Meeting with congressional leaders on Sept. 12, 2001, one day after the the worst terrorist atrocity in modern history, President George W. Bush expressed two concerns. One was that it would be a challenge to maintain an unflagging focus on fighting the threat from al-Qaeda and other violent jihadists. The other was something else entirely.
“My second concern was about backlash against Arabs and Muslim Americans,” Bush later recounted. “I had heard reports of verbal harassment against people who appeared to be Middle Eastern. I was mindful of the ugly aspects of America’s history during war.” He cited the persecution of German Americans during World War I and the internment of more than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He felt a keen responsibility “to guard against hysteria and speak out against discrimination” and intended “to convey that message by visiting a mosque.”
At the Islamic Center of Washington the following Monday, Bush made good on his promise.
“The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” the president said. “America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and . . . they need to be treated with respect.” Any bullies or bigots who “take out their anger” on Muslim citizens “represent the worst of humankind and they should be ashamed.” He reiterated that message in a speech before Congress three days later.
In the wake of Sept. 11, it became popular in some quarters to claim that America was awash in a wave of Islamophobia. In the first months after the al-Qaeda attacks, there were indeed numerous anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States, some of them quite terrible. Among the worst were assaults on mosques, death threats, and, above all, the fatal shooting and bombing of immigrants believed to be Muslim (not all were) in Arizona, Texas, and California. According to the FBI, reported hate crimes against Muslims soared from a couple dozen in 2000 to more than 450 in 2001.
Yet atrocious as those acts were — “the worst of humankind,” in Bush’s blunt phrase — they were the exception, not the rule. “We are aware that this was a small group of people in an initial reaction,” Hussein Ibish of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee told Bryant Gumbel in a CBS interview. Far more typical, Ibish said, was the “outpouring of compassion” from so many “people who came forward, who called us, who wrote to us. . . . Really, the common decency of most of our fellow citizens came out.”
The extreme spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes didn’t last. Within a year, the number of such offenses tabulated by the FBI had fallen by two-thirds, and it has stayed at that lower rate ever since. The most recent FBI hate crimes data, from 2019, charted 176 anti-Muslim incidents. (To put that in context, hate crimes targeting Jews that year numbered 953.)
Nine years after 9/11, during the uproar over plans to build a mosque and Muslim cultural center near Ground Zero in Manhattan, a Time magazine cover story explored the question “Is American Islamophobic?” Its findings were mixed. “To be a Muslim in America now is to endure slings and arrows against your faith,” Time noted. But it also found that “there’s no sign that violence against Muslims is on the rise” and noted that “Islamophobia in the US doesn’t approach levels seen in other countries.” As with most minorities, social tensions are inevitable. But as Time pointed out, “polls have shown that most Muslims feel safer and freer in the US than anywhere else in the Western world.”
There have been many expressions of that safety and freedom, from an American Muslim woman winning the Miss USA pageant to the overwhelming 92 percent of US Muslims who agree with the patriotic statement “I am proud to be an American” to the lengthening roster of Muslims elected to public office. CNN in 2010 recounted the odyssey undertaken by two American Muslims, Aman Ali and Bassam Tariq, who spent the month of Ramadan driving cross-country and back in their Chevy Cobalt with the goal of visiting 30 mosques in 30 days. “They discovered,” CNN reported, “that America still embraces immigrants and the nation is filled with welcoming and loving people.”
Some Americans, of course, wallow in bigotry against Muslims. Donald Trump for years voiced ugly anti-Muslim rhetoric. One notorious example was his delusional insistence that he had seen “thousands and thousands” of New Jersey Muslims celebrating the 9/11 attacks. As a candidate for president, he advocated “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
In a nation of 330 million, there will always be those receptive to such crude and narrow-minded scapegoating. But looking back at the reaction to 9/11 from the perspective of two decades, what is striking is not that there were some Americans who lashed out at Muslims or denigrated Islam. It is that most Americans continued to treat the Muslims in their midst with tolerance and affability, notwithstanding the terrible destruction wrought by radical, violent Islamists.
That destruction, it is important to remember, didn’t stop on Sept. 11, 2001. There have been repeated instances since then of attacks carried out on American soil by Islamist terrorists. Among the most ghastly: the 2009 massacre of 13 soldiers at Fort Hood in Texas; the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; the slaughter of 14 public health workers at a 2015 holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif.; the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando in 2016, in which 49 people were murdered and dozens wounded; and the ramming of a truck into a bike path full of cyclists and runners along New York’s Hudson River Greenway in 2017. The years since 9/11 have also brought the gruesome deaths of many Americans, including journalists Daniel Pearl, James Foley, and Steven Sotloff, at the hands of Islamist extremists overseas.
Despite it all, the vast majority of Americans lost neither their humanity nor their ability to distinguish between Islam and Islamism — between the religion of 3.5 million peaceable Americans and the militant ideology of a dangerous fringe. Twenty years after 9/11, Muslim life in America is flourishing and most Americans wouldn’t have it any other way. On an anniversary inseparable from so much darkness, that is one ray of light.