An integral part of the ethos of American history is the story of the pilgrims who traveled to America on the Mayflower. These heroic figures fled England to escape religious persecution, risking the wilds of the New World to pursue the freedom to follow whichever religion they wished. This perception of religious freedom as being one of the founding ideals of this country is accentuated by the United States Constitution. The first line of the First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (http://www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/first_amendment). Following September 11, 2001, however, this ethos and the spirit of one of the most revered laws of the land was directly violated and assaulted in a manner that was reminiscent of violence against African Americans almost half a century ago. Muslim Americans unjustly faced discrimination and prejudice for their religion in the name of protecting a country that espouses freedom of religion and protection from such heinous acts.
Immediately following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Islamic groups around the world began condemning the acts and disassociating the extremists who had carried out the acts from true Islam. Within a few hours of the attack, every major Islamic organization in the United States issued a joint statement. One part of it read, “American Muslims utterly condemn what are vicious and cowardly acts of terrorism against innocent civilians. We join with all Americans in calling for the swift apprehension and punishment of the perpetrators. No political cause could ever be assisted by such immoral acts” (Council on American-islamic relations). A joint statement was also issued by representatives of the 57 nations in the Organization of Islamic Conferences. “Such shameful terror acts are opposed to the tolerant divine message of Islam, which spurns aggression, calls for peace, coexistence, tolerance, and respect among people, highly prizes the dignity of human life, and prohibits the killing of the innocent” (Council on American-islamic relations). Leaders of predominantly Muslim countries throughout the globe also spoke out against the attacks, as did Islamic religious leaders. The stance of the majority of the Muslim world was clear.
This did not, however, stop the Islamophobic rhetoric from spreading in the United States. Famous Christian evangelical ministers spoke out vehemently against Islam. Franklin Graham delivered the invocation and sermon at George W. Bush’s first inauguration and was most recently in the news for claiming Barack Obama was an evil Muslim. Following September 11, he described Islam as “a very evil and wicked religion” (Peek). Jerry Vines, another prominent evangelical, was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He described the Prophet Muhammad as a “demon possessed pedophile” and asserted that “Allah is not Jehovah either. Jehovah’s not going to turn you into a terrorist that’ll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people” (Peek).
Political leaders also made blanket anti-Muslim statements. Saxby Chambliss, a representative and future senator of Georgia, said that the best homeland security measure would be to “turn loose” local law enforcement and “let him arrest every Muslim that crosses the state line” (Vest). John Cooksey was a representative in Louisiana during September 11. He would later work in an ophthalmologist clinic in Baton Rouge. During his time in office, he stated, “Someone who comes in that’s got a diaper on his head and a fan belt wrapped around that diaper on his head, that guy needs to be pulled over” (Vest). Popular political talk show hosts Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly both compared the Qur’an to Mein Kampf, and Michael Savage demanded a complete ban on Muslim immigration and construction of mosques, claiming these measures were necessary to save the United States (Peek).
The FBI received 481 reports of hate crimes against American Muslims in 2001, the vast majority occurring after September 11. This was a 1,600% increase from the year before and is an incredibly conservative figure as it does not account for any unreported hate crimes or crimes that local law enforcement dealt with without reporting a hate crime to the FBI. Crimes included assaults, vandalism, arson, violent threats, and shootings. There were definitely 12 murders following September 11 with the sole motive being discriminatory, but there may have been as many as 19 or more (FBI).
Frank Roque was the first man to commit homicide in retaliation to September 11. His first victim, however, was not Muslim at all. He was a Sikh who, wearing the traditional Sikh garb of turban and beard, was mistaken for Muslim. He was outside of his house gardening when Roque shot him. He would then go on to murder three more innocent people, only one of whom was actually Muslim. When Roque was arrested, he was quoted as saying, “I stand for America all the way. I’m an American. Go ahead. Arrest me and let those terrorists run wild” (Peek).
Mark Stroman was the second man to commit homicide in retaliation to September 11. Both of his victims were Muslims. The first was working in the convenience store he owned when Stroman burst through the door and shot him. Stroman would say after his arrest, “I did what every American wanted to do but didn’t. They didn’t have the nerve” (Peek).
Following 2001, hate crimes against Muslims have been between 100-200 crimes a year. While significantly lower than the number of crimes committed in 2001, levels have yet to come anywhere close to returning to pre-September 11 numbers. As one of the primary stories that forms the American mythology is of religious freedom, and the founding document that is held in such high regard contains religious freedom in a prominent position as the beginning of the First Amendment, one has to wonder what it is these anti-Islamic Americans are trying to protect. The political leaders, talk show hosts, and murderers all talk of protecting America and standing for America, but if it is not a land of freedom they are fighting for, what is it? If every citizen could answer this question truthfully and understand the fallacy of persecuting a religion in the name of America, maybe hate crimes against Muslims would finally end once and for all.
Peek, L. A. (2011). Behind the backlash: Muslim Americans after 9/11. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Council on American-islamic relations, “American muslims: One year after 9/11” (report, Council on American-islamic relations research Center, Washington, DC, 2002).
Jason Vest, “Exit Jesse, Enter Saxby,” The Nation, November 12, 2002.