Fifteen Years Later, Liberty and Justice for All Remains a Question Mark

Suman Raghunathan
Sep 11, 2016 · 3 min read

Today, the nation marks the 15-year anniversary of the events of September 11th, a watershed moment for South Asian, Muslim, Arab, Middle Eastern, and immigrant communities. A decade and a half later, the ripple effects of the tragic attacks and the subsequent backlash only continue to grow in intensity — especially at a time of an increasingly fraught American conversation on race, religion, immigration status, and identity.

As a longtime immigrant rights activist, the daughter of South Asian immigrants, and a New Yorker, I will never forget seeing the black smoke rise out of the tortured skeleton of the World Trade Center on that beautiful clear September morning. I immediately began bracing myself for the backlash against our communities — and fifteen years since, I haven’t stopped.

That is because attacks against South Asian, Muslim, Arab, Sikh, Hindu, and Middle Eastern communities are only intensifying, and on many fronts. Our community members are the targets of hate violence fueled by anti-Muslim sentiment; we are racially profiled on flights; and we are increasingly portrayed as un-American and disloyal in political speech. Fifteen years ago, SAALT released a report titled American Backlash, which documented the 642 incidents of bias, vandalism to places of worship, and hate violence reported in just the week following 9/11. Today, we continue to document incidents of hate violence and hostility, which have been on the rise after the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. They include Khalid Jabara, who was murdered in his own Oklahoma home by his neighbor, a known white supremacist; New Yorker Nazma Khanam, who was fatally stabbed in Queens, where she lived; and dozens of full-size ads on San Francisco buses that currently accuse Palestinians (including those in the US) of homophobia.

The same pattern is true when it comes to federal policies that effectively greenlight racial profiling under the guise of ‘national security.’ In the wake of 9/11, these policies were called “special registration”; today, they are called countering violent extremism. They all have one characteristic in common: the reliance on the crutch of “national security” to racially and religiously profile, harass and spy on Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. The devastating effects of these policies include detentions and deportations, lack of assistance to counsel, separated families and more…

Lastly, we have seen over the past 15 years similar cycles of xenophobic and divisive political discourse. In this presidential election cycle, political statements which paint immigrants as un-American, Muslims as disloyal, South Asians as monolithic, and Black Americans as racial tokens, are an extension of a disturbing trend SAALT has been tracking for over ten years. They include the Oklahoma GOP leader who declared in 2014 that Islam dictated the decapitation of Christians and Jews who did not convert to Islam. Or then-Congresswoman Michele Bachmann’s 2013 assertion that President Obama’s actions advanced the aims and goals of the Muslim Brotherhood. What’s more, this trend is accelerating and increasingly occurring in the national debate, pointing to a normalization of such statements. One need only point to Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s numerous proposals to require all Muslims to sign a ‘loyalty pledge’; bar their immigration wholesale to the US; and many other divisive proposals

In two reports, SAALT has analyzed the target and arena of xenophobic statements — we have found a troubling increase in attacks on a broad swath of communities, candidates, and individuals who could potentially be perceived as Muslim: including South Asians. Our 2014 report Under Suspicion, Under Attack documented 80 examples of xenophobic political rhetoric over a three-year period from 2011–2014. In the last eight months, SAALT has already logged nearly 70 xenophobic political statements; we only expect to see many more in the lead up to the November elections.

This rising tide of hostility and violence also comes at a time of accelerating demographic change nationwide. Not only are South Asians the most rapidly growing demographic group in the US, our nation is on track to be majority people of color by 2040, if not before.

On this 15-year anniversary of 9/11, let us resolve to stop the cycle and patterns that are leading to hate violence, discrimination, and profiling against Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities. Fifteen years is long enough for our nation to learn from the mistakes of the past and prevent them from happening again. It’s time to live up to our values as a nation of liberty and justice for all.