Lived Islamophobia: The Muslim Experience in the Twenty-First Century

Dec 6, 2021 10:14:00 AM / by Dr. Maha Hilal


Despite the fact that Muslims have been the primary victims of the War on Terror, Muslim voices have been marginalized or invisibilized in post-9/11 narratives. When stories are told, they often lack nuance and focus on fitting interview responses into the framework the dominant narrative imposes. This might include, for example, asking Muslim Americans how they reconcile their two identities, to follow the notion that Muslim identity necessarily is a contradiction to American identity. This is not to say that powerful stories haven’t been told of Muslims and Muslim Americans post-9/11, but to point out the need to address some of the most critical issues faced—many of which run contrary to mainstream narratives. Moreover, many of the existing narratives and stories of Muslims have been told by those outside the faith, particularly white non-Muslims. The perspective from which these narratives and stories are told matters.

Twenty years after 9/11, the War on Terror is complicated to fully address. So much of the War on Terror, at this point, has become normalized. Yet at the same time, nothing feels normal about being singled out, profiled, and targeted—all of which captures the Muslim experience in the post-9/11 context. This book gave me an opportunity to interview eleven Muslim Americans to gain their perspectives on this era. Though participants were answering my interview questions in 2020, during the end of the Trump presidency, across the board they expressed an understanding of the War on Terror as part of a larger system of violence, not limited to a particular administration or even the last twenty years. My goal was to select individuals from backgrounds that mirrored, at least to some extent, the different subgroups within Muslim communities. Each is identified here as they felt comfortable.

Bijan: An Afghan Advocate

Following the history of scapegoating in the United States, one of my interviewees, Bijan, who identifies as Afghan American, remembered 9/11 and his fear that the perpetrators would be identified as Muslim. Bijan was at school at the time of the attacks and recalls how one of his Indian American friends was concerned for his safety, though at the time he didn’t think his identity would be a consideration in how he was treated. Two days after the attacks, Bijan wrote a letter to the editor for the local newspaper, calling for unity and saying the oft-repeated phrase “We’re in this together.” As an Afghan American, he added that he hoped there wouldn’t be backlash against his community if the attackers were identified as Muslim. Despite his plea, a letter to the editor next to his likened Muslims to scorpions whose deaths could be condoned as revenge.

Bijan’s identity as an Afghan became particularly salient for him, and he remarked, “You have to remember that being Afghan wasn’t a thing before September 11; nobody had heard of Afghanistan.” But this new visibility caused fear for Bijan’s family, and his dad instructed him to stick to his American friends, which meant his white American friends. In the post-9/11 context, in which Afghanistan became the first military target in the War on Terror and the US invasion of Afghanistan has become the longest war in US history, Afghans like Bijan moved from a lack of visibility to a hypervisibility.

With the War on Terror building up, Bijan also noted an interesting digression in the narrative—one that supported going out and shopping. He remembered seeing shopping bags with American flags on them, a reflection of how the country was incorporating a capitalistic approach to counterterrorism tactics in the larger War on Terror.

Speaking to the War on Terror and what it entails, in Bijan’s view “it just became a catch-all for anything the military wants to do. And it means nothing anymore.” Thus, for Bijan the War on Terror was simply a means to unrestricted and unending violence without any clear purpose.

Bijan told me that his parents had become US citizens in 2000, and because he was under eighteen, he automatically became a citizen as well. As a citizen, Bijan felt that he could accomplish anything in this country, but his attitude changed. “It was just pure hatred, it was just pure xenophobia, it was just pure Islamophobia, it went against everything I understood about freedom of religion, about, you know, who can be an American, about all of this stuff. And it made me really, really sad.” This realization came with the understanding that challenging the oppression of Muslims would not, as he had thought earlier, happen through interventions that simply sought to correct people’s misunderstandings of Islam and Muslims.

Bijan identified that one of the consequences of the War on Terror on the Muslim community was the fact that “it caused the big rift between respectability Muslims who wrap themselves in the American flag and, you know, invite the FBI to their mosques, and the ones who are poor and surveilled and scapegoated and then entrapped. This division has further reified the otherness of American Muslims, and especially the idea that we are not American.”

One of the most poignant parts of the interview was when Bijan told me how his disposition has changed in his response to the War on Terror: “I grew up an optimist, and I always have been an optimist, but I’m not anymore. And I think it’s because of the War on Terror. You know, I used to think, okay, give it another few years and Afghanistan will have peace, but no. I think it’s just to permanently destabilize the country, because that’s been happening for the past decade, two decades.”

Nevertheless, Bijan expressed a vision of justice for Muslims that would include an official apology, in addition to Muslims “fighting for and getting what they deserve.” Beyond justice for Muslims, Bijan’s vision of collective liberation was one that would entail fighting for Black people, disabled people, the LGBT community, and other marginalized communities. “And I think it’s especially important to fight for Black people, remembering that whatever the figures, that 40 percent were Muslims and they were the first Muslims here, and they were forcibly, brutally stripped of any rights.”

Armando: A Latinx Veteran and Advocate

Armando, another interviewee, identifies as Chicano and Mexican. Like several others I interviewed for this book, Armando was not Muslim at the time of the 9/11 attacks. Interestingly, however, he was in the Marine Corps. When the 9/11 attacks happened, he was in boot camp, and a supervisor woke him and the others in training to let them know the World Trade Centers had been hit and the US had been attacked. After watching TV and seeing the images that night, Armando was told “they” hate us and that they would be going to war.

Aside from being told they were going to fight, very few other details were communicated to Armando and his colleagues. But the little that was explained painted a picture that the United States was at war to fight back against “political acts of violence that terrorize us or our allies.”

Asked about how Muslim organizations responded to the 9/11 attacks, he said, “We [had] to apologize . . . we [had] to say we’re sorry collectively.” But he told me there were efforts to move away from this response. The war in Iraq was presented as a war for the purpose of freeing Iraqis. But Armando recalled that when they entered Iraq, “people [were] fleeing and people were walking with other belongings they carried, like fleeing the cities. . . . And it was kind of just calm, but then like after a while you started to see . . . as we’re driving to the cities, people were throwing rocks at us and bottles and stuff like that. And so then, at that point, there was this frustration when we realized we weren’t here to free anybody and we’re now just . . . doing this job that we hate and just trying to get through it to come back home.”

Armando left the Marines in 2004 and converted to Islam. Embraced by a Muslim community that was predominantly Palestinian, Armando learned about the violence and terror they had experienced. Hearing their stories made him reflect on the fact that “[now I] was on the opposite end of what I was essentially involved [in] in Iraq.”

Armando relayed to me an experience he had while teaching at school with me. A leader of a previously operating organization called the Bureau of American Islamic Relations called his school district and told them Armando was going to kill his students if Trump won the election. After an investigation, Armando was cleared and was able to go back to school. He told me, “The idea that because I’m Muslim or because of who I was as far as being willing to defend my community against these racists would warrant an attack to get me fired from a job was very troubling.”

Armando described internalizing Islamophobia. When he first converted, he started growing a beard and wearing a kufi, but was discouraged from essentially looking too Muslim. Armando attributed this to the idea that “there are ever-watching eyes.”

“Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” Armando told me when I asked him what collective liberation meant to him. He added, “I love these revolutionary quotes that are Marxist or anarchist or communist or just, you know, antiracist—you know these quotes about collective liberation, and then being Muslim also, like when they talk about the ummah [the whole community of Muslims] is one body and everyone, you know, feels pain, and everybody feels like that’s the ideal of something that we strive for . . . a utopia that we’re endlessly working towards.”

Armando said that part of this struggle includes justice for Muslims, which means that this community would have a voice to speak for themselves. This would mean “being fully empowered and capable of rising up, collectively and together.”

Zahra: A Somali Chaplain

Zahra, another interviewee, identified as Somali and Black. On the day of the 9/11 attacks, she remembers being at school. A sliding TV was brought in front of her and her classmates, and that’s where she saw images of the twin towers falling and people dying. Now working as a movement chaplain, Zahra reflected back on how traumatizing those sights were, and must have been for the children watching them.

When she and her sister got home later that day, she found her mom, who was pregnant at the time, watching the scenes of the 9/11 attacks over and over. Zahra worried about her mom, telling me, “I just think about her having to view that violence and being pregnant and how what we know about generational trauma, and this was a woman who’s already had to survive two wars and migration.”

One of the interesting things Zahra remembers after the 9/11 attacks is the way capitalism entered into the narrative. The message she got was that “the way that we could support, or the best way we could respond after the deaths of thousands of people, was to go consume.” This was a memory that Bijan expressed as well and ties into the reality that there was much profit tied up in the War on Terror.

Though the War on Terror was being fought domestically and abroad, Zahra’s perspective was that “the people who have paid the price have been outside America’s borders. Really, the people who paid blood and bone, whose children have been wiped off the face of the earth, who are disappeared, or whose countries have been invaded, whose libraries have been burned in order to wipe out their history and culture—cultural genocide, you know—all these people have not been American Muslims. And the ones within American borders who have paid the price are the ones who are the most marginalized and who are not on TV.”

Another important dimension of the targeting of Muslims, as Zahra explained it, was in the very real differences between Muslims and those who strove to assimilate into whiteness—for example, those who were aspiring to whiteness and “who were upset that their path to whiteness or their path to being in positions of domination in the hierarchy were disrupted.” For her, it was many of these such individuals who were leading advocacy efforts and helping to shape the “good versus bad Muslim” narrative.

Acknowledging the targeting of Muslims was, for Zahra, different from performing pain. Zahra was referencing the ways in which some Muslims have talked about their struggles in a way that is meant to appeal to white liberals. “It’s a performance of inferiority, pain, and domination,” Zahra told me, and one that almost seems voyeuristic.

Whiteness, to Zahra, was very troubling because she said it “requires death and destruction to exist, and that pain is how they know they are still alive.” This was meant to underscore the idea of whiteness as violence—something that has very much been part of the War on Terror.

Zahra’s conception of the War on Terror is that it is “one of the biggest lies American empire ever told and sold. It declared war on a thing that has no ending, no beginning, no tangible embodiment except in the bodies of Muslims. It was a blank check to destroy the world, to pillage it for the profit and power of American empire.”

But Islam, as Zahra told me, has always posed a threat to empire because

Islam has always been a theology and a political tool that liberates people, even when they’re caged, even when they’re enslaved, even when they’re imprisoned. That is why you see it flourish. Among the most oppressed people, right, that even when our bodies are caged, even when we are under apartheid and in the borders of Gaza, or in the prisons in Philadelphia, or in the cages at Gitmo, Islam allows us to survive the unsurvivable. And that inherently makes you a threat to an empire whose only function since the beginning has been to dominate, oppress, pillage, and kill.

Similar to others I interviewed, Zahra contextualized the War on Terror as part of the long-standing systemic violence that has been perpetrated against Black people. Zahra told me that “to understand American empire’s treatment of Muslims, you have to walk back the lineage of American surveillance and entrapment and policing, which will always lead you to Black people’s homes.”

Despite the narrative that the War on Terror was over, Zahra, like every other interviewee in this book, disagreed that this is actually the case. “The War on Terror is not over. It has just infiltrated the fabric of American intel and surveillance. Whether it’s the government, [the] nonprofit community . . . it has just embedded itself. . . . It’s become almost invisible. Like it just has been normalized, but also like the War on Terror started way before it had that name then . . . COINTELPRO. . . . For the United States to exist, it always requires, it demands, an enemy class. Right? Multiple enemy classes, and for it to be the empire, it wants, it requires, the enemy class [to be] outside of its borders.”

As a movement chaplain focused on healing and collective liberation, Zahra stressed the latter as an animating principle—not just a goal. Collective liberation, according to Zahra, does not have to be fought for by everyone, but whoever fights for it has to include everyone. This was a particularly powerful point because of the many ways that the most marginalized have been left out of even the concept of who deserves freedom, much less liberation.

Zahra brought in a particular perspective about abolition and Islam. For her, it is and was important that abolition, and nothing short of it, be the goal of challenging injustice. To this end, Zahra told me that “Islam requires us as Muslims, and especially in this context, requires that we are abolitionists in the fullest forms, which to be abolitionist also means it’s not about the abolishing of things, but rather the creation of societies that do not necessitate the response of violence, that don’t require prisons, that do not require oppression, do not require violence and policing. . . . So as Muslims, we understand.”

Asked what she hoped will be remembered about the resistance during this era, Zahra told me, “There [were] so many people who stood up, spoke out, who risked their life, their livelihood, and everything to say that this is wrong, to speak truth to power. That there was so much community, there was so much organizing, that there was solidarity internationally . . . it gave those of us who were conscious or became conscious an internationalist lens, and gave moral courage to so many people. That is what moves me.”


This is an excerpt from Innocent Until Proven Muslim chapter 11: “Lived Islamophobia.”

Topics: Excerpt

Dr. Maha Hilal

Written by Dr. Maha Hilal

Dr. Maha Hilal is an expert on institutionalized Islamophobia and has spent her career researching, writing on, and advocating and organizing against it. She is cofounder of Justice for Muslims Collective. Dr. Hilal holds a PhD in Justice, Law, and Society from American University and has received many awards, including the Department of State's Critical Language Scholarship, the Kathryn Davis Fellowship for Peace, and a Reebok Human Rights Fellowship. Her writings have been published in Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, Vox, and US News, among others.

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