This is one piece of a series of articles that will discuss how the attacks on September 11th altered religion in America. In the coming days and weeks, The JWA will publish more articles where our writers articulate how this alteration impacted the political, social, and economic landscape of the United States up until the present Presidential Election.
On the anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks, Americans remember the 2,977 innocent lives lost and the countless first responders who worked tirelessly on ground zero. It has been nineteen years, and the consequences of that fateful day remain ingrained in American society. One of the many devastating consequences has been the expansion of Islamophobia, or the unreasonable hatred and fear of Islam, in American culture and politics. While Islamophobia has existed since the time of the Prophet Muhammad, 9/11 catalyzed the phenomenon in the United States. While many factors contributed to the rise of hate against Islam and Muslims, two broad reactions immediately followed the 9/11 attacks. One viewed Islam as a peaceful religion that rejected abhorrent extremism while the other framed the religion as inherently violent. The role of the latter manifested itself in a large portion of Evangelical discourse and in fiction novels which advanced Islamophobic beliefs. Muslim representation in movies and television also played an important role in shaping Americans’ already superficial perception of Muslims and Islam. Politicians politicians were paramount in proliferating Islamophobia through their promotion of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam messaging that made Islamophobia an acceptable phenomenon in society. When combined, these factors demonstrate that Islamophobia was advanced across almost all major sectors of American life following 9/11, making the dramatic increase in hate crimes against Muslims and the growth in unfavorable perceptions of Islam unsurprising.
After the 9/11 terror attacks, two distinct reactions emerged as the nation processed the tragedy. One reaction named “the inter-faith response” focused on uniting Americans and emphasized that the terrorists did not represent Islam. Inter-faith services were held throughout the nation, most notably at the Yankee Stadium in New York where Muslim, Christian, and Jewish religious preachers led prayers.1 Speakers at these events centered the conversation around patriotism and the need for all Americans, regardless of their religion, race, and ethnicity, to mourn the lives lost. The emphasis on patriotism signaled to Americans that their shared experience should unite them because their identity as Americans takes precedence.2
This unifying response was not shared by the whole country. Christian leaders, like Richard Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, asserted Islam posed a threat due to its alleged “backward” ideology and practices.3 A month after 9/11, Mohler asserted, “The bigger problem with Islam is not that there are those who will kill the body in its name, but that it lies about God [and] presents a false gospel, an un-gospel.”4 Ironically, Mohler proclaims he is “no specialist in Islamic theology” but continued to warn of the dangers of Islam.5 This hostile rhetoric contradicts the inter-faith response as it aimed to divide the nation and hinted that the enemy is all Muslims and not just foreign terrorists. Considering these conflicting responses at a time of vulnerability, it is not surprising that four months after 9/11, 14% of the country thought Islam promoted violence and by 2003, the number increased to 34%.6 During a time when the nation needed to heal, extreme Islamophobic messaging exacerbated tensions in American society.
In addition to public outcries regarding the alleged threat of Islam, Evangelical publications on Islam illustrate the role of 9/11 as a catalyst for Islamophobia. Christians and Muslims have a long, contentious history that makes Islamophobia in Evangelical writings unsurprising. However, in the decades prior to 9/11, most Evangelical books and essays acknowledged to some extent the validity of Islam as a monotheistic religion. Richard Cimino investigates this issue in his essay, “‘No God in Common:’ American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11.” Cimino explains a shift within Evangelical discourse occurred after 9/11 as new publications explicitly labeled Islam as a violent religion and Muslims as worshipping a separate God from Christians and Jews.7 This extreme rhetoric was propelled by authors like C. Peter Wagner, a professor of Christian ministry, who in 2002 wrote that Allah was “a high-ranking demon.”8 Allah is the Arabic translation for the word “God,” but post-9/11 discourse like Wagner’s reframed its definition as a distinct being. This discourse emphasized the “otherness” of Muslims and propelled fear by asserting that they worship an evil entity.
Islamophobia in the post-9/11 era was also perpetuated by those who misrepresented the Quran in American fiction. Authors quoted the Quran and explained Islamic practices in an attempt to demonstrate their credibility on discussing terrorism and violence in relation to Islam. In his novel, Terrorist (2006), John Updike quoted the Quran frequently throughout the novel as he illustrated the life of Ahmad, a young Muslim teen who becomes “radicalized” as he learns about Islam.9 These quotations provide the illusion that Ahmad’s participation in a terrorist attack is justified and promoted by Islam.10 These quotes were rather extracted from the Quran without context and served the purpose of validating Updike’s conclusion that Islam inherently promotes violence.11
An example of this practice is most notably illustrated when Ahmad disregards the advice of his school guidance counselor and recites a section of the Quran that proclaims God is the only guidance needed.12 This quotation is taken out of context and aims to isolate Muslims as people who are “irrational and cannot listen to or understand common reasoning and human counseling.”13 The exaggeration and misinterpretation of the Quran propelled Islamophobia in American culture. Stories about young men like Ahmad who turn into terrorists creates the archetype of a Muslim in the minds of readers. Islamophobic beliefs were propelled by detailing the irrationality of Ahmad’s thoughts and decisions, and his compulsive tendency to connect every aspect of his life to Islam. Updike irresponsibly cherry-picked quotes from the Quran without understanding the context in order to perpetuate his assumption that Islam inherently encouraged Ahmad to commit acts of violence. These superficial notions are especially dangerous considering a significant portion, about 67%, of Americans in 2003 were unfamiliar with Islamic practices.14 This unfamiliarity, therefore, led readers with little knowledge to take Updike’s Quranic quotes at face value and build their assumptions based on his superficial notions.
Similar to fiction novels, media representation of Muslims in the post-9/11 era contributed heavily to how non-Muslim Americans perceived Islam and its followers. While mainstream producers of movies and television shows aimed to present Islam as a peaceful religion in their projects, Evelyn Alsultany explains in “Arabs and Muslims in the Media after 9/11: Representational Strategies for a ‘Postrace’” that their efforts had the opposite effect. Alsultany explains Hollywood wanted to support Arab and Muslim Americans but failed to do so because writers tended to present underdeveloped characters.15 She labels this practice as “simplified complex representations” and explains, “These are strategies used by television producers, writers, and directors to give the impression that the representations they are producing are complex, yet they do so in a simplified way.”16 An example of this strategy is seen in countless movies that present a Muslim character who aids the American government in its fight against terrorism or an Arab character who gets harassed and stereotyped at an airport.17 Specifically to the issue of stereotyping, Alsultany asserts it is presented in movies as an inevitable reality that Arabs and Muslims face.18 Rather than questioning American culture that condones stereotyping of the “other,” she explains the media has largely accepted it.19 In addition to these failed narratives, these movies and television shows restrict Arab and Muslim characters to the topics of terrorism and Islamophobia. Rather than presenting Arabs and Muslims as complex characters that are made of more than just their ethnicity and religion, writers and producers contributed to the isolation of Arabs and Muslims in society.
In addition to literature and media, politicians like President George W. Bush contributed heavily to the rise of Islamophobia in the United States. President Bush attempted to deter Islamophobia and emphasized to the American people that Islam and Muslims were not the enemy. Days after the attack, he gave a speech at the Islamic Center of Washington D.C. and proclaimed, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam…Islam is peace.”20 At face value, this looks like a genuine attempt at protecting Muslim Americans and respecting Islam, but Bush and his administration contradicted their statements later on. Bush later used terms such as “Islamo-fascism,” “Islamic radicalism,” and “Islamic extremists” when describing the threat of terrorism and thus signaled to Americans that Islam has an inherent connection to terrorism and violence.21 Todd H. Green, a former U.S. State Department adviser on Islamophobia, explains in his book The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West, that Bush’s use of the word “crusade” regarding the War on Terror was also a point of contention.22 His statement angered Muslim Americans who saw the term as suggestive of “a holy war against all Muslims.”23 Considering the long history of Muslim and Christian conflict, Bush’s statement was deemed irresponsible during a sensitive point in history.
Islamophobic rhetoric within politics is most notably seen in the justifications for the War on Terror. While President Bush abstained from calling the war a “crusade,” the explanations for sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq framed Islam as the primary issue. Green explains Islam was labeled as violent, “anti-Democratic,” and “misogynist” and, therefore, the military had to intervene in the Middle East to protect Americans.24 President Bush famously proclaimed the 9/11 terrorists “hate our freedoms” which contributed to the agenda that Islam was undemocratic in nature.25 Many scholars, like anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod and Green, specifically critiqued the notion that Islam teaches misogyny.26 Abu-Lughod and Green view the government’s newfound concern for Muslim women in the Middle East, specifically those living under the control of terrorist groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, as deceitful.27 Not too long before the call to save women from Islam’s oppression, the American government supported the Taliban during the Cold War era in its fights against the Soviets and discussed the construction of oil pipelines.28 These two realities highlight the convenience of using Islam as a justification for going to war. Green asserts the strategies of calling Islam undemocratic and misogynistic were counterproductive because they did not address the real issue of terrorism, but rather fabricated Islam as the enemy.29 These explanations failed to acknowledge why the United States had been a target of terrorists and extremists. Politicians did not properly analyze the history of America’s involvement in Middle Eastern affairs and simply used Islam as a scapegoat for the War on Terror.
The consequences of Islamophobic rhetoric and policies are most evidently seen in the increases of both hate crimes against Muslims, and polling showing Americans’ unfavorable attitude toward Islam. From 2000 to 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s reports assert that hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs grew by 1,600% in the United States.30 This significant spike is reflective of the country’s anxiety regarding Islam and the terror attacks. Non-Muslims, Arab Americans, and other minorities were victims alongside Muslim Americans because they were often profiled to resemble Muslims because of their ethnicity. Four days after the 9/11 attacks, a Sikh-American named Balbir Singh Sodhi was shot and killed in an Arizona gas station because the perpetrator assumed his turban was a Muslim identifier.32 The same assailant went on to attack a Lebanese American gas station employee and an Afghani witness to the crime.33 Several more incidents resembling these attacks took place days after and thus demonstrate how Islamophobia helped propel trigger-happy perpetrators to commit acts of violence. As for attitudes towards Islam, surveys on Evangelical feelings have been limited and resulted in complex findings. In 2003, polls examining the attitudes of Evangelical leaders on Islam revealed mixed feelings with 70% believing the religion is violent, but 70% also recognized the need to “protect the rights of Muslims.”34 Another study that year showed 23% of its Evangelical participants “favored making it illegal for Muslim groups to meet in the U.S. for worship.”35 While the results of these studies varied, the general feelings expressed against Islam and Muslims were negative.
The Islamophobic discourse discussed above and the nation’s complicated foreign policy in the Middle East set the foundation for the rise of Islamophobia in the years leading up to and during President Donald J. Trump’s presidency. From 2014 to 2016, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reports hate crimes against Muslims increased by 584%, and in 2015 there was a 57% rise in “anti-Muslim bias incidents.”36 This trend toward Islamophobic driven violence is most evidently seen in the year 2017 when the number of attacks against Muslims exceeded that of 2001.37 Lütfi Sunar, author of “The Long History of Islam as a Collective ‘Other’ of the West and the Rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. After Trump,” explains that while President Trump did not invent Islamophobia, he used the country’s complicated relationship with Islam and Muslims to his advantage. In March of 2016, President Trump claimed, “I think Islam hates us, there is something there” which appears reminiscent of President Bush’s comments that the terrorists hated American freedom.38 Later that month, he commented on a bombing in Brussels and said, “We’re having problems with the Muslims, and we’re having problems with Muslims coming into the country.”39 President Trump’s projection of unjust traits onto the Muslim community proved to be advantageous considering in 2016, Republicans with “unfavorable” feelings about Islam (73%) including those with “very unfavorable” feelings (43%) preferred Trump for president.40 The combination of an increase in hate crimes against Muslims alongside general Republican disapproval of Islam in recent years demonstrates that Islamophobia continues to be an issue. With a lack of education on Islam, Americans have become susceptible to the fearmongering espoused by politicians.
The 9/11 terror attacks altered American culture and politics in unimaginable ways. When the nation needed to unite, hate speech flooded throughout every aspect of life and ignited division and a rise in Islamophobia. Religious leaders, specifically Evangelical preachers and authors, demonized Islam and signaled to Americans that terrorism was not their only concern, but rather Islam posed a greater risk to the foundation of American society. Politicians espoused Islamophobic justifications for the War on Terror and framed Islam as a threat to democracy. This irresponsible strategy exacerbated their constituents’ fear of Islam and led to increased hostility, as seen in the rise of hate crimes against Muslim and Arab Americans. The media played a significant role as well, and although producers aimed to placate the Islamophobia around them, they failed to properly present developed Muslim and Arab characters in their projects and contributed to the stereotyping of these groups. The post-9/11 era has thus proven itself to be a dangerous time for Muslim Americans and anyone that could be mistaken for a Muslim. This overwhelming presence of Islamophobia in every major sector of society signals that any hope for change will require great effort and a complete reconstruction of how Americans view Islam.
1 Patrick Allitt, Religion in America Since 1945: A History, (New York, New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 255.
2 Allitt, Religion in America Since 1945: A History, 255.
3 Ibid., 257.
4 Michael Foust, “Speak about Islam clearly & without fear, Mohler Says,” Baptist Press, October 19, 2001. https://web.archive.org/web/20081229110744/http:/www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?ID=11977.
5 Foust, “Speak about Islam clearly & without fear, Mohler Says.”
6 John Corrigan and Winthrop Hudson, Religion in America, 9th ed. (Abingdon, United Kingdom, 2018), 545.
7 Richard Cimino, “‘No God in Common:’ American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11,” Review of Religious Research 47, no. 2 (2005): 165, http://www.jstor.com/stable/3512048.
8 Cimino, “‘No God in Common:’ American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11,” 168.
9 Muhammad Safeer Awan, “Global Terror and the Rise of Xenophobia/Islamophobia: An Analysis of American Cultural Production Since September 11,” Islamic Studies 49, no. 4 (2010): 528, http://www.jstor.com/stable/41581122.
10 Ibid., 530.
11 Ibid., 530.
12 Ibid., 528.
13 Ibid., 528.
14 “Critical Views of Islam Grow Amid Continued Unfamiliarity,” ABC News, September 11, 2003. https://abcnews.go.com/images/pdf/931a4Islam.pdf.
15 Evelyn Alsultany, “Arabs and Muslims in the Media After 9/11: Representational Strategies for a ‘Postrace’ Era,” American Quarterly 65, no. 1 (2013): 162, http://www.jstor.com/stable/41809552.
16 Alsultany, “Arabs and Muslims in the Media After 9/11,” 162.
17 Ibid., 163.
18 Ibid., 164.
19 Ibid., 164.
20 Allitt, Religion in America Since 1945: A History, 257.
21 Todd H. Green, The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West, 2nd ed. (Augsburg, Germany: 1517 Media Fortress Press, 2015), 129.
22 Green, The Fear of Islam, 129.
23 Ibid., 129.
24 Ibid., 128.
25 “President Bush Addresses the Nation,” The Washington Post, September 20, 2001. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/bushaddress_092001.html.
26 Ibid., 152.
27 Ibid., 152.
28 Ibid., 152.
29 Ibid., 113
30 Alsultany, “Arabs and Muslims in the Media After 9/11,” 161.
31 Cynthia Lee, “Hate Crimes and the War on Terror,” George Washington University Law School (2008): 1-30, https://ssrn.com/abstract=1268355.
32 Lee, “Hate Crimes and the War on Terror,” 3.
33 Ibid., 3.
34 Cimino, “‘No God in Common:’ American Evangelical Discourse on Islam after 9/11,” 164.
35 Ibid., 164.
36 Lütfi Sunar, “The Long History of Islam as a Collective ‘Other’ of the West and the Rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. After Trump,” Insight Turkey 19, no. 3 (2017): 35-52, https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26300529.
37 Katayoun Kishi, “Assaults Against Muslims in U.S. Surpass 2001 Level, ” Pew Research Center, November 15, 2017. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/15/assaults-against-muslims-in-u-s-surpass-2001-level/.
38 Jenna Johnson and Abigail Hauslohner, “‘I think Islam hates us’: A Timeline of Trump’s Comments About Islam and Muslims,” Washington Post, May 20, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2017/05/20/i-think-islam-hates-us-a-timeline-of-trumps-comments-about-islam-and-muslims/.
39 Johnson and Hauslohner, “‘I think Islam hates us’.”
40 Corrigan, Religion in America, 545.