The National Security and Human Rights Campaign at the Open Society Foundations supports organizations that are working to protect civil liberties in post-9/11 America and to promote national security policies that respect human rights. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, contributing Campaign grantees offer reflections on their work in this series 9/11 at 10.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I remember being evacuated from the downtown federal building in Washington, D.C., where I worked as an attorney at the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. The day was a blur of not understanding, not being able to reach loved ones, not believing the news about attacks on our soil. Later, when I was able to head home to Arlington, I was stunned by the sight of the Pentagon with a hole in its side and smoke billowing from it.
The grief and shock of the events of that day were quickly compounded with a sense of fear and uncertainty, as reports of backlash, hate violence, and scapegoating began to emerge from community members and places of worship all around the country.
The first victim of a post-9/11 hate crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was killed on September 15 outside the gas station he owned in Mesa, Arizona. In fact, in just the first week after 9/11, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) found 645 incidents of bias (download pdf report).
I worked closely with colleagues at the Civil Rights Division to establish an effort to investigate complaints of backlash discrimination. As the weeks went on, the reports from community members who were the targets of bigotry and harassment at workplaces, in schools, and at airports continued to pour in. Still others were targeted and profiled solely on the basis of their actual or perceived national origin or religious affiliation.
Through immigration programs such as the Alien Absconder Initiative, special registration, and other initiatives seemingly intended to preserve national security – which many Americans might not even be aware of – South Asians have been detained and deported, separated from loved ones, and torn away from their homes and neighborhoods. In fact, under the special registration program, at least 13,000 men were put into detention and deportation proceedings.
Unfortunately, the impact of the post-September 11 backlash continues today as a wave of Islamophobia and xenophobia manifests in the form of opposition to the construction of mosques, the Park 51 community center controversy and the proposed Quran burnings of last summer, racist rhetoric in political discourse, the spread of anti-Sharia laws, and anti-immigrant sentiment. SAALT’s recent report, From Macacas to Turban Toppers [pdf], documents a rise in the amount and types of inflammatory rhetoric from elected officials and those running for office on both sides of the aisle.
In the years since 9/11, SAALT and many civil rights organizations have played an important role in affirming our country’s fundamental values of inclusion and equality. SAALT has built alliances and advanced proactive policy and community building approaches to change the post-9/11 landscape in positive directions. For example, we have collaborated with partner organizations to educate the public on the importance of barring racial profiling against Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians, engaged in advocacy to roll back policies such as special registration, and contributed to the public discourse around civil rights through a deeper media presence. Along with community partners, we helped to create the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations, a national network committed to social change.
The ten-year anniversary of September 11 is an opportunity for us to remember, reflect, and renew collectively our country’s commitment to fundamental values of inclusion, equality, and diversity. SAALT is engaged in a campaign called An America For All Of Us. We have documented a wide array of experiences with blogs and multimedia; coordinated community hearings and forums; presented anti-bias resolutions to city councils and boards of education; and advocated with policymakers to take positions against xenophobia and Islamophobia and in favor of ending racial and religious profiling.
In an upcoming report, Community Resilience: A South Asian American Perspective on the Ten Year Anniversary of September 11th, SAALT is documenting examples of interfaith and cross-cultural collaborations and community building that remind us of the resiliency of Americans to heal, rebuild, and work together. For example, in response to the rising tide of Islamophobia, Muslim and Japanese American youth took a pilgrimage to the Manzanar Concentration Campsite and other locations where Japanese Americans had been interned during World War II, and participated in workshops and conversations to build solidarity and create community.
And in Nashville, Tennessee, after the Al Farooq Mosque was vandalized with graffiti saying “Muslims – Go Home,” local community members and organizations worked with law enforcement to investigate the incident, and set into motion an interfaith response, which included a cleanup of the graffiti and a panel discussion at the center.
These sorts of examples can be found all around our country and are reminders of what we are capable of as Americans. As I reflect on the past decade, I am humbled by the strength of those who endured personal losses on 9/11, inspired by the courage of community members who have spoken out about discrimination and profiling, and motivated by the persistence of community activists and leaders who stepped into the crisis created by 9/11. These are the people, moments, and lessons that I will take with me and pass onto my son, and that I hope will be part of the foundation for creating an America for all of us.