This article was originally publihsed on September 10, 2011.
September 11, 2001. As a young engineer at an oil refinery in Texas, I remember being glued to the 14” TV screen, sitting at the corner of the department secretary’s office. Live, grainy footage beamed live from New York City. As the towers collapsed, my heart sank. I also felt strangely uncomfortable – a gut feeling perhaps of what to come my way as an American Muslim. I suddenly remembered to call my wife, a veiled and obvious Muslim. She was out shopping at the Krogers grocery store, but knew something was wrong due to angry looks she was already getting.
In the days following the attack, I saw the best and worst of America, right there at that oil refinery. The “good” included a steady stream of visitors, sharing their sentiments, seeing me as one of them, not as the “other”. It also included all levels of my “white, Southern” management, each tier assuring me of its support; that they would not stand for any form of hate directed at me.
Even the sincere, friendly voices though seemed to assumed that I should know “why it happened” because after all I was a “Muslim – like the hijackers”. My responses were confused and defensive, not quite prepared for the new role thrust upon me as a Muslim emissary.
I also saw the “bad”. A rumour quickly spread at the plant that I had ripped off a US flag sticker from my hard-hat and tossed it in the bin. I was also taunted by individuals who reminded me that I should be “careful”, but thankfully, I faced no violence.
That week, on September 15, my family had plans to move to our first home, part of our American dream. We were moving to a “white neighbourhood” in League City on the outskirts of Houston. When we arrived at our new home and got out of our minivan, the neighbours quickly cleared the street and went indoors, yet another reminder of the arduous path ahead of us.
9/11 caught us all by surprise. American Muslims, ever so comfortable and free in our ways, were caught off-guard. We were grieving with our nation, but also required to share responsibility and answer for the actions of a few who claimed to share our faith.
The wider Muslim community’s reaction was thus filled with confusion and inaction. Denial, victimisation, silence and anger were all utilised to one degree or another. The only common voice was that of condemnation – but somehow, that escaped most of the public.
The rest of the American public also grieved, but without the burden of “guilt by association”. Most Americans, to their credit, were actually quite precise in their initial raw reactions, with the larger focus on victims and the entity of al-Qaeda, and less on the religion and practitioners of Islam.
But that was not to last long.
A cottage industry of anti-Muslim bigots, from all walks of life, sprung into a constant, high-intensity demonisation of Muslims, with many pointing not at the actions of radical Muslims, but at Islam itself. Thus, in the years following 9/11, guilt by association became standard modus operandi: every Islamic organisation started appearing as the fifth column and every Muslim a potential terrorist. In more recent years, a group of highly organised, well funded individuals became part of this massive Islamophobia echo chamber referred to as “Fear Inc” in a new ground-breaking investigative report produced by Centre for American Progress (CAP).
Polling results tell the story. Unfavorable opinion about Muslims and Islam actually went up in later years as compared to the months following 9/11 itself in nearly every way poll and question variation.
Driven by the increasing negativity and anti-Islam pundits, I along with a few other Muslim bloggers, began a non-profit website, MuslimMatters.org in 2007, to be a source of authentic information for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For years now, we have fought online turf battles on two fronts: with Muslim extremists and with anti-Muslim bigots. We have condemned violence in every shape, espousing a voice of moderation on nearly every Islamic issue, big and small. Yet, for the most part, like similar websites and Muslim voices, our narratives have not been “sexy” enough to compete with extremists such as Anjum Chowdhury from UK, for example, who seems to be on the airwaves every other day.
Thus, despite more systematic and structured Muslim efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry and Islamophobia in recent years, negativity towards Muslims and Islam continues to be high, as recent polls indicate.
About that American flag on my hard-hat, you see there was never a sticker that I could have ripped off. The flag was painted onto my hard-hat and could not be removed. But a few individuals, presumably in their rage, either imagined innocently or malevolently created an entirely fictional account. And that is the story of Islamophobia in America. Anger or hatred-driven, some innocent, other malevolent, but all fiction, not based on facts.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.