After the 9/11 attacks, Muslim Americans were stigmatized, discriminated against and considered enemies in their own country, community activists said.
Despite the ensuing 20 years, despite US government programs targeting their communities and the rise of social and political folly, Muslim-Americans strengthened their identity and cut a space for themselves in the mainstream political structure.
They became more politically visible and active. It was a way of overcoming the challenges, similar to a self-defense mechanism, experts told Al Jazeera.
Moustafa Bayoumi, a writer and professor at Brooklyn College, said although there have always been Muslims in the US, the Muslim-American political identity was largely shaped after 9/11 in response to the ‘explosion of boasting’.
“Muslims in the United States have realized that no one is going to protect them except themselves,” Bayoumi said.
He said before September 11, 2001, there was almost no general recognition of Muslim Americans as a group.
“Once you see that there is an organized social hostility, your identity is formed in response to it – as a way to not only protect yourself, but to claim space for yourself,” Bayoumi told Al Jazeera .
For the past two decades, Muslims have emerged as a mainstream political force – as voters, organizers and candidates. The political turnout was an ongoing process, with the number of Muslim-American candidates and voters increasing each election cycle.
From city councils and school councils to state legislatures to the halls of Congress, more Muslim-Americans sought and won public office.
Petra Alsoofy, manager of outreach and partnerships at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU), a think tank focusing on Muslim communities, said Muslim Americans’ civic engagement has seen “great improvement” over the past two decades.
She cites ISPU research showing an increase in voter registration and overall political participation, including donations and volunteer work for campaigns as well as the number of Muslim candidates.
According to a study by ISPU, Muslim-American voter registration went from 60 percent in 2016 to 78 percent in 2020.
Ookofy recognizes voice registration campaigns and community organizers for helping increase the number of Muslim voters. Another factor, she says, is that Muslim candidates mobilize their own communities.
“They really give people the courage to see people who look like them and like them in elected offices,” Alsoofy said.
He also addressed two Muslim groups as the Democratic nominee for president.
“As president, I work with you to remove the poison of hatred from our society, honor your contributions and seek your ideas,” Biden said during a virtual event for Muslim lawyers in October.
“My administration will look like America, Muslim Americans serving at every level.”
Although Muslim-Americans do not serve exactly at “every level” in the administration, Biden has the first Muslim federal judge earlier this year.
He also nominated Khizr Khan, the father of a U.S. military captain killed in Iraq, as a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
In February, Sameera Fazili, deputy director of the National Economic Council, made headlines when she made remarks about Biden’s economic policy from the White House press while wearing a hijab.
Muslims in Congress
Keith Ellison was elected the first Muslim member of Congress in 2006. Andre Carson followed in 2008.
Ten years later, Ilhan Omar – a former Somali refugee wearing the hijab – succeeded Ellison, who successfully ran for the Minnesota Attorney General, a statewide race. Omar joined in the same election cycle by Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, a daughter of Palestinian immigrants.
All four ran in heavy Democratic districts. Last year, Qasim Rashid, a Muslim-American lawyer and author, sought a congressional seat in a conservative-leaning constituency.
He said the incumbent, Congressman Rob Wittman, had made Rashid’s faith a ‘center’ in the campaign.
“He attacked attacks that bound me to terrorism and radicalism and extremism – just absurd, dangerous things that led me to threats,” Rashid told Al Jazeera. ‘And it’s a factor that is unfortunately just a reality in politics today.
Wittman has repeatedly denied that he attacked his opponent’s faith, but one of his campaign ads has criticized previous tweets from Rashid criticizing the increase in the military budget that increases the threat of terrorism by Muslims.
“Rashid claims America is to blame for terrorist attacks, mocks the deaths of Americans killed by extremists, rages against the rebuilding of our military and promises that he will be a congressman like AOC and Bernie Sanders,” the ad read.
That said, Wittman won decisively, but Rashid received nearly 187,000 votes – significantly more than previous Democratic challengers in the district.
Rashid said Islamophobia should not be banned for Muslim Americans seeking jobs.
“We can overcome it – by organizing, by educating, by relationships, by investing in the community by being involved in the community and by earning and winning the trust, to win those hearts.”
Rashid emphasized that although Muslims are becoming more visible on the national stage today, they are just as old as the country itself – with a large proportion of the slaves brought from Africa to the US being considered Muslims.
More recently, Muslim sports icons such as basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and boxer Muhammad Ali have dominated their respective fields. Malcolm X was a major figure in the struggle for African American rights until his assassination in 1965.
“There was no America – ever – without Muslims,” Rashid said. “The foundation of American infrastructure and its roads and bridges were built by African Muslims.”
Activists insist on disrupting the stereotypical image of Muslims as Arab or South Asian immigrants, emphasizing that African Americans make up a large portion of the Muslim-American population.
Muslim-American communities are indeed pluralistic immigrants, native-born, black, white, Latinos, working classes, and white-collar workers who include a variety of nationalities, sects, and ideologies.
“As a result of the post-9/11 policy, there is a racism of Muslims as colored, foreign, other immigrants, refugees,” said Darakshan Raja, co-director and founder of the Justice for Muslims Collective, an advocacy group. .
Raja spoke of a shift in political perceptions and activism among Muslim Americans.
She said a new generation of organizers is moving away from defense and trying to prove that Muslims are part of a more confrontational approach to demanding universal justice.
“We now have a youth generation that is much more radical and progressive in what they demand,” Raja told Al Jazeera. ‘There is therefore no longer a dominant way of contacting the government that is reconciliation or apology, or that begs to be treated as people.
As Muslim Americans move forward and continue to push away from the extent of the national security lens placed over them, advocates say their communities look beyond the post-9/11 era.
Bayoumi, the professor, said that Muslim-Americans can face challenges that other communities in the country face – access to health care and economic issues.
“At the same time, I think there are a lot of questions about immigration and refugee issues,” he added, referring to the current setback of right-wing politicians over the resettlement of Afghans and the Syrian refugee crisis a few years ago.
Bayoumi added that he hopes Muslim-Americans will play a role in rethinking US foreign policy and military commitments in countries with a majority Muslim.
“We need to move to the United States with a lighter military footprint in parts of the Muslim world where they are at present,” he said. “And I think it would certainly be a strong point if the Muslim-American community could be part of a successful advocacy movement to end the war on terror.”
Raja said Muslim communities face an internal challenge that focuses on their own diversity.
“We still have to do work on how we respect the fact that we are a multi-racial, multi-class community very incredibly,” she said.
Ookofof, from ISPU, confirms Raja’s remark. ‘Internally within the American Muslim community – just as it is in the rest of the country – [we] “I need a conversation to make sure we include every voice,” she said.
She added that another ongoing effort is shaping the perception of Muslim-Americans: to move from reacting to stereotypes and condemning terrorism to their own stories and struggles as part of society.
‘We can tell more than just the headlines about who we are as human beings … We can see American Muslim doctors talking about a pandemic; “We can normally talk about poverty in the American Muslim community without hearing that we are showing a negative story about ourselves,” she said.