By: Adam Beddawi | Policy Analyst, Muslim Public Affairs Council
On this, the 19th anniversary of the terror attacks of 9/11, those oft-cited words, “we will never forget,” are as much a call to remember the nearly 3,000 casualties as they are a description of our contemporary American politics.
Like a specter, the particular brand of nationalism and national security which emerged in the aftermath of 9/11 lords over our present crisis. That crisis is one of political turmoil. A global pandemic, an economic depression, and national protest movements have made clear that the old style of politics rings hollow to many Americans. In response, both parties are searching for a new mode of appealing to their constituents. A new political consensus will emerge from this tumult, as will new identities and notions of a collective American identity.
The particulars of this current moment have led many to call back to the Great Depression of the 1930s, when a similar crisis of legitimacy plagued the American establishment and opened up the space for FDR’s New Deal program to capture American hearts and minds. However, prior to the FDR administration, the future of America still seemed to hang in the balance. Back then, many in the American establishment could not identify the moment’s hidden potentials.
In a speech in 1930, one of America’s preeminent sociologists, W.E.B. Du Bois, put it thusly:
“The matter of greatest import is that instead of our facing today a stable world, moving at a uniform rate of progress toward well-defined goals, we are facing revolution … I am not discussing a coming revolution, I am trying to impress the fact upon you that you are already in the midst of a revolution.”
The same is certainly true today, as evinced by the potency of social protests and the relative impotency of the American establishment’s reassuring tut-tut.
However, rather than the strong arm of American political might, what reverberates through this moment of upheaval are the systems put in place to respond to 9/11.
You know them, I’m sure.
In October of 2001, just one month after 9/11, President George W. Bush signed the USA PATRIOT Act into law, an anti-terrorism effort which increased the U.S. government’s capacity to wiretap citizens and subpoena their data, maximize U.S. border security enforcement, and expand the legal definitions of what it meant to be a terrorist, among other things. With the passing of the Homeland Security Act in 2002, the United States government established the Department of Homeland Security, a cabinet department tasked with implementing measures to curb terrorism and enhance border security, as well as U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Additionally, almost immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the stage was beginning to set for a warring invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq.
These tangible political actions resulted in real-world consequences. Islamophobic rhetoric justified U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which in turn resulted in thousands of deaths and an institutionalized “forever war” against radical extremism. A robust and emboldened ICE acted as the backbone for family detention procedures under President Barack Obama and further turned into family separation policies that persist today under President Donald Trump. For those submitting FOIA requests to discover civil liberties transgressions, the section of the PATRIOT Act which authorizes the FBI to conduct clandestine counterterror investigations is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.
One can see the lasting impact of these policies in our pandemic and crisis response.
The political partnerships through which the government coordinated predictive policing measures were the same partnerships through which they coordinated contact tracing and data collection measures; the same fusion centers that arose to coordinate counterterror investigations were used to track the recent anti-police brutality protests. The over bloated national security apparatus established as a crisis response to 9/11 is the very obstacle impeding a response to our current crisis of human security.
It is no longer “we will never forget”, but we can never forget.
The post-9/11 world does not just impact American Muslims, but members of this country’s overpoliced poor, the hungry and under-resourced communities impacted disproportionately by the pandemic, and the social groups advocating for a new relationship between America’s impoverished masses and law enforcement. All of these groups find themselves on the receiving end of policies and politics forged in the crucible of counterterror reaction.
Post-9/11 America’s militarization of police and the domestication of military tactics, like imposing economic sanctions, renders clear that many Americans are strangers in their own land.
This recognition is no cause for sympathy, but rather political optimism. This is the very thing needed for the broad-based solidarities that can direct the current moment of American instability toward a vibrant American pluralism.
As Du Bois said: “Real revolution is within … [it is] a matter of long suffering and deprivation, the death of courage and the bitter triumph of despair. This is the inevitable prelude to decisive and enormous change, and that is the thing that is on us now.”
Of course, our mere recognition of this basis for social transformation is insufficient on its own. Shared experience must reflect in our collective action. Islam instructs us to let this recognition of universality, in experience and in humanity, lead the way.
Consider the story of the Prophet Muhammad and the emergence of Islam.
In pre-Islamic Mecca, a fraying social order impacted all Meccans in a fundamental way. The extant system of tribal affiliations which united the tribal kingdoms to their subordinate classes was spread far too thin. Idol worship and paganism were substitutes for those kinship rituals which were no longer a legitimate basis for social order. The Prophet Muhammad and his message emerged out of this context. His political success consisted in his ability to highlight the relevant similarities between people and to facilitate their collective organization. Allah, and the fundamental oneness of humanity, was the basis of this social order which was expressed in just and equitable relations between people.
We can ignore this historical basis, or we can let its lessons of universality and collectivity impact our action. As Du Bois said, “we are not called upon … to discuss whether we want revolution or not. We have got it. Our problem is how we are coming out of it.”
Guided by the example of the Prophet Muhamad and the forewarnings of one of America’s preeminent sociologists, our task is clear: to recognize and build solidarities upon the broadest shared experience of Americans. As our current crisis demonstrates, post-9/11 American politics has created a shared experience among all Americans: strangers in our own lands; largely divorced from the political system; watched over by managers of an inequitable system.
The role of civic organizations like ours is to recognize and build coalitions upon this basis. That’s why we are advocating for an inclusive American politics that incorporates the experience and voices of American Muslims. We recognize that our experiences extend beyond just those within our faith community.
As Du Bois said, “our professional classes are not aristocrats and our masters — they are and must be the most efficient of our servants and thinkers whose legitimate reward is the advancement of the great mass of [Americans] and with them the uplift of all men.”
The next story and political program to bring us out of the contemporary impasse will be based upon a shared experience.
On this, the 19th anniversary of 9/11, let us recognize one.
About the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC)
MPAC is on a mission to involve American Muslims in Government, Media, and Community for a more inclusive America for All. Founded in 1988, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) is a national public affairs nonprofit organization working to promote and strengthen American pluralism by increasing understanding and improving policies that impact American Muslims. Over the past 30 years, MPAC has built a reputation of being a dynamic and trusted American Muslim voice for policymakers, opinion shapers, and community organizers across the country.