The past week has shown rather convincingly that the events of Sept. 11, 2001 shaped the decade that followed. For many, the phrase “post-9/11” calls to mind the sense of fear, of vulnerability, that followed the Sept. 11 attacks, as well as the renewed emphasis on American security—and insecurity—that came with it.
Islamophobia was another, related reality of post-9/11 America. While fear, discrimination and hate acts focused on Arab, Muslim, Sikh and Indian Americans were not unheard of before 9/11, their prevalence increased significantly following the attacks and continued throughout the decade.
It’s those stories that Syrian-American author Alia Malek shares in her book Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice. Malek’s book retells the first-person accounts of 18 men and women who experienced post-9/11 backlash, at the hands of private citizens or government officials. The abuses range from FBI surveillance, to workplace discrimination, to torture.
Malek, who is also a civil rights lawyer, met with students on Wednesday afternoon to discuss post-9/11 civil rights abuses, read an excerpt from her book, and answer questions from students.
“The idea [behind the book] is that we have incomplete ideas of our history, of what a moment looks like, because the people who get to write history are often in some sense empowered,” Malek explained to students.
“The reality is that a lot of people have participated [in discrimination and civil rights abuses], from the government to private individuals. … And that even though this is a big part of the story of what post-9/11 looks like, it hasn’t really been included in the collective narrative.”
The 'Ground Zero Mosque' is not at Ground Zero. And it's not a mosque.
Malek read the narrative of Talat, the mother of Mohammed Salman Hamdani, a Pakistani-American who died while helping medical personnel at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Talat reported her son as missing following the attacks, and Hamdani—likely due to his Muslim faith—came under suspicion as a potential 9/11 co-conspirator. The family was hounded by the media, until Hamdani’s remains were found at Ground Zero along with his medical supplies. He was eventually memorialized as a hero by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others—but the painful months following 9/11 will not be forgotten by Talat and her family.
That kind of paranoia and suspicion surrounding the “Other” is certainly not unprecedented in American history, Malek said. Such discrimination happened to the Irish, to the Germans, and to a number of other ethnic groups who arrived in the United States en masse throughout its history.
“The things that were being said about Arabs in the late 1800s—and again post-1965 when immigration laws changed—were the same things used against Catholics at one point,” Malek said.
An understanding of American history reveals just how fluid racial constructs are: that groups once thought to be totally “Other” are now a seamless part of the American identity.
“Not knowing our history … I think helped fuel the hysteria around Park51 last year,” Malek added. “If people knew American history and knew these people [have long been a part of our history], people would stop questioning whether we’ve finally come up against a group of people who can’t be a part of us—who can’t be American.”
A student raised her hand to ask what “Park51” was, and Malek explained that the site is better known as the Ground Zero Mosque, to which the student nodded in recognition. Malek smiled wryly. “I guess branding works,” she said, referring to the fact that the site is neither at Ground Zero, nor a mosque.
Another student asked Malek if she thought the response toward Muslim and Arab Americans would be the same now, 10 years out, if another Arab terrorist attacked the country.
Malek said she wasn’t sure. “I’d like to think that there have been so many efforts in the past 10 years that maybe enough folks would not stay silent,” she said. “But I don’t think we’re out of the post-9/11 cycle yet. There’s a lot of temptation to feel like it’s over because Osama Bin Laden is dead … but looking at the Islamophobia, it doesn’t feel like ‘post’ is past yet.”