Where Are We Fifteen Years After 9/11: A Look at a Decade and a Half of Backlash

There are far fewer American flags flying from truck and SUV windows. Less than 5,500 troops are left in Afghanistan and just over 4000 in Iraq. And now, candlelight vigils and other commemorations only take place in early September. For many, 9/11, while only fifteen years ago, is a faint memory with no lasting repercussions. For others of us, it changed our lives in ways we did not expect.

On September 11, 2001, I was awoken by the wails of my toddler at 5:00 AM. After hearing on NPR that a plane crashed into the north tower of World Trade Center, I took my year and a half old daughter out of her crib and headed to the family room to watch the early coverage on CNN. I happen to catch a live shot of the second 767 dissecting the south tower. Like millions of my fellow Americans, I was aghast at what I saw. The death and destruction. And I was in no way prepared for what would happen to my community.

Immediately after 9/11, three South Asian Americans--one Sikh, one Muslim and one Hindu--were killed in acts of hate. The first was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a forty-nine year old Sikh man who was shot on September 15 while planting flowers at his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. Waqar Hasan, a forty-six year old Muslim was killed the next day while working at his grocery store outside of Dallas and Vasudev Patel, a forty-nine year old Hindu was shot to death at his convenience store in Mesquite, Texas on October 4.

And that was just the start. In 2001 alone, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) reported a 1,600% increase in hate crimes against Muslims. With the U.S. Attorney's Office and Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI investigated more than 800 incidents of violence against Arabs, Muslims, South Asians and Sikhs between September 11, 2001 and March 2007. These included vandalism, arson, and threats as well as assaults, battery and homicide.

For South Asian Americans, our lives after 9/11 changed in many other ways too. In 2002, federal law enforcement pursued massive surveillance and profiling of South Asian, Arab and Muslim American community members. The U.S. Department of Justice implemented "Special Registration," the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required non-U.S. citizen men and boys over the age of 16 from 25 Muslim majority nations, including Pakistan and Bangladesh (two South Asian countries) to report to local immigration authorities. The program resulted in the registration of approximately 83,000 individuals and the placing of over 13,000 individuals into deportation proceedings, but failed to identify even a single terrorism suspect or produce evidence of any terrorist activity.

Here in Southern California, LAPD established the Suspicious Activity Reporting (SAR) program which ordered officers to gather information on common, non-criminal activities such as photography or the expression of certain viewpoints. The SAR program lacked clear standards of how the activities provided reasonable suspicion of criminal activity and resulted instead in simple racial profiling of many of our community members. Similarly, there were numerous instances in which FBI agents sought to interview and even surveil Muslim Angelenos based solely on their religion or ethnicity. The FBI went further, paying informant Craig Monteilh, posing as Farouk al-Aziz, to infiltrate mosques in Los Angeles and Orange Counties in order to obtain personal information of congregants and instructing him to sleep with Muslim women to gain intelligence. [His cover was blown after members of the Islamic Center of Irvine reported him to the FBI for trying to incite terrorist activity.]

And Southern California law enforcement was by no means alone. Soon after 9/11, NYPD began blanket surveillance of the Muslim community, targeting 250 mosques, schools and businesses with no evidence of wrongdoing. Moreover, it engaged in ethnic mapping, maintaining a list of "ancestries of interest" and obtaining daily reports from informants about Muslim patrons of restaurants, cafes and clubs.

Where are we in the years after September 11th? Has there been any improvement?

In terms of hate crimes, there has not. To the contrary, there has been a steady increase in hate crimes against South Asians and Muslims in recent years. In August 2012, six Sikh worshippers were killed in the gurudwara shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. And in the seven months between November 2015 and June 2016, there were nearly 100 hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims or those perceived to be Muslim.

In the decade after 9/11, surveillance activities also continued unabated. In the July 8, 2014 edition of Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Murtaza Hussain revealed from documents obtained by Edward Snowden spying by the FBI and National Security Agency of 1782 Muslim Americans between 2002 and 2008. A number of these individuals were prominent members of South Asian American and Muslim American communities; several were civil rights activists, academics and lawyers and one was a Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates and a policy advisor for the Department of Homeland Security under President Bush.

Not all news after 9/11 has been bad. To be sure, some progress was made in the past fifteen years. In July 2013, eleven months after the Oak Creek attack, the FBI agreed to begin formally tracking hate crimes against Sikhs and Hindus, who have increasingly been targeted in the United States post 9/11. Federal and local enforcement officials, including those investigating the Boston Marathon bombing, used unbiased race-neutral terminology to describe the suspects; similarly, mainstream media coverage of terrorist attacks has moved away from inflammatory or stereotypical descriptions of perpetrators, which had included use of "dark-skinned male," to more balanced reporting which did not report solely the race. More importantly, South Asian, Muslim, Sikh and Arab American organizations became key agents against the backlash, developing resources to help community members, raising awareness of the issues faced by their communities and working with other ethnic and mainstream civil rights organizations as well as government agencies to address hate incidents, bullying and discrimination as well as policies authorizing profiling and surveillance.

Despite these efforts, things have taken a turn for the worse in recent months. In August 2016 alone, four Muslim Americans were killed in apparent acts of hate: Khalid Jabara in Tulsa, Oklahoma, New York imam Maulama Akonjee and his assistant Thara Uddin as well as Nazma Khanam in Queens, New York. Akonjee, Uddin and Khanam were Bangladeshi and South Asian American.

And the presidential race in 2016 has not been kind to Muslim Americans, nor to Latinos or other immigrant communities, all viciously attacked by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. As has been widely reported by American news outlets, Trump in December 2015 proposed banning the entry of all non-U.S. citizen Muslims. After softening his position in the spring, Trump recently doubled down on the Muslim ban and suggested adding to it an "extreme vetting" of new immigrants. Trump's increasingly Islamophobic comments have had an impact on our schools, with one-third of educators stating that they observed an increase in anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment and two-thirds reporting that their students who are Muslim, immigrants or children of immigrants have expressed concern about their safety and their future in the United States if Donald Trump is elected, according to an April 2016 online survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Some teachers went on to say that their Muslim students were being called "terrorist" or "ISIS" and were taunted by other children with just the utterance of the name "Trump."

But what is perhaps worse than Trump's rhetoric are some of the policies of the Obama administration. Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), a program authorized by Congress last December and run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, purportedly aims to "prepare for, prevent and respond to emergent threats from violent extremism." What it does instead through its grant program is deputize religious leaders, social workers as well as health care providers and others to share with law enforcement information regarding constitutionally protected activities of community members, including young people. CVE relies on debunked theories that tie typical Muslim religious behavior or psychological disorders to terrorist tendencies. And while descriptions of the program do not identify the particular community being targeted, White House CVE strategy and planning documents as well as materials from the February 2015 White House CVE Summit indicate quite clearly that Muslims--and not right wing domestic terrorists or terrorists from other faith communities--are the principal targets of this program.

And locally, LAPD and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office have brought back iWatch, part of the Suspicious Activity Reporting program. On Thursday, September 8, they released a new mobile phone app that allows community members to report suspicious activity. Unfortunately, guidelines on what constitutes suspicious activity are very limited. And, like its predecessor, the iWatch app asks individuals to report noncriminal behavior, including drawing pictures of buildings, and relies on racially discriminatory information such as whether the individual being reported spoke a language other than English. While the app states "iWatch reports shall not be submitted based solely on race, ethnicity or religious affiliation," past experience of South Asian, Sikh, Muslim and Arab community members in Southern California suggests that many such reports will be made precisely because of these criteria.

On September 11, 2016 -- like September 11, 2001 -- I am profoundly sad. I am heartbroken even now for the families who lost loved ones in the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania and for those whose loved ones suffered injury, illness or death providing assistance on that day. I am dejected by the continuing backlash the South Asian, Sikh, Muslim and Arab communities continue to experience in terms of incidents of hate as well as profiling and surveillance. Looking ahead, I am deeply troubled that my toddler on 9/11 -- now a sixteen year old -- will live in a time and place in which people who in so many ways are like her will be taunted and bullied by classmates for their supposedly odd-sounding names, will be threatened, assaulted or even killed because of how they dress, and will be spied on by their government because of where they pray. And I am worried that fifteen years after 9/11, she may be one of them.