Twenty years after the attacks of 9/11, anti-Muslim racism is more deeply entrenched in U.S. society than ever.
In the 2016 election, Donald Trump ran on a racist, anti-immigrant platform that was central to his victory. Then he passed the Muslim ban as sop to his supporters. But even before Trump, anti-Muslim racism had already become institutionalized in U.S. society.
Take, for instance, the FBI’s longstanding program of sending agents provocateurs into Muslim communities to entrap vulnerable populations — typically poor, Black and brown men often with mental disabilities – to plan attacks. The logic is that all Muslims are “potential” terrorists and that the FBI should nab them before they commit a crime.
This bizarre logic is reminiscent of Stephen Spielberg’s dystopian film “Minority Report,” based on Philip K. Dick’s 1956 novella, about a police “pre-crime” unit that arrests people who are believed to be predisposed to criminal activity. Muslims are being targeted based on the presumption of their potential for wrongdoing.
The NYPD and other police departments employ a similar logic. With training from the CIA, the NYPD has spied on mosques, community centers, Muslim-owned businesses, religious bookstores, universities and other “hot spots” in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. This program, which was officially shut down after the Associated Press reported on it, did not lead to a single terrorism conviction.
One study of the U.S. Department of Justice’s list of terrorism-related convictions from 2001 to 2010 found that 72% were cases of preemptive prosecution, in which the basis for conviction was the defendant’s perceived ideology and not his/her actual criminal activity. The logic is: If you are sufficiently Muslim, you are sufficiently guilty.
Globally, the picture is no better. In 2012, The New York Times broke a story about “Terror Tuesdays,” President Barack Obama’s practice of meeting with his advisers every Tuesday to determine the list of supposed “terrorists” to be assassinated. This list sometimes included U.S. citizens, such as the Yemeni-born cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed in a 2011 drone strike. His 16-year old son was killed in a drone strike two weeks later.
No one has been held accountable for these extra-judicial killings because these brown and Muslim lives apparently do not matter.
The Times also revealed that in an attempt to limit “civilian” casualty figures, the Obama administration simply reclassified them by designating all military age men in targeted areas as “combatants” unless proven innocent after their deaths.
The "Costs of War" project at Brown University estimated that, as of 2020, more than 800,000 people had been killed as the result of direct war violence in five mostly Muslim-majority countries where the United States conducted military operations.
We have paid a hefty cost — financially, socially and psychologically — for the war on terror. The 20th anniversary of 9/11 should cause us to reflect on this cost in the same way that the murder of George Floyd in 2020 precipitated a discussion about police violence.
The Movement for Black Lives shed light on how anti-Black racism is not simply about hate speech and individual prejudice, but is rooted in the structures of U.S. society. Similarly, anti-Muslim racism is not simply religious intolerance or misunderstanding, but a structural form of racism.
It is not enough to end the Muslim ban. We must also halt all racist practices used by the security establishment, from entrapment and surveillance to preemptive prosecution. It is not enough to withdraw from Afghanistan. We must also end the global drone program and instead invest in infrastructure in all of the war-torn countries impacted by the United States.
Deepa Kumar is professor of media studies at Rutgers University. She is the author of "Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire" (2021).
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