In the days that followed the September 11 attacks, America’s state of shock quickly turned into calls for vengeance. Even before the War on Terror spread across the globe, Arab and Muslim Americans felt the backlash at home — and many in New York City are still navigating those waters today.
The attacks may have taken place twenty years ago, but memories of September 11, 2001 still bring tears to Rabyaah Al-Thaibani’s eyes.
Al-Thaibani, who immigrated to New York from Yemen with her family as a child, was working at the Arab-American Family Support Center, a nonprofit based in the Arab-American enclave of downtown Brooklyn. Just across the river was lower Manhattan, then with the iconic Twin Towers studding the skyline.
“On that day, I get to work… We go on the roof, and we actually witnessed the second plane hit. And then we also witnessed when the buildings fell,” she tells FRANCE 24.
Even as ash and debris spilled into Brooklyn from miles away, Al-Thaibani and her colleagues and family were already feeling another kind of fallout. Her office was quickly shut down as they began receiving “death threats”, and the communities they served began to panic too.
Al-Thaibani’s father rushed to pick up her siblings from the Islamic school they were attending at the time. She, her mother and her sister stopped wearing their hijabs, and for a week, the entire family stayed home, “literally on lockdown”.
“We were just terrified,” she recalls.
Their fears proved warranted, as Arab and Muslim Americans got caught up in a furious backlash to the attacks that spanned from everyday harassment and discrimination to targeting by federal law enforcement.
“A friend of mine from a Yemeni family I grew up with called me and told me the FBI came and took her husband,” Al-Thaibani says. “For what exactly? He’s a janitor at public school, and the principal heard him talking in Arabic, so he called the FBI. They came, picked him up and he was away for almost eight months.”
Altogether, 762 people, including nearly 500 New Yorkers, were detained by the FBI and other authorities in the months after 9/11 on suspicions of supporting terrorist groups. In many cases, those suspicions were based on nothing more than anonymous tips provided to a hotline the FBI created in the wake of the attacks, and a 2003 Department of Justice inspection found that the “overwhelming majority” were held on unrelated immigration charges.”
In April 2002, a group of detainees filed a lawsuit alleging they had been held “in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with regular strip searches because [of] their perceived faith or race”, violating their constitutional rights. The lawsuit was taken up only in 2015.
There were more everyday indignities, too.
“I remember going into a Halloween [store] to buy a costume, and they had Arab terrorist as a Halloween costume,” Al-Thaibani says. “You know, the sheikh with the pig nose. Can you imagine? I was a little girl, and I’m going to get my costume and there’s an Arab terrorist.”
Meanwhile, the shock of the attacks propelled Al-Thaibani into activism. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, she and her colleagues at the Arab-American Family Support Center organised a candlelight vigil to mourn the victims. Since then, she has increasingly turned her attention to local and electoral politics, supporting left-wing candidates ranging from Khader El-Yateem, a Palestinian-American pastor who ran for New York City Council in 2017, to Bernie Sanders.
Al-Thaibani now works as a consultant for a range of campaigns, but maintains a consistent focus: building political power among her fellow Yemeni and Arab Americans, from her Brooklyn neighbourhood of Bay Ridge — one of the city’s main Arab-American hubs — across the city and country.
Walking along Fifth Avenue, Bay Ridge’s main commercial strip, not everyone shares Al-Thaibani’s political zeal. Outside one café, a group of men hesitantly agree to speak with FRANCE 24 over their mid-morning coffee and cigarettes. Palestinian in origin, the three have lived in the neighbourhood for nearly thirty years — in their eyes, a ticket to the American dream.
“In the first days after 9/11, we went through a difficult and stressful situation, but nobody was harassed. We didn’t feel discriminated against,” says Ahmed Zaid, 55, who works at a local grocer. “In this country, people respect the rule of law.”
His friend Bassem Moustafa agrees.
“We live in a democratic system,” Moustafa says. “The harassment against certain Arab or Muslim citizens after the September 11 attacks was not created by the American authorities but by a small fraction of the population.”
Moustafa stresses that Arab Americans have “moved past” the shadow of that horrific day.
“The terrorist attacks have next to no impact on our lives today,” he says. “On the contrary, the United States protects minorities and, of course, Muslims too. God bless America.”
Al-Thaibani is quick to recognise that Arab and Muslim New Yorkers face much less discrimination today than they did in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, notwithstanding the vitriol of the Trump years. Yet many Bay Ridge residents say they still feel stigmatised. One young woman, wearing a loose black hijab, tells FRANCE 24 she routinely feels she is “treated differently”, whether in the workplace or in public spaces.
“I’ve had drinks thrown at me before, just out of nowhere, at restaurants and stuff,” says the woman, who declined to give her name. “And I’ve been to areas where Muslims aren’t, and you get looked at a lot.”
In 2017, three-quarters of US Muslims surveyed by Pew said they felt there was “a lot of discrimination” against them, and just under half said they had experienced at least one act of discrimination in the previous year. This August, 53 percent of Americans surveyed by the Associated Press and University of Chicago researchers expressed an unfavourable view of Islam, while most expressed positive views of Christianity and Judaism.
And law enforcement targeting of Muslims continued well after the attacks. In 2011, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Associated Press revealed a covert New York Police Department spying program which sent undercover informants to infiltrate mosques, restaurants and student groups in New York and New Jersey starting in 2002. The practices were finally halted some 15 years later as the result of lawsuits brought by the alleged victims and civil rights groups.
‘The most difficult times of our lives’
While Bay Ridge may be New York’s Arab-American hub, the city’s Muslim communities span the five boroughs and dozens of nationalities. Deep in the borough of Queens, beyond the reach of the subway lines, the neighbourhoods of Flushing and Fresh Meadows are home to another tight-knit community that has recently felt the scars of 9/11 torn open again: New York’s Afghan Americans.
Community groups estimate that New York is home to about 20,000 Afghans, out of some 250,000 across the US, making it the third-largest Afghan-American hub after California and Virginia.
“With every wave of change in the political system in Afghanistan, we had a huge wave of refugees and asylum seekers coming from Afghanistan to the US,” says Naheed Samadi Bahram, US country director at the Queens-based organization Women for Afghan Women (WAW), which provides services for and advocates on behalf of women in Afghanistan and the diaspora.
Born in Afghanistan in 1980, Bahram herself fled the country in 1992 after her mother was killed in a bomb blast in Kabul. Her family moved to Pakistan, where she stayed until moving to New York in 2006.
Homesick and seeking an anchor in the community, Bahram began volunteering for WAW — which was first formed just months before the attacks on the World Trade Center, to support women under Taliban rule — before eventually becoming one of the group’s leaders. Over the course of those years, she says, she has worked with Afghan refugees as they have fled round after round of conflict in their home country, only to find discrimination and immigration challenges in their adopted country.
Yet through it all, she maintained a sense of hope — until today.
“The past few weeks have been the most difficult times of our lives,” Bahram says. “I haven’t seen a day of peace in my life in Afghanistan. I lost my mom in the war. And that never made me hopeless.”
Today, though, she feels powerless to help those stuck in Afghanistan as it returns to Taliban rule. That includes WAW’s own employees: Despite their best efforts, she says, they have so far been unable to secure evacuation for a single member of the group’s 1,200 Afghan staff, including US citizens. Now, their prospects for leaving look vanishingly slim, leaving them at the mercy of the hardline Islamists pronounced defeated almost twenty years ago.
“I think this is the very first time I’m very hopeless about things in Afghanistan, the very first time,” Bahram says. It is “heartbreaking”, she says, that so many of her fellow Afghans have been caught in the crossfire of two decades of war over attacks that they played no part in.
“None of the people who did 9/11 were Afghan, no one in that entire team. And unfortunately, Afghans were the one who have suffered this 20-year-long war and, and now, this very premature withdrawal,” Bahram says. “Again, the crisis goes back to Afghans.”
Still, she presses on with her work, coordinating with local businesses, state and federal officials, and other charities to prepare to welcome the new wave of Afghan refugees, who have yet to begin arriving in New York. For the city’s Afghan Americans, one chapter in the long legacy of the 9/11 attacks may be coming to a bitter end, but another one is only just beginning.