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A Spotlight on the 9/11 Anti-Muslim Backlash

• September 09, 2011 • 6:04 PM

Ten years after the attacks, a sociologist sizes up the social impacts of post-9/11 anti-Muslim prejudice in the United States.

In the days following Sept. 11, 2001, reactions to the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and inside United Flight 93 ranged from grief to rage. As it became clear the culprits were a band of 19 fundamentalist Muslims working for a terrorist group that draped itself in a violent version of Islam, some Americans blamed all Muslims. Within days, several individuals were killed in the U.S. solely because of they were Muslim or perceived to be Muslim. One Sikh man died apparently for the suspect activity of wearing a turban; a Coptic Christian storekeeper died because he was Egyptian. The backlash of violence and discrimination may have ebbed in the decade since, but it has hardly ceased. Meanwhile, as the United States launched wars in the Islamic-majority countries of Afghanistan and later Iraq, there was an uptick in anti-Muslim violence — as there was following al-Qaeda-linked terrorist bombings in Madrid and London.

From 2001 to 2003, Lori Peek, a professor of sociology at Colorado State University and co-director of the school’s Center for Disaster and Risk Analysis, studied the effects of the backlash and bias on ordinary Muslims living in the U.S. She interviewed 140 Muslim men and women born between 1966 and 1983 to learn about their experiences in the aftermath of 9/11. The sample group included Arab and South Asian people, but also whites, African Americans and Latinos. Most participants had been born in the U.S. or arrived at a very young age.

Peek published a book, Behind the Backlash, earlier this year, documenting her findings based on thousands of hours of interviews. In the days leading up to the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she spoke with Miller-McCune.com to share why she feels the backlash against American Muslims turned into a “second disaster.”

Miller-McCune: You open your book writing about how disasters expose the social fabric and its weakest seams. So, what did we learn from the backlash against the Muslim American population following 9/11?

Lori Peek: The increase in hate crime was so sharp and so dramatic that it teaches us how when you live in a country that is as diverse as ours, how fragile our social fabric really is and how quickly a catastrophic event like this can reveal those tensions that are there during non-disaster times. Something as catastrophic as 9/11 really brought all these questions — who is and is not a citizen? who does and does not belong? — to the fore in a significant way.

M-M: What’s the benefit of bringing a qualitative social-science research approach to understanding this issue?

LP: I think what the qualitative approach reveals is what this does to people’s lives, how [it affects] them emotionally and socially. I think that qualitative work can really uncover the complexity and the nuances of not only the negative things that came out of 9/11 but also some of the positive things.

M-M: What surprised you in speaking with your subjects about their experiences following 9/11? How did men versus women encounter the backlash?

LP: Despite the fact that 19 men were solely responsible for taking down the four planes on 9/11, al-Qaeda is overwhelmingly run by men and even the domestic terrorists in the United States who have been exposed since 9/11 are all men, because of the visibility of women [many of whom wear headscarves], they were just as much at risk, if not more so, than men.

Something that was really interesting was seeing how [Muslim] women did step up after 9/11. From the government perspective, it was largely men who were rounded up in post-9/11 detentions and, for that reason, men started taking a lower profile in some of the activities among the Muslim-American community. Also, women, because they’re stereotyped as being passive and dominated by men, they really felt the need to say, “I’m going to take this leadership role and show we do not fit the stereotype.” The men talked about that, too.

M-M: What aspects of the post-9/11 hysteria against Muslims have been forgotten or dismissed by mainstream America, yet had a lasting social impact?

LP: One of the clearest things, I think, that has happened since 9/11 and, in some ways, has grown worse, is the public vilification of Muslims. In fact, I would argue that one of the things that has happened in the 10 years since 9/11 is that some of these attacks have almost become normalized. It’s still quite acceptable for someone who is campaigning for president of the United States to openly state these things that would have been said 100 years ago against Catholic immigrants. Now, we’re recycling the exact same stereotypes and hyping up the fears against this population.

I think that, unfortunately, because all of the stereotypes against Barack Obama, against his citizenship and whether he’s Muslim or not, he’s actually been less vocal than President Bush was in speaking out against this. Even when the Park51 cultural center debate [the “ground zero mosque”] broke out, unfortunately, President Obama was in a nearly impossible situation politically.

But when Mayor Bloomberg gave the speech in New York City around the cultural center debate, I think that was a real reminder of what a powerful impact our political leaders can have when they appeal to our better selves, when they remind us that one of the country’s founding principles is about religious freedom and tolerance of different peoples. I think there’s a real need for that kind of leadership, and I’m not sure that there’s enough right now to counterbalance the ongoing Islamophobia.

M-M: Many of your subjects and other Muslim Americans recall stereotyping and prejudice before 9/11. What kind of influence did previous bias, hostility and misconceptions have on American Muslims and the backlash that emerged?

LP: There were two things that appear contradictory on the surface, but they both played into the backlash: On the one hand, the few surveys that were done about this before 9/11 show that Americans had very little knowledge of and understanding of the Islamic faith and of the Muslim population in general. On the other hand, we also know through surveys that were done that stereotypes existed.

This is one of the six factors that I argue played into the backlash after 9/11: If a population is completely unknown or, vice versa, is well known, a backlash is less likely to happen because there has to be pre-existing stereotypes and negative feelings toward a group. So, when an event happens that “proves” those stereotypes or solidifies negative ideas, that’s when we’re much more likely to see a backlash.

M-M: In the book, you cover the different types of nonviolent hostility faced by Muslims, such as “hate stares” and other forms of intimidation, suspicion and fear. What are the effects of these forms of prejudice?

LP: Far and away, the two most common forms of bias that my sample [group] experienced were verbal harassment and various forms of nonverbal intimidation. The nonverbal forms of hatred that Muslims experienced after 9/11 really affected them. A young woman would get one of these hateful stares, and that would be all it would take, that she would feel so scared and isolated that then she wouldn’t leave her house for a week or two because she didn’t know what was going to happen to her.

I think one of the really important things about doing qualitative work is [that] we don’t have a category of hate crime or bias crime for people getting nasty looks, but that shouldn’t be overlooked as something that is contributing to this us-them sentiment. It clearly has an impact and is hurtful to people, and really did shape their behaviors and actions after 9/11 — everything from making people feel like they weren’t safe to go in the street, or they weren’t safe to go to school or their jobs. That is really significant, and we really need to think about those kinds of hidden injuries that come from that sort of thing.

M-M: Many of your subjects’ responses to discrimination included a sort of compulsion to show people what a “good Muslim” and “true Islam” are really about. Did subjects feel like this response had an effect to calm or sway prejudice?

LP: Almost every Muslim, not just ones who I interviewed, but people who I’ve talked to or who are Muslims who read the book, say that part really resonates with them.

Before 9/11, people maybe would have seen them and known they were of a different ethnicity, maybe understood they practiced a different religion. But, all of a sudden, after 9/11, everything about being Muslim became a very significant thing. It became the most important part of their identity that people noticed. Compulsion is right: It really was this overwhelming feeling they had to represent the faith in this positive light, and if they did anything wrong it was only going to make people believe worse things about them.

Even though that was one more added burden on a population, it was another hidden consequence of the backlash, of what happens to minority populations when they feel they’re in the spotlight in that way.

Did it give them a sense of power and control? I do think that, overall, yes, Muslims in the study did feel like that was one more way of reclaiming lives and trying to take back and redefine their faith during this terrible moment.

M-M: Statistics from the Council on American-Islamic Relations show that after an initial post-9/11 spike in anti-Muslim bias incidents, there was a drop-off the following year. But since then, there’s been a continual rise in anti-Muslim bias incidents. Have you followed up with subjects since 2003 to know whether they’ve experienced this ongoing and creeping bias personally?

LP: The short answer is yes.

I have kept in touch with about two-thirds of the respondents in my study, and they are almost universal in their agreement. Life has gone on, and no time has felt as scary, shocking and tense since that 9/11 period, but hate has sort of shifted and morphed. So, while the most violent of crimes, like murders, have mostly subsided, I think what the community has really felt is: It won’t go away. The bias really hasn’t died down. Every time there’s another suicide bombing in Pakistan or when the Park51 cultural center debate exploded on the national scene, it’s a reminder that the residue of 9/11 is still there.

M-M: Ten years after 9/11, what can we do to build a more complete understanding of this experience for American Muslims? You conclude that we need a more complete narrative surrounding 9/11 — and future human-caused disasters — to minimize negative backlash against minorities or ethnic groups caught in the middle of such catastrophes?

LP: I think we cannot wait until something happens again, because something will happen again. Whether Muslims and Arabs are at the center of that debate, or next time it’s Jewish Americans, or African Americans, or whatever the marginalized community is that gets swept up, the answer is that if we truly, as a country, are committed to these ideals that fit with the American creed of justice and equality for all, we can’t wait until a crisis happens and then try to build the bridges, try to educate, try to stem the tide of violence, because by then it’s too late.

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Joshua Zaffos
Joshua Zaffos is a Fort Collins, Colo.-based freelance writer who reports on the environment, science and politics. He has written for High Country News, Grist.org, Fly Fisherman, Orion and 5280.com, among other publications. Zaffos holds a master's degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. His work and musings are online at joshuazaffos.com.

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