American Muslims' experiences recognized

This is the hard reality – and it has been asserted through data collected by local, state and federal government agencies, reports, and documentation by community-based organizations, and moving testimonials and stories from affected community members and their families. And yet some still argue that claims of anti-Muslim bias have been exaggerated or inflated.

This can’t be further from the truth. In the days and months after September 11, 2001, I was an attorney with the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, DC. Overwhelmed with stories, emails, and calls from community members experiencing discrimination, I, along with several colleagues began to collect and investigate incidences of bias through a post-9/11 initiative the Division established. In some instances, the complaints could be addressed; in many others, they could not, due to jurisdictional limitations under existing laws.

As the months went on, it became clear that community members felt increasingly reluctant to report hate crimes or harassment to the local police or to the FBI – the risks were becoming too high. 

While one arm of the government was trying to protect the rights of those affected by bias and hate crimes, another component of often the very same agency was simultaneously enforcing a series of destructive policies targeting South Asian, Arab, and Muslim American communities such as NSEERS or special registration, the Alien Absconder Initiative, and arbitrary detentions and deportations – policies that most Americans have likely not even heard of, but which have led to broken families, unlawful arrests and futures put on hold. 

Community members were worried that turning to anyone in government for help would mean that they would get enmeshed in a web of suspicion and questioning for being connected to terrorist activities or organizations. As a result, many decided that it was safer to not report, and to instead keep complaints and indignities to themselves.

Today, many in our communities are experiencing a level of xenophobia and racism that is reminiscent of the days and months after September 11th. The Park51 community center controversy and the proposed Quran burnings of last summer, the restrictions on mosque constructions from New Jersey to Tennessee to California, and the inflammatory language used by elected officials or candidates for political office are fueling negative opinions about Muslims and those who are perceived to be Muslims. 

In fact, in a recent report by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), we found that Muslim, South Asian, Sikh, and Arab Americans are painted as threats to national security, as political liabilities, as outsiders and perpetual foreigners, and as unsuitable for political office – all images that can influence how the public views our communities, and how empowered our communities feel to express ourselves in civic and political life.

We also know that the impact of Islamophobia is not just limited to the Muslim community. Sikhs, Christians, Hindus, and even Latinos have been subjected to bias and negative treatment due to their skin color, religious appearance, country of origin, or name. In fact, just two weeks ago, a few days before Congressman Peter King’s hearing on the radicalization of Muslims, two elderly Sikh men were killed as they were on their daily afternoon walk. Authorities are investigating the incident as a hate crime.

Numbers and data do not tell a complete story by themselves and they often deceive, if one does not look at contextual factors. As we look to the ten-year anniversary of September 11th in a several months, Americans of all faiths and backgrounds have the opportunity to craft a vision for the next decade that is different from the experiences of the last. 

In doing so, we must include, respect, and validate the voices of all of those who were impacted by the events of September 11th – from those who lost loved ones to first responders and military personnel to the South Asian, Arab American, Muslim and Sikh communities. Without this vital step, we will have an incomplete understanding of our country over the last decade - and a flawed foundation for the future.

Deepa Iyer, currently the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), was an attorney with the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Department of Justice between 2000 and 2002.