almost no accountability for the failures of the war on terrorism. The oversimplification is made worse by Mr. Biden, who, in the same visit to Tel Aviv during which he cautioned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to avoid the “mistakes” America made after Sept. 11, he also referred to Palestinians as “the other team.” There is no call from Israel to win the “hearts and minds” of Palestinians, as George W. Bush claimed to do with Iraqis; there is no call to bring freedom to Gaza, as the United States said it wanted to do in Afghanistan. Instead, Mr. Biden has not publicly admonished the Israeli defense minister for saying that his country was fighting “human animals.” And at home, he and other leaders have offered little to assuage the growing fears in the Arab and Muslim community: Last week he had a private meeting with Muslim leaders that the administration never publicly announced. Though the White House released a statement the day after Wadea Al-Fayoume’s killing, the president didn’t call the boy’s family until five days later.
The Oct. 7 attacks didn’t happen on American soil, but this is an intimate war for many Americans. Some families wait desperately for scraps of news of their loved ones taken hostage by Hamas. Others search for some sign of their loved ones in Gaza, waiting for the blue checks to show that their WhatsApp messages have been read by family members who are trying to stay alive amid near-constant bombing and a lack of food and water.
The first Friday after Oct. 7, the first holy day for Muslims and Jews since the attacks, New York City and the rest of the country seemed to be on high alert, bracing itself because a former Hamas leader in Qatar had called for protests across Arab nations in support of the Palestinians, a call which was mislabeled as a day of jihad. I decided to visit the Islamic Center at N.Y.U., expecting a tense and nervous congregation. Instead, an imam finished his speech, and the women around me lined up to pray. As we knelt together, all I could hear was sobs.
We’ve been here before, but we don’t have to be here again.
Rozina Ali is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor at Lux magazine. She is also a 2024 New America fellow.
Source photographs by Fadel Senna, Jonathan Ernst, Jim Watson, Tolga Tezcan/Getty Images."