WATCH: 20 years on, Muslim journalists reflect on reporting in a post-9/11 world

After Sept. 11, the U.S. saw a spike in hate crimes across the country. That year, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program recorded the most hate crimes ever reported to date. Nearly 5 percent of all hate crimes committed that year were directed against Muslims.

While Islamophobia existed in the U.S. and elsewhere before 9/11, “all of the prejudice became much more intensified, and the Muslim minority became much more visible” from that point onward, said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

Since 2001, Muslims have been the second most frequent target for religiously motivated hate crimes, according to the federal hate crime data.

But using hate crime data is only one measure of Islamophobia, Patel said. Verbal harassment, employment discrimination, cyber bullying and social media hate groups are all forms of Islamophobia that occur on a daily basis and get overlooked in federal reports. Experts said they see the fearmongering and political rhetoric stereotyping Muslims, the legalized targeting of Muslim communities, and conflicts abroad as cementing the racist trope that Muslims are terrorists, which then empowers acts of violence against all those perceived to be Muslim.

HuffPost national reporter Rowaida Abdelaziz and MSNBC host Ayman Mohyeldin joined the PBS NewsHour’s Amna Nawaz on Sept. 8 to discuss the role of Muslim journalists in media coverage in a post-9/11 world, Islamophobia and how stereotypical depictions of Muslims in America harm the community.

Abdelaziz was in middle school on Sept. 11, 2001. She remembers in the aftermath of 9/11, hearing words like “Jihad” in media coverage in ways she had not heard before. People would ask her questions about the “war on terror” and to defend Islam.

“Muslims were supposed to act as brand ambassadors and for someone that young, it was a heavy emotional and mental toll. I was just trying to figure out how to survive middle school,” she told the NewsHour.

She describes that her faith was demonized overnight, but from there, she became curious in order to challenge those conversations and that narrative, which lead to the start of her journalism career.

Mohyeldin said he went from covering shark attacks as an intern at NBC to working on investigative pieces on 9/11 because he spoke Arabic. From there, he was deployed to cover the invasion of Afghanistan. “When I look back at the last 20 years, my entire career has been defined by that starting point of the September 11 terrorist attacks.”

Below are highlights from the live discussion.

The importance of contextualizing the Muslim community in media

Following 9/11, and early on in his reporting career, Mohyeldin said he was focused less on acting as a representative for the Muslim community and more on making sure his reporting was “accurate and contextualized.” In the political discourse surrounding the early years of the “war on terror,” Mohyeldin said he noticed broad generalizations when discussing the Middle East, minimizing the community in making them synonymous with war and terrorism. He said he was focused on including nuance to audiences who sometimes had “these general stereotypes of Muslims always being at war, or backward, or extremists.”

After 9/11, Mohyeldin recalled inflammatory headlines that would depict Muslims as villains. “We were trying to answer these questions of ‘why do Muslims hate us,’” he said. “And that terminology was completely off base and inappropriate for meaningful conversations to try to understand what was actually happening.”

The stereotype that Muslim identity was a threat to national security became further entrenched in American society, so much so that even those who were percieved to be Muslim were also targeted by Islamophobic violence.

Why are nuanced portrayals of identity important?

Mohyeldin and Abdelaziz recalled their experiences as journalists and the challenges they face in the field– not only because of their Muslim faith and identity, but because of the difficulties that uninformed sterotypes pose in trying to communicate and contextualize the complex identities of Muslim communities.

“The crux of Islamophobia is that it doesn’t only just impact Muslims, it has racialized Muslim identity to the extent that it impacts people who are perceived to be Muslims,” Abdelaziz explained. “If you are brown-ish or [it is] assumed that you have any type of ties to the Islamic identity that suddenly makes you a villain in some way, it makes you a lesser human.”

That perception impacts peoples experiences from heightened government surveillance to discrimination in daily life, she explained. One’s identity and religion don’t always play a role in how one’s civil rights are impacted.

Up until 2015, incidents of anti-Arab violence were combined into the FBI’s category of bias against “other ethnicity/nationality, non hispanic.” In 2001, hate crimes reported against this catchallgroup were more than triple the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes. According to the Center for the Study on Hate and Extremism, that was driven by an increase in hate crimes motivated by ethnic and national origin, including a 324 percent surge in anti-Arab hate.

READ MORE: How the Sikh community’s experiences with hate crimes shows why data collection is so important

The Sikh Coalition, founded on the night of 9/11 to offer free legal resources and support in anticipation of increased hate against the community, documented more than 300 cases of anti-Sikh violence and discrimination in the first few months after 9/11. In 2015, the Sikh Coalition along with other civil rights organizations pressured the FBI to officially track hate crimes motivated by anti-Arab and anti-Sikh bias. Since that year, the Sikh community has been in the top five most targeted faith groups.

According to Nikki Singh, Senior Policy and Advocacy Manager of the Sikh Coalition, beyond racist individuals targeting Sikhs because of their faith or general xenophobic sentiments, violence against Sikh individuals increased dramatically after 9/11 in part due to misplaced Islamophobia.

“Sikhs maintain a very visible identity in terms of their articles of faith: Sikhs wear turbans, maintain uncut hair, including facial hair,” explained Singh. “Because of those visible articles of faith, there has been a false conflation with images of the Taliban.”

Kiran Kaur Gill, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), said that misidentification is exacerbated by a lack of knowledge about Sikhism.

“There’s just such a lack of awareness of who Sikhs are and our religion and our philosophy and our presence in the United States, which actually spans over a century,” Gill said. “In many ways our stories are invisible and our experiences are invisible, when people saw our articles of faith, they mistook them as somehow being related to terrorism or al-Qaida.”

Do “bias” and “objectivity” play a factor in reporters covering their own communities?

 

Abdelaziz and Mohyeldin stressed the importance of newsrooms allowing reporters with diverse backgrounds and identities to cover their own communities, and not disqualifying them based on perceived bias.

“I think we need to do better in terms of whether or not we see the identity of our journalists as an asset or sometimes as a liability, and I think it is not uniformly applied across the various ethnic groups that are oftentimes celebrated and sometimes not,” Mohyeldin said.

For him, traveling overseas and being able to speak Arabic and understand cultural subtleties in the Middle East has given him access, understanding, and perspectives that may not be available to his white colleagues. That perspective is vital to covering a story accurately and fairly.

For Abdelaziz, it is important to understand the power dynamics behind objectivity, and the nuances that allow for fair reporting. “Without that, stories get oversimplified and this is how we have stereotypes,” she said.

Studies in the last decade have shown that media coverage of Muslims is overwhelmingly negative, Abdelaziz said, and that cases of attempted violence by Muslims receive a disproportionate amount of media coverage compared to violence committed by non-Muslims. “American Muslims have been put in this cliche, very strict box that they only feel relevant when we’re talking about certain stories about civil liberties, when we are talking about the dehumanization of Muslims.” According to a Pew Research Center survey last month, 50 percent of Americans surveyed said they view Islam as more likely than other religions to encourage violence. In March 2002, only 25 percent viewed Islam as dangerous. The way Muslims are covered in the media and spoken about in political discourse has a real impact on the lives of Muslims in America. The increase in hate crimes are often tied to a combination of a “catalytic event and political invectives, said Brian Levin, Director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism in San Bernardino.

December 2015 was the third worst month on record of anti-Muslim hate crimes. As Levin points out, the Nov.13 Paris terror attacks, the San Bernardino shooting on Dec. 2, and a Dec. 7 statement from the Trump campaign calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” all led to the spike in Muslim hate crimes that month. From 2014 to 2016, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased by 600 percent, according to CAIR. Hate groups that identified as anti-Muslim also more than increased four-fold during that time period, according to The Southern Poverty Law Center. And from Election Day 2016 to Election Day 2017, the advocacy organization South Asian Americans Leading Together reported that 82 percent of the 302 inci­dents of hate, vio­lence and xeno­pho­bic polit­i­cal rhetoric aimed at South Asian, Mus­lim, Sikh, Hin­du, Mid­dle East­ern, and Arab com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States were moti­vat­ed by anti-Mus­lim sen­ti­ment — a more than 45 percent increase from the year lead­ing up to the 2016 elec­tion. According to Levin, after Trump took office and enacted a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority countries, hate crimes against Muslims not only increased, but they became more violent.

In Aug. 2021, the FBI released its latest hate crime data for 2020. While hate crimes were at their highest levels overall since 2008, incidents of anti-Muslim hate decreased from 2019 to 2020 from 176 to 104, as did incidents of Anti-Arab hate crimes. Meanwhile, anti-Sikh incidents increased by 37 percent, from 49 to 67. Yet experts say the FBI data is a vast undercount that hides the true scope of the issue. It is subject to local law enforcement participation, and the number of agencies that participated declined for the third year in a row, while the majority that did participate reported no hate crimes. Another reason the actual hate crime data is in reality much higher than federal data shows is because it only captures incidents that are reported. Many victims, however, choose not to report incidents to the police due to mistrust in authorities or for a variety of other reasons.

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