SEPT. 11, 2001, IS A DATE THAT FOREVER CHANGED AMERICA. The terrorist attacks against the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., represented the largest attack on U.S. soil. It was a national tragedy; the aftershocks were felt in every corner of the nation.
In the days that followed, Americans felt justifiable sadness and outrage and wanted to know the identity of those responsible for the devastation. But the nature of terrorism—violence not sponsored by any organized state—left America with no easy place to point fingers.
Reports that the terrorists had been Muslims from Arab countries were quickly followed by acts of violence. Some Americans, perhaps frustrated by the elusiveness of the actual terrorists, branded all Arab and Muslim Americans as the “enemy.”
Within 24 hours of the attacks, six bullets ripped through the windows of a mosque in Dallas, Texas. The next night, unidentified men beat two Muslim women in Illinois.
In the days and weeks that followed, an Arab American community center in Chicago was firebombed; vandals threw a bag of blood on the doorstep of an immigration center in San Francisco that serves Arabs; shooters in Irving, Texas, fired bullets into the local Islamic center.
Across the country—on talk radio, on the Internet, in people’s living rooms—Arab Americans were being called “towel heads,” “camel jockeys” and other racial and religious slurs.
The violence threatened Arab Americans on a daily basis. Muslim school girls were harassed for wearing their traditional head scarves, called hijab[s]. Stores owned by Arab Americans were looted. Mosques across the country requested increased police patrol.
The violence threatened anyone who “looked Muslim.” Sikhs, members of a religious group based in northern India, were a common target: The traditional turbans and long beards worn by male followers often caused comparisons to Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the terrorist attacks. The harassment of Sikhs sometimes turned deadly. A Sikh gas station owner in Arizona was shot and killed by a man who mistook his victim for a Muslim.
President George W. Bush appealed to the nation for tolerance, but it did little to stem the hostility and violence. In response, Arab American advocacy groups took the extraordinary step of warning those wearing Islamic attire to stay out of public areas.
Attorney General John Ashcroft stepped in, noting the sharp increase in reports of violence against Americans of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent.
“We must not descend to the level of those who perpetrated Tuesday’s violence by targeting individuals based on their race, their religion or their national origin,” Ashcroft said. “Such reports of violence and threats are in direct opposition to the very principles of laws of the United States and will not be tolerated.”
Despite these pleas for calmness from the highest levels of U.S. government, tensions remained high. Today, the FBI continues to list Arab Americans as one of the most common targets for hate crimes.