American Muslims remember how 9/11 changed America as they knew it

This week, the PBS NewsHour is marking the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks with stories examining some of the ways that day transformed the nation and the world. Amna Nawaz begins our coverage with a look at the effect on millions of American Muslims.

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  • John Yang:

    This week, we mark the 20th anniversary of 9/11 attacks with stories examining some of the ways that day transformed the nation and the world.

    Tonight, chief correspondent Amna Nawaz begins our coverage with a look at the effect on millions of American Muslims.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    After 9/11, the lives of millions of American Muslims changed overnight. For the 20 years that followed, U.S. national security would be transformed. Pop culture and media representations of Muslims took a different angle.

    And over the years, U.S. presidents have explicitly taken very different stances on how Muslims should be seen.

    George W. Bush, Former President of the United States: The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. It is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.

    Barack Obama, Former President of the United States: The attacks of September 11, 2001, and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile, not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. All this has bred more fear and more mistrust.

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now we have three perspectives on the Muslim American experience after September 11.

    Baher Azmy is the legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights at the nonprofit legal advocacy organization. Margari Hill is the executive director of MuslimARC, a faith-based human rights education organization. And Farhana Khera is a civil rights advocate and the founder and former executive director of Muslim Advocates.

    Welcome to you all. Thank you so much for making the time to be here.

    Margari, I want to start with you, because when you think back to the attacks of 9/11, you were very young. You were a student at the time. What do you remember about that moment and about what changed for you and people around you afterwards?

  • Margari Hill, Director, Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative:

    Nine-eleven happened a week before I was returning back to Santa Clara University.

    And our campus was impacted because one of my classmates, she was on Flight 93. And so those vigils and the types of conversations we had to have in class — every class, we talked about 9/11. And at that time, I was one of the few Muslims on campus. We were called to speak for all Muslims, regardless of their country of origin. Why did this happen? What were some of the grievances?

    And that cottage industry started to develop within the years that I was in undergrad and then also in graduate school of us to become area experts and at times native informants to understand Muslims for national interest.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Farhana, you were, I remember, one of very few Muslims working in the halls of power in Capitol Hill at the time. What do you remember about the immediate aftermath of that day for you?

  • Farhana Khera, Co-Founder, Muslim Advocates:

    Yes, it's a — you know, that day is seared into my memory banks, Amna. It's a day I will never forget.

    You know, I grew up in a small town in Upstate New York. And in the America I grew up in, my faith was viewed as a curiosity, not a threat. But in an instant on that morning, things would change.

    And, ironically, as the orders were given for me and my colleagues to flee the Senate office complex, because we believed actually that Flight 93 might be heading our way, I ironically was in a meeting to discuss legislation being introduced by my boss at the time, Senator Feingold, to end racial profiling by law enforcement.

    And, at the time, the conversation about biased policing was really primarily focused on African American and Latinos. But now the conversation would change.

    And I remember, the following day, as I was going to work the day after September 11, I was riding the subway, the metro in D.C. And for the first time, I had this feeling of people just staring at me and sizing me up, trying to determine whether I was a threat. I had never had that feeling before.

    And it's a feeling that many Muslims, I think, had that day in the days after.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Baher, what about you? Have you experienced those same kinds of things you heard Farhana talking about?

    Baher Azmy, Legal Director, Center for Constitutional Rights: I was in New York that day and felt with — felt the horror that all fellow New Yorkers and other parts of the country felt.

    And I experienced some of it, but I think our focus, as a human rights community, turned or had to turn fairly quickly to what I would call a human rights crisis created by the Bush administration against Muslims, externally through two massive military interventions in sovereign Muslim nations and the development of offshore prisons to conduct interrogation and torture, and then almost immediately also domestically through mass sweeps of Muslim communities and detentions of non-citizen Muslims, with the presumption that they were terrorist suspects simply because they may have committed civil immigration violations.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Farhana, how were you seeing that show up in political circles?

    I mean, we know anti-Muslim sentiment sort of spilled into political rhetoric as well. What were you seeing happen there and really over the many years that followed?

  • Farhana Khera:


    So, in those early days, you had almost a coming together, with even President Bush at the time going to a mosque in Washington, D.C., calling on the American people to not target and single out their fellow Americans who happen to be Muslim.

    But that sentiment of goodwill and coming together, unfortunately, quickly changed. And, in part, it was a result of the political and the military goals and the unfortunate ways in which Muslims were being demonized and, unfortunately, painting our community with one broad brush, as the threat.

    And, in those early days, it caused some American Muslims to dig deeper, to do more, to show and prove that they were truly loyal Americans. I remember people going out and buying American flags and putting them in their front yards. My brother in those first couple of weeks after 9/11 shaved his goatee, wore a baseball hat every day to school because he didn't want to draw undue attention or scrutiny.

    So it was — it's been a very tough last 20 years for the American Muslim community.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Margari, of course, there's a very specific other intersection here, which is the intersection of that growing anti-Muslim sentiment and the long history and existing anti-Black sentiment and racism in this country.

    So, specific for Black Americans, how did you see that play out over the years?

  • Margari Hill:

    Yes, over the past 20 years, we have seen Black Muslims facing the intersecting levels of state violence, from police brutality to the loss of — erosion of civil liberties and prisoners rights.

    And those intersections often are sometimes erased or overlooked. And whether it comes from the kind of interpersonal experience or acts of discrimination within the Black community, which actually increased after 9/11, or sometimes the erasure of Black Muslims, which would overlook those cases of seeing that as Islamophobic, but also how anti-Black racism makes Black Muslim lives much more vulnerable to state violence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Baher, you heard in the introduction there how the rhetoric changed from, Muslims are not our enemies, all the way up to candidate Trump saying a ban on all Muslims, and then going on to win the presidency.

    I think a lot of people would look at that and think it's gotten worse. Do you think it's gotten worse or better over the years?

  • Baher Azmy:

    I think the Bush administration's sort of broad, if not rhetorical, but political assault on Muslim populations here and abroad set the stage for Trump.

    And I think it caused both increasing toleration for outrages, a weakening of the sort of checks on executive power, and a culture of violence and othering that fed perfectly into a what I would call a hard authoritarian's perspective, who could also say about the first Bush administration, you didn't do enough. And I'm going to be tougher not just against Muslims, but against Black Americans, asylum seekers on the Southern border, and all now undifferentiated others, not just Muslims.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Farhana, 20 years later, there is now an entire generation of young American adults, including American Muslims, who don't have firsthand memories of that day, who did not live through the trauma, as all of us did.

    I wonder if you think they are different at defining themselves as this next generation of American Muslims.

  • Farhana Khera:

    I do get the sense of the younger generation is — despite the fact that they have dealt with a lot of, frankly, hate and discrimination from a very young age, hate and discrimination that my generation, frankly, did not have to endure, I think in some ways it's made them tougher.

    It's made them want to stand up even stronger, be more vocal. It's really exciting to see the energy and the activism from the younger generation, whether it's in getting involved in the political process or creating their own organizations and getting involved mobilizing their peers and others to push for change.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, as a lot of communities, the next generation will lead the way, right?

    That is Farhana Khera, Margari Hill, and Baher Azmy.

    Thank you so much for joining us.

  • Baher Azmy:

    Thank you.

  • Farhana Khera:

    Thank you.

  • Margari Hill:

    Thank you.

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