Analysis: ‘Innocent Until Proven Muslim’ — How Islamophobia lingers in post-9/11 era

Analysis: 'Innocent Until Proven Muslim' -- How Islamophobia lingers in post-9/11 era

He did nothing wrong, the man. He hadn’t engaged in illegal activity. But his innocence didn’t matter, he said, because he was Muslim.

Muhammad Tanvir, who was living lawfully in the US, said that, in 2007, FBI agents approached him and asked him to consider working as an informant against Muslims. Tanvir refused, but the FBI continued to pressure him over the next several years, eventually placing his name on the no-fly list, he said. Being on the list limited his ability to travel domestically, and made it impossible to travel abroad. He quit his job as a long-haul trucker because he couldn’t fly, and alleged that after he bought a ticket to visit his ailing mother in Pakistan, he wasn’t allowed to board.

Tanvir’s experience wasn’t unique. In 2013, he and two other men — Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari — filed suit, saying that the FBI had placed them on the no-fly list to coerce them into acting as informants.

In December 2020, in a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court held that, under the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, federal officials may be liable in their individual capacities if they violate a person’s religious rights. The high court also said that the three men were entitled to seek damages.

Very definitely, the outcome was a victory for the plaintiffs. Yet the decision had a dark undertow. It served as a reminder that, in crucial ways, the social and political fallout from September 11, 2001, can still inflict great harm, even 20 years on.

After all, it was in the weeks following the terrorist attacks — a tragedy that claimed almost 3,000 lives — that the US government dramatically expanded its use of the no- fly list, a move that attracted criticism. The backlash came from progressive quarters, and was aimed at the fact that the list disproportionately targeted innocent people even for appearing to be Arab or Muslim.
It was here, in the aftermath of 9/11, that the US saw the start of an era of heightened Islamophobia, as well as the launch of the war on terror and the invasion of Afghanistan. To discuss how Islamophobia has congealed — been institutionalized — in the two decades since 9/11, I spoke with Dr. Maha Hilal, author of the forthcoming book, “Innocent Until Proven Muslim: Islamophobia, the War on Terror and the Muslim Experience Since 9/11.”

The following conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Islamophobia certainly existed in the US long before 9/11. But could you explain how the war on terror became a turning point in this history?

I always go back to George W. Bush’s speech on September 20, which was the first time he used the phrase “war on terror.” And in that speech, he set the boundaries of the war on terror that he would conceive with his administration. He essentially talked about how the US must respond to this terrorist violence, and how there was really no choice but to do it with violence. The main targets were obviously the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and he mentioned that this wouldn’t be a war against Islam, that basically there are some good Muslims.

If you were an average Muslim, you might’ve thought on hearing the speech: “OK, this isn’t targeting all of us. It’s really just targeting the quote-unquote bad Muslims.” But in acquiescing the Muslim population and in making them believe that this wasn’t a large-scale targeting of Muslims, the Bush administration actually made it easier to move forward with many of the policies that it developed, especially in the earlier years.

And we know that institutionalized Islamophobia was at the very core of the war on terror from the onset, from the signing of the AUMF (the Authorization for Use of Military Force), to the war in Afghanistan, to the memorandum that gave the CIA the authority to detain suspects.

We know this not because of explicit policy language but because of whom these policies targeted. Part of what I talk about in my book is the way that target populations are socially constructed, and these constructions are embedded in policy design and implementation. So, usually what happens is that people view at least some policies as neutral on their face, which then means that they can’t be Islamophobic. However, when it comes to whom these policies are targeting, it’s been either exclusively or disproportionately Muslims.

Something that too often seems to be missing from conversations on 9/11 is the fact that it hit different parts of the Arab and Muslim American communities differently. Could you talk about that?

That’s the tricky thing about Islamophobia, because Muslims are an extremely diverse population. When I talk about my definition of Islamophobia, I believe that it’s rooted in anti-religious animus, but then there are intersecting identities that make different Muslims’ experiences of Islamophobia different.

I’ve talked with Black Muslims, and one thing I’ve heard repeatedly is that they don’t know if they’re being targeted because they’re Muslim or Black or both. Or with countering violent extremism, the US government heavily targeted the Somali population. So, I think that there are all these different manners in which we have to consider Islamophobia.

Protesters rally during a demonstration against the travel ban targeting predominantly Muslim countries, January 2017, New York City.

What do people get wrong about the post-9/11 landscape for Arab and Muslim Americans?

The way I think about the war on terror is that, in the beginning, it targeted non-citizens. My analysis of that is that the idea that US citizenship provides certain rights wasn’t something that the US government wanted to go after immediately, even though it did in part. The war was more robustly targeted at non-citizens.

But then, eventually, we saw the proliferation of policies targeting citizens, because once you successfully merge Muslims as one collective monolith — which wasn’t that hard to do, since that had been a construction for a long time — the citizenship piece just dissolves. It doesn’t matter if you’re American if you’re also Muslim, because the Muslim identity trumps the American identity in terms of what rights you’re afforded.

Are you concerned that what’s happening in Afghanistan — especially the framing of the situation — will have a negative impact on Afghan refugees in the US?

Absolutely. But the narrative on Afghanistan has been problematic from the beginning of the war. Donald Rumsfeld said in 2001: “We did not start this war. So understand, responsibility for every single casualty in this war — whether they’re innocent Afghans or innocent Americans — rests at the feet of al-Qaeda and the Taliban.”

This is troubling because the US de facto assumes that violence is the only legitimate and justifiable intervention. In my book, I talk about how there were lots of narratives that described 9/11 as a break with history. The strategic role of that was to say that history starts now. But why does history start now? No, it started when empire began.

In regard to Afghanistan, the US has often put itself in the position of, first of all, trying to get rid of all the terrorists, which is impossible if you’ve decided that history started in 2001, because you’ll never actually get to the root of the problem. And second, it’s always that Afghans need the US’s help. What I think is problematic about the way President Joe Biden has been talking about Afghanistan is that he keeps saying that this wasn’t a nation-building project. But the original goal in going to Afghanistan was to capture Osama bin Laden, who was killed in Pakistan in 2011. So, what, exactly, was the US doing for the last 10 years?

And there’s so much paternalism, which has pretty much been the approach to all countries, particularly Muslim countries, that have been targeted by the US under the guise of the war on terror. It’s essentially: We need to help you figure out that terrorism isn’t the way to go. But that eliminates the possibility of discussing the discrimination that Muslims face and the state violence that the US commits.