11 September 2001. The day the world changed forever.
Twenty years ago, 19 men flew commercial planes into New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon in Washington DC. A total of 2,977 people lost their lives, and thousands of others were injured. This day was catastrophic but also catalytic with regards to the United States’ perception of its own security and its relations with the Muslim world. The global ‘war on terrorism’ began and with it came significant changes in the political arena (consider the war in Iraq, the rise of ISIS, and the refugee crisis we now face post the invasion of Afghanistan), as well as the socio-cultural landscape for Muslims and minorities. Although anti-Muslim discrimination in the U.S.A has roots that long predate 9/11, the global war on terror ushered in an unprecedented era of mass securitisation of Muslims that manifested in untold ways. Many have faced hostility and surveillance, mistrust and suspicion, questions about their faith and doubts over their allegiance to their home country.
Since 9/11, more than 80,000 Muslim immigrants were called in for questioning by federal agents and required to enrol in a national registry. Tens of thousands more were searched and interrogated at airports and prevented from travel by no-fly lists. Simply wearing a headscarf or growing a beard made one a suspect in the eyes of an ever-watchful police force and a wary public. A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research conducted ahead of the 9/11 anniversary found that 53% of Americans have unfavourable views towards Islam, compared with 42% who have favourable ones. This stands in stark contrast to Americans’ opinions about Christianity and Judaism, for which most respondents expressed favourable views.
Even the media and politicians turned terrorism into a Muslim or ‘Islamic’ issue. In the UK, for instance, research has shown that news audiences saw a dramatic increase in news about Islam and Muslims in the years after the 9/11 attacks, with peaks in 2001 and 2006. While not always negative in tone, media reports indicate a thematic focus on terrorism, violent extremism, and the cultural difference of Muslims.
The struggle against Islamophobia and racism is apparent. Islam itself, however, encourages Co-operation, Interfaith dialogue, Human rights, and Anti-racism, as is apparent in its core teachings. These include:
The Oneness of Mankind-
All people are created equal and connected by a single origin. Muslims believe that all people share in a common humanity. The concept of ‘race’ is a social construct. In Islam, there is no superiority of one race over another.
The only thing that distinguishes people from one another is their piety, good deeds, and character. The Holy Qur’an (49:13) mentions:
“O mankind, indeed we have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Aware”.
Diversity & Anti-Racism-
Muslims believe that racism, whether as prejudice or discrimination, undermines the dignity of people. The Prophet Muhammad (P.B.U.H) was known to have an ethos which promoted human diversity; in his last sermon he asserted that “an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab… a white person has no superiority over a black, nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action”.
Every law-abiding human being is entitled to natural rights (for example, life, property, safety) regardless of their religion or race, simply by virtue of their humanity. The Qur’an (5:8) teaches that justice applies to all humankind, across all faiths:
“O you who believed, be persistently standing firm for Allah, witness in justice, and do not let the hatred of people prevent you from being just. Be just; that is nearer to righteousness. And fear Allah. Indeed, Allah is [fully] aware of what you do”.
Islam encourages us to be respectful of all people, regardless of their race, religion, or class. In fact, to disrespect another religion is explicitly condemned in the Quran (6:109); “Do not abuse those whom they worship besides Allah”.
A survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, looks at photos of those who perished, in a display at the 9/11 Tribute Museum, Friday, Aug. 6, 2021, in New York. (AP)
To blame an entire religion and all those who practice it for the actions of 19 people is unfair and morally wrong. Muslims all around the world have borne this burden and suffered the consequences of 9/11 for two decades now. It is clear that Islam encourages civil rights, and the tradition of tolerance is reflected in the teachings of Islam. Much can be done to build bridges, challenge stereotypes and fight bias if we reflect and pay attention to these teachings and apply them in our daily lives. May we heed the lessons learnt from 9/11 as we hope and pray for peaceful days ahead.