Islamophobia after 9/11: the unintended victims of terrorism

Photo credit: AFP via albawaba

September 11th, 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which the World Trade Center and The Pentagon, the headquarters for the US Department of Defence, were targeted with hijacked passenger planes. These attacks ultimately claimed almost 3,000 civilian lives and changed millions of others. Over these 20 years, the events of September 11th, 2001 have had a profound impact on American and European foreign policy, conflict in the Middle East and perceptions of identity, religion and culture across the globe.

This year’s anniversary has once again provided people the opportunity to reflect on the events of 9/11. Thousands have been remembering lost loved ones, and many others have recalled the attack through television and media. Netflix recently released the film ‘Worth’, which follows an attorney challenged with the task of organising compensation for victims and their families. The online streaming company also released a documentary on September 1st titled ‘Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror”, which examines the events both before and after 9/11, as well as the developments on September 11th.

In addition to remembering the victims of 9/11 20 years on, this year’s anniversary is also an opportunity to reflect on the events in the Middle East that followed. By October of that year, the United States had begun its military invasion of Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda, the organisation responsible for the terrorist attacks, operated mostly out of bases in Afghanistan, a country that had fallen under Taliban rule after the Afghan Civil War. The United States, with support from the United Kingdom and other European states, aimed to dismantle the Taliban in order to further eradicate their support for Al-Qaeda.

The invasion of Afghanistan marked the beginning of post-9/11 US intervention in the Middle East. In 2003, the United States would invade Iraq and topple dictator Saddam Hussein, with the justification that Hussein’s government had in its possession weapons of mass destruction. These claims were later deemed baseless, and questions have remained ever since as to the real motivations behind the invasion. Not only would the United States intervene in Iraq, but they would continue their military presence in Afghanistan up until August 2021. 71,000 Afghan civilians have died as a result of such conflict, and at least 207,000 Iraqi civilians have lost their lives due to US intervention.

However, these hundreds of thousands of deaths are not the only indirect victims of the 9/11 attacks. After September 2001, Islamophobia would reach unprecedented levels across the globe. In the United States alone, there were 481 incidents of hate crimes against Muslims in 2001, compared to 28 from the year before. The number of incidents each year has still failed to fall below pre-9/11 levels.

The severity of this level of Islamophobia was demonstrated earlier this year by a United Nations Special Rapporteur, Ahmed Shaheed, as he addressed the UN Human Rights Council on the issue. In his report, Shaheed highlighted that between 2018 and 2019, 37% of Europeans had an unfavourable view of Muslims, and in 2017 30% of Americans held the same opinion. Not only this, but Shaheed also suggested that many regional and international bodies have implemented security measures that have disproportionately affected Muslims, as well as categorising them as high risk.

One of the most profound changes in transport security regarding terrorism came in 2017 when former US President Donald Trump announced a travel ban on 7 Muslim-majority countries. The order prevented anyone, including refugees, from entering the United States travelling from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Despite the order being overruled just 12 days after it was signed, distrust of Muslims amongst the American public only grew stronger.

These discriminatory security measures can further be seen at airports, particularly in Western countries. According to a 2011 report by the Pew Research Centre, 21% of Muslims felt singled out at American airports, with 51% of Muslims feeling targeted by government anti-terrorism initiatives. Saher Selod, a Professor in Sociology at Simmons College, conducted various interviews with Muslim men about their experiences with security forces. Amongst other issues, Selod states that most of the men she interviewed were interrogated by a Transportation Security agent whilst trying to get the boarding pass for a flight they had booked. 

The same disproportionate treatment was experienced by Muslim women as well, especially those wearing hijabs, who would expect to be stopped for extra searches at the security gate. Selod concluded her findings with the evaluation that “These men and women have come to understand that, as Muslims, they are likely to be associated with terrorism. They censor themselves and avoid talking about politics or religion”.

The transformation of security measures and anti-terrorism after 9/11 has clearly had a detrimental impact on Muslims when they travel, but how has this distrust of Muslims within society become so profound?

Over the past 20 years, Western media has played a significant role in influencing public perceptions about the Middle East, as well as Islam and its values. It is evident that immediately after the September 11th attacks, Muslims began to face discrimination at the hands of some of the biggest newspapers and media outlets. In the weeks following 9/11, the Wall Street Journal would go on to publish a number of Islamophobic articles with headings such as ‘Arabs have nobody to blame but themselves’ and ‘Islam can’t escape blame for Sept. 11’

Inflammatory article headlines such as these, coupled with the anger and grief felt in the weeks and months following 9/11, would go on to make life increasingly difficult for Muslims and Arab communities. Pinning the blame of a terrorist attack carried out by a few on an entire demographic and religion would inevitably lead to a dramatic rise in discrimination and abuse.

Moreover, the portrayal of events and general life in the Middle East after 9/11 has only exacerbated the distorted perceptions that many members of the public in Western countries hold of Muslims. Dr. H. A. Hellyer demonstrates this in an article from January 2020, following the death of Iranian General Qassem Suleimani. Hellyer describes the differences in the coverage of Suleimani’s death between Western and Arab media outlets. The voices of Syrians, Lebanese and Iraqis, those most directly affected by the actions of Suleimani as well as his death, were rarely heard in Western coverage. As Hellyer highlights, voices from within the region should be elevated, not excluded, as ultimately it will be them who ‘pay the price’ for Trump’s decision to assassinate Suleimani.

The bias demonstrated in the general coverage of Suleimani’s death can also be found in the reporting of developments leading up to the invasion of Iraq. As part of an inquiry into coverage of the Iraq war,  CNN Journalist Howard Kurtz found that between August 2002 and March 19th, 2003, there were over 140 front-page stories by the Washington Post that backed the anti-Iraq rhetoric. Conversely, questions about the rationale surrounding the invasion were suppressed. As it turned out, these questions were wholly justified, as no ‘weapons of mass destruction’ were ever found.

Indeed, Western media as a whole has a tendency to focus on negative developments in the Middle East, which began with the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. “To read the headlines from major US news networks is to believe that the Middle East is trapped in an eternal cycle of violence, instability, and terrorism,” writes Erin Kilbride. Since the United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago, articles and headlines coming out of the country have nearly always centred around war, terrorism and suppression.

The Western perspective of Afghanistan is limited to this narrative of oppression, instead of a balanced view of a country with much more culture and history than just two decades of war that began with foreign intervention. In the face of this loosely based stereotype, many Afghans and journalists have been attempting to change it. Afghan filmmaker Roya Sadat aims to broaden people’s perspectives of Afghanistan through her feature film ‘The Forgotten History’. Whilst discussing the film, Sadat stated “The film breaks this narrative, ends this cliché and says that our history is not just the history of a few years of war, which is always the headline of world news.”

Complimenting the efforts of Sadat is the media outlet Muftah, which was founded in 2010 with the aim of providing news and analysis “that eschewed the Western media’s focus on terrorism, oil, and Islamism, and highlighted the complex factors that shape and influence regional countries and populations”.

Despite this challenge from figures in the film and media industries, the general rhetoric regarding the Middle East and Muslims remains largely negative. Two decades of headlines outlining conflict in Muslim-majority countries, discriminatory security measures against Muslims and glorifying Western intervention in the Middle East have left their mark.

Islamophobia has not only significantly changed the lives of millions of Muslims, but it has also shifted political conversations and beliefs. A 2018 study found that for 39% of British voters who chose ‘Leave’ in the 2016 EU Referendum, the main reason for their vote was for the UK to gain more control over EU immigration. This, coupled with the belief amongst many British Muslims that Brexit and the appointment of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister are mostly to blame for the rise in Islamophobia in recent years, demonstrates the level of distrust amongst Western societies towards Muslims. Following the 2016 referendum result, there was a 475% increase in attacks against Muslims in the UK.

On the other side of the Atlantic, another significant political event unfolded in recent years as Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election, and his subsequent actions came with an anti-Muslim tone. Whilst running for president, Trump called for ‘a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States’ and in March 2016, 51% of Americans were in favour of this proposed ban. However, as it has already been argued, this Islamophobia is not exclusive to the era of Trump. As stated by Nazia Kazi, an associate professor in anthropology, “The US seamlessly took advantage of anti-Muslim sentiment after the 9/11 terror attacks to justify its 2003 invasion of Iraq”.

The events of 9/11 have undoubtedly affected the lives of Muslims, whether it be in the United States, Europe or the Middle East. The attacks resulted in two US invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the latter proving to have absolutely no basis or justification whatsoever. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died, and the Western perception of the Middle East still remains tarnished by stereotypes of violence, war and terrorism.

In addition, Muslims and Arabs in North America and Europe have been subject to significant racism and Islamophobia. Not only did 9/11 set off a timeline of heightened abuse in the years to follow, but it would also remain a motivator for Islamophobic voting intentions more than a decade later.

The terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001 claimed the lives of 2,977 civilians, but they would continue to indirectly kill hundreds of thousands more, as well as tarnish the Western perspective of millions due to their ethnicity and religion. It would make Muslims feel unable to safely and properly express their identity and religious beliefs due to the Islamophobic rhetoric that was peddled by most Western media outlets. As a consequence, significant proportions of Western societies have since looked upon Muslims with distrust and fear. Not only did 9/11 claim the lives of almost 3,000 people, but the Western response which ensued ultimately held an entire religion and certain ethnic groups responsible for the actions of a few.