THIS WEEK marks the 20th anniversary of the horrific 9/11 terror attacks on the USA in which over 2,900 people lost their lives. The event stunned the world and the impact is still being felt today.
It was a tragedy which has had an impact felt far and wide. It set the fuse for the ‘War on Terror’ which has claimed nearly a million lives in Iraq, Afghanistan and other parts of the world. The world’s shock unfortunately fuelled a climate of fear, racism and Islamophobia which has – two decades on – become increasingly normalised.
Anti-Muslim sentiment increased across the West after the attacks, with entire communities being viewed with suspicion. Stereotypes have flourished, as has hate crime and racially motivated violence in Britain, Europe and the USA.
In Britain, as well as the increase in street hate crimes, we have seen measures like the Government’s controversial counter-extremism programme Prevent, which has left many Muslims and people of South Asian heritage feeling heavily scrutinised.
Dr Javed Bashir is the founder and CEO of the Professional Muslims Institute, a West Yorkshire organisation which aims to tackle inequality in the workplace.
Dr Bashir – who was born in Pakistan but grew up in Keighley, West Yorkshire – said that “life changed” for him after 9/11, with “suspicion” and “fear” pervading the air and racism hitting an all-time high.
“It was a very tough time. I faced significant challenges after 9/11, like many British Muslims did. There was a rise in Islamophobia and bigotry, that we had no choice but to live under”, he said.
“I felt like we were all fully clothed, and then all of a sudden – when 9/11 happened – the clothes were gone, and it was as though we were walking around in public naked.
Before the attack, our fellow British citizens were always curious about our religious practices, but they were never too invested. Nobody in Britain saw Muslims or Islam as a threat. But suddenly, that completely changed.
“Before the attack, our fellow British citizens were always curious about our religious practices, but they were never too invested. Nobody in Britain saw Muslims or Islam as a threat. But suddenly, that completely changed.
“My neighbours and colleagues didn’t know if they could trust me anymore. There was a lot of suspicion, and as British Muslims, we became very fearful.
“Non-Muslim friends and colleagues would ask questions like ‘do you support Bin Laden?’, and I was often left speechless.
“Questions like this made me realise that they had a presumption that people with brown skin or South Asian features were somehow not British, and that we were happy that 9/11 happened and that we supported it.
“I feel sad for younger British Muslims, who can’t remember Britain before 9/11. We had the height of freedom – we could enjoy life, and no-one was as bothered about what religion you were.
“That was an amazing feeling, and I wish I could take my kids - and all the British Muslim kids - back in time, so they could feel life without any biases and without the shackles of hatred.”
Tension grew in 2001 not only because of 9/11, but also due to race riots which unfolded across the north of England.
British Pakistani and white British communities clashed with each other, and with the police, in the streets of Bradford, Leeds, Oldham and Burnley, just months before 9/11.
Back then, Dr Bashir was in the restaurant business, and invited 40 people from Bradford – who were all of different races and religions – to his establishment for a free meal, on the condition that they sat down and spoke with one another.
“I thought it was my responsibility, as a British Muslim, to do my bit to build bridges between different faiths and communities back in 2001”, he said.
Two decades later, Dr Bashir believes that building bridges is even more important now – and has encouraged people to try and do so.
“Our future and our destiny are in hands of young people – we need to get them more involved in different spheres of life, and build their understanding, compassion and tolerance”, he said.
“Since 9/11, we have learned from each misstep and, as communities, we have tried to be better, stronger and more resilient.
“I believe that the progress made by British Muslim communities after 9/11 has been dealt some setbacks, however, by growing anti-Muslim sentiments from right-wing groups and politicians
“Our struggle for acceptance is not over – we are still fighting, 20 years on.
“Our struggle for acceptance is not over – we are still fighting, 20 years on.
“The only way we can move forward is by talking to each other, and by realising that Muslims aren’t the enemy, but terrorism is.”
It is not only Muslim people who have had to face added racism and discrimination since 9/11, however.
Anyone of ‘Muslim’ appearance – or, it could also be argued, anyone of colour – has also had to contend with additional racism which was maybe not as apparent as it was before the attacks.
A mere four days after 11 September 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, an American Sikh, was fatally shot by a gunman who was seemingly seeking revenge on “towel-heads” – as he referred to them.
Nihaal Singh is a member of the Sikh community in Leeds, and said that his appearance has often made him a target for racism over the years.
“As a Sikh, I wear the turban and I have a beard - it’s my identity”, said the 24-year-old.
“But I think since 9/11, and with all the negative media portrayal of Muslims which followed, it has made things difficult for us, as well.
“People see the beard and turban and their minds jump to Osama Bin Laden. They can’t differentiate the images they see in the media from the people they see on the street.
“People from the Sikh community became targets after 9/11. There has been an increase in hatred and violence towards us.”
Although Nihaal was only four-years-old when 9/11 happened, he has family members who are old enough to remember the day – and the repercussions that it came with.
“I have family in London – in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, things became a lot more hostile and difficult for them”, he said.
“A family friend got attacked one night by a group of people calling him a ‘terrorist’, when he was on his way back from a night shift. This was only a few months after 9/11.
“It’s been 20 years, but the stereotypes still remain. You can’t just eradicate them, unfortunately.
“The people who carried out 9/11 just happened to be Muslim, but that doesn’t mean all Muslims are terrorists or extremists - it’s not a hard concept to understand, but unfortunately, a lot of people still just don’t get it.
“I think education is really important. We need to ensure that the next generation are educated about these stereotypes, so that there is more understanding, and less hate.”
People with brown skin and beards seemingly became folk devils after 9/11 – and this was evidenced by the number of people imprisoned and tortured in places like Guantanamo Bay, without fair trial, in the months and years that followed.
West Bromwich-born Asif Iqbal – who was one of the so-called ‘Tipton Three’ – was held in the notorious US military prison for over two years. While he was there, he claimed an American soldier said to him “you killed my family in the towers, and now it's time to get you back”.
It is almost as though 9/11 created a moral panic around Islam, in which extreme and often obsessive lengths were taken in order to comfort a population who had been left in a constant state of fear, which itself had been created by sensationalist newspaper headlines and fuelled by racial and religious stereotypes.
With 20 years having now passed, we must ask ourselves if we have actually learned anything – do these same stereotypes still exist? If so, how can we challenge them?
Is it as simple as dialogue? If everyone starts speaking with each other and having honest conversations, will that make things better? Or do we need stronger actions, such as political reforms, to be implemented in order to make our society more equal?
Whatever the answer is, it is surely time we started asking the questions, at the very least.
Yusef Alam is a 23-year-old journalist and writer from Leeds. He is a sociology graduate and has a particular interest in race, racism and identity. He is British-Pakistani and often cites his own personal experiences as inspiration for his work, hoping to break a few stereotypes in the process.