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How did the 9/11 attacks affect American Muslims?
Muslims were among the thousands of victims of the 9/11 attacks perpetrated by hijackers from Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Yet, arguably not since the 1979 Iran hostage crisis had American Muslims experienced the kind of intense scrutiny and distrust that was unleashed after the attacks.
Physical assault, emotional abuse, and discrimination, alongside an often-politicized conversation about “real Islam,” have created a toxic environment for American Muslims ever since. Although most Americans did not contribute to the idea that there is something inherently bad about Islam, there were enough voices of hate, deliberate misinformation, and genuine misunderstandings to create a powerful message: Muslims are not to be trusted. This created multilayered societal unease that changed the life many American Muslims (who composed 1.1 percent of the population in 2017, according to Pew Research Center) knew prior to the attacks.
Have there been any areas of progress?
Since the attacks, divisions in American society have deepened amid changes wrought by the technology and media revolution, the weaponization of misinformation, and foreign policy choices. Muslims, like other minorities, have become caught up in the sometimes-bitter national conversation about history, race, religion, ethnicity, and heritage.
But there are still some important areas of progress. New connections and coalitions have taken off in the last twenty years. Amid a rise in hate crimes against minorities, American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), community groups, and other civic organizations have found allies and built new relationships. Civil society and religious leaders have polished their advocacy, while philanthropists are finally turning their attention to issues of hate and extremism.
American Muslims have found new agency and organizations to use art, culture, and policy as vehicles to repair societies and build understanding. For instance, the Pillars Fund, a pioneering, grant-giving organization, focuses on amplifying the leadership and talents of American Muslims. The importance of listening to diverse civil society voices, engaging with local and national leaders, and creating new bridges has activated many Muslim and non-Muslim Americans. More should be done, but there are improvements in the way non-Muslims talk about Islam today, as well as in the dialogue about ensuring inclusive societies.
However, anti-Muslim political rhetoric and policies as well as far-right ideology in the United States have grown through the financing, organization, and networking of those who do not want an inclusive country.
What did the United States learn from global outreach efforts to Muslim communities, especially during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations?
The United States sought to debunk the al-Qaeda narrative that the West is at war with Islam in part through global outreach to Muslims, both via governments and at the community level. At the same time, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his recruiters across the globe used U.S. foreign policy choices as “proof” of American hostility toward Muslims.
The U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq helped feed al-Qaeda’s narrative, as did other activities related to the U.S.-declared global war on terrorism. The widely distributed images of Iraqi prisoners abused at Abu Ghraib, as well as drone strikes and the ongoing controversies surrounding the Guantanamo Bay prison, served to ignite anger and outrage. The ability of terrorist organizations such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State and others to use these images to recruit members can’t be overstated.
Despite this, the United States had to find a way to build new connections with communities, find common purpose, and build networks of like-minded thinkers that were united in the interest of protecting young people from being lured into a terrorist group that claimed to represent “real Muslims.” Critically, Muslims all over the world were eager to push back against terrorist organizations trying to radicalize and recruit their youth.
So, U.S. officials created new coalitions of civil society partners such as Generation Change*, a global network of youth “change-makers” with thirty international chapters that advanced local initiatives to reject the appeal of extremist narratives. The Trinidad and Tobago chapter created a hotline for young people seeking answers to questions about religion and identity. In South Africa, Generation Change created an online forum for young people to have frank conversations about navigating identity, rejecting extremism, and building resilience.
Did Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech make a difference on issues of trust and partnership?
I believe it did, at least initially. The speech was a tremendously important signal that the Obama administration was genuinely committed to building partnerships with Muslims based on mutual interest and respect. The speech amplified the importance of Islam’s history, its vast and diverse practices, and the profound impact Muslims have made to science, philosophy, and culture. It rejected the idea that Islam is synonymous with terrorism.
Over the course of Obama’s two terms, the efforts related to the engagement strategy were ramped up with new programs and initiatives. One of the initiatives with the most-lasting impact was Obama’s Presidential Summit on Entrepreneurship, a two-day event with more than 250 entrepreneurs from more than 50 primarily Muslim-majority nations. The focus was to build business and social ties and advance deeper relationships with Muslim communities based on aspects other than security. The summit resulted in dozens of follow-on projects and collaborations and took place during every year of Obama’s administration.
However, one could also argue that trust eroded with Obama’s unpopular actions, including escalating drone attacks against suspected militants in Muslim-majority nations such as Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen; his decisions on Syria; the rise of the Islamic State; and general disappointment in the results of “peace in the Middle East.” But Obama did rejuvenate the model of people-to-people engagement, because his administration was bigger and bolder on Muslim engagement than any in U.S. history.
What has the United States learned from its nearly two-decade effort to curb the appeal of extremist ideologies?
Perhaps one of the biggest lessons is that the United States needs to bring far more resources and attention to confront the challenge, right down to the community level at home and abroad.
One of the signature efforts has been the approach known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), which was created during the Bush administration and describes efforts to prevent violent extremists from gaining support for their ideology. It is, in essence, soft power. CVE is an approach that uses diverse forms and tactics on and offline and mainly relies on civil society groups to execute programs. Governments, foundations, and others work with civil society NGOs to enlist the help of academics, media organizations, technology companies, and social scientists to develop programs designed to inoculate communities from finding extremist ideology appealing. One example of a type of CVE program is the use of former extremists to educate communities about what bad actors do to entice them, what is true and false, and how to protect oneself.
CVE has had mixed results for several reasons—including that the programs have been ad hoc, uncoordinated, and tiny compared to the threat. Going forward, policymakers need to properly scale efforts, increase funding, train more personnel, and dramatically change how they attend to social media companies. The government lacks the authenticity and trust within communities to do this alone.
Societies need a multilayered approach that connects with kids, parents, teachers, faith leaders, community activists, civil society leaders, local leaders, and others. Programs of action should be scaled and happen at every level to influence the multiple factors that affect one’s identity and sense of belonging. Such programs vary between communities even within a nation.
Because diminishing the ideological appeal of violent extremism is a vital U.S. interest, dramatic change is required in mindset, focus, and funding. It requires the whole of society to take part; it requires everyone.
*Editor’s note: Generation Change was designed and launched through the Office of the Special Representative to Muslim Communities, which the author led in 2009–14.
Will Merrow created the graphic for this article.