The History and Impact of 9/11 on MENA/SWANA, South Asian, and Muslim Communities

June 13, 2023

While mainstream narratives around the September 11, 2001 attacks on the Twin Towers emphasize how the United States came together as a nation in the aftermath, our Middle Eastern, South Asian, and Muslim communities — as well as anyone perceived to be a part of those groups — faced a bleaker reality.

Drawing on materials from the archives at the Arab American National Museum, this report reflects on the ongoing legacy of surveillance, profiling, cruelty, and violence that began long before 9/11 and ballooned in the two decades following the attacks. As we continue to confront that legacy, MENA, South Asian, and Muslim communities have also united in unique and enduring ways to resist oppression and thrive.

ACCESS community members at the Women’s March, 2017. Image courtesy of AANM archives.

‘Counterterrorism’ and the Racialization of MENA Communities Prior to 9/11

People from the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region have settled in the United States since the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th century. The history of migration from the MENA region to the U.S. is typically understood as three discrete “waves” of immigration. In order to understand the racialization of MENA populations and the discrimination that amplified after 9/11, it is especially crucial to understand the way the third wave of MENA migration coincided with two significant developments in American politics:

1. The emergence of “counterterrorism” and “national security” as U.S. policymaking approaches in the post-World War II era; and

2. The political articulation of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and North African countries as discrete national security or counterterrorism concerns in the post-1965 era.

The emergence of “counterterrorism” and “national security” within U.S. policymaking thus occurred as a result of growing reliance on professionalized security during the early 20th century as a way to manage populations thought to threaten the status quo. This practice became commonplace post-WW II as a cost-effective way to maintain U.S. financial interests internationally without fear of volatile social conditions.

“…but Syrian immigration is also steadily growing, and without restriction, we may expect in the next few years…that many of these human parasites will come here to reap the benefits of our civilization and increase instead of sharing our burdens.”

-Dr. Alan McLaughlin U.S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Service in Popular Science Monthly, 1904

Later in the 1960s and ’70s, the U.S. government conducted decades-long covert operations to surveil Arab and Muslim communities through COINTELPRO and Operation Boulder, based on spurious, non-factual claims of involvement in terrorist plots as well as the assumption that these groups were associated with concurrent crises in the MENA region. The most significant aspect of Operation Boulder was “clear intention” of the U.S. government “to drive a wedge between the relatively small number of politically active Arabs and Arab Americans, and the majority of ‘ethnic Arab’ communities who might be otherwise inclined to support them.”

MENA residents in the U.S. were thus racialized and othered as terrorists due to the material interests of the U.S. post-WWII. The stereotyping and surveillance of these communities was compounded by covert operations that intentionally sowed discord and fear in MENA communities, all of which laid the groundwork for state and interpersonal violence against Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians after 9/11.

Image courtesy of AANM archives.

Popular depictions of Arabs from this time demonstrate the racism that helped sustain U.S. material interests in the MENA region and justify the surveillance of MENA communities in the U.S.

Image courtesy of AANM archives.

For more on this, see Nadine Naber “20 Years After 9/11, Anti-Arab Imperialist Racism is Alive and Well.”

The Immediate Aftermath and Impact of 9/11

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, state scrutiny of and hate crimes against MENA, South Asian, and Muslim individuals grew exponentially. The U.S. government capitalized on the policies and practices of surveillance and discrimination set in place long before 9/11 to mobilize reactionary measures against Arab, South Asian, and Muslim communities.

The establishment of the Patriot Act and, later on, the Department of Homeland Security, made violations of our communities’ civil rights and liberties commonplace after 9/11. This letter is just one example of the overwhelming infringements of MENA individuals’ privacy and safety due to racial profiling under the guise of “national security.” The Department of Justice asking this individual to come in for questioning on their possible knowledge about terrorist activities solely due to national origin demonstrates the tenor of government and interpersonal treatment of MENA communities.

In the weeks and months after 9/11, thousands of individuals received similar letters and experienced other forms of state surveillance. Hate crimes against Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims — and anyone perceived as part of those groups — also ran rampant during that time, including more than 700 documented violent attacks and murders.

There was this idea of putting us in camps. I mean we were really, really scared. I was scared because I knew the FBI would come knocking — and they did. My mother had the first visit when my father wasn’t home, then my father had the SWAT team show up to his business. My brother, someone called the 800 number and said he was a terrorist.

-Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib

After 9/11, a lot of our customers didn’t want to come into the store anymore. They were afraid of us. They said that we were the ones that caused 9/11…Every time I think of it, it makes me cry.

-ACCESS Community Member Miriam

In addition to the attacks on MENA, South Asian, and Muslim communities in the U.S., the aftermath of 9/11 saw the launch of the global War on Terror, which continues to this day and has done immeasurable harm to people in the MENA and South Asian regions (see next section). The poem by Philip Metres below depicts the experience of prisoners tortured by the U.S. military at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Poem from Philip Metres’ Sand Opera

Two Decades Later: Where Are We Now?

Twenty years after 9/11, MENA, South Asian, and Muslim groups in the U.S. and across the world still experience aftershocks of the backlash to 9/11. The following are some examples:

1. DHS and State Surveillance

The U.S. government’s creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2002 expanded counterterrorism programs that disproportionately target Arab, South Asian, and Muslim groups. Such programs continue to this day under the Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3). While their stated intent is to combat terrorism and increase security, myriad researchers have found that they instead sow chaos and discrimination by asking community members to police one another and report to law enforcement, creating a climate of fear and censorship that curtails freedom of religious and political expression. These programs have also played a significant role in militarizing police departments and growing security industries over the past two decades. Their reinforcement of racial and religious stereotypes in turn contributes to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate crimes.

2. Census and Federal Exclusion

While surveillance and racism continue to make MENA communities vulnerable to state and interpersonal violence, these communities are underrepresented when it comes to federal data collection, such as the U.S. Census. Even though MENA individuals experience racial discrimination, they are legally categorized as white in important data on community well-being, such as the U.S. census. This means that we cannot measure MENA community experiences with important issues related to environmental justice, chronic illness, employment and labor, and more. MENA communities therefore confront a paradox of being hyper visible in contexts of racism, yet invisible when it comes to the distribution of public resources and recognition of social injustices. For this reason, ACCESS and other community organizations have sought to get recognition at the federal level by including a MENA category on the census. For more on this, see our Arab American Community Portrait

MENA communities exist as a paradox: hypervisible in contexts of racism and state violence, invisible when it comes to the distribution of public resources and recognition of social injustices.

3. Refugee Experience

The impacts of the War on Terror extend far beyond U.S. borders. U.S. military intervention in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the region has directly killed over 900,000 people, devastating critical infrastructure and resulting in the death of hundreds of thousands more due to the destruction. These factors have contributed to the creation and displacement of an estimated 38 million refugees. Most recently, we have witnessed the catastrophic impacts of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan; after twenty years of military occupation and political destabilization, the U.S. military withdrew from the country and rapidly created hundreds of thousands of additional refugees. Given the long history of discrimination against people from the MENA region in the U.S. and the U.S. role in creating the conditions that refugees must now flee, it is vital that we support new arrivals to the U.S., including the over 4,000 Afghan refugees expected to resettle in Michigan in the coming year.

It is past time to put an end to the legacy of ‘counterterrorism’ as a way to secure U.S. material interests in MENA, South Asia, and beyond, the consequences of which our communities have lived with for decades. Despite the struggles we still face twenty years after 9/11, our communities continue to come together in unique and enduring ways to resist oppression and thrive.

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