America's quiet embrace of Muslim identity

The journey of healing after 9/11 has been painful, but productive

The US war on terror was likely doomed the day then-president George W Bush gave it that name, about a week after 9/11. Defeating an ideology with force is nigh impossible, but successive US administrations stubbornly refused to accept this. And so, over the past fortnight the commentariat has issued one much-deserved post-mortem after another on the US’ disastrous war on terror.

I’ve decided to take a more positive tack, and focus here on a potentially better tool for defeating terrorism: the soft power of civilian and political developments and initiatives that encourage understanding and connection and help calm troubled waters.

Let's call these examples of “everyday counterterrorism”, as opposed to the militant and institutional counter-terrorism overseen by governments and international alliances.

Start with Afghanistan, where the past two decades saw major strides. Since 2001, real incomes have doubled (though, it should be said, the economic expansion still relies on external support); infant and child mortality have been cut 70 per cent, the world’s greatest improvement over this period; malnutrition, adolescent fertility and maternal mortality have been halved; and access to sanitation, drinking water and health care have improved dramatically.

Secondary school enrolment more than quadrupled and life expectancy has increased 10 years. Education and employment for women increased sharply, as did respect for ethnic and religious minorities, though these gains could by reversed under Taliban rule. I could go on, but it is clear that life in Afghanistan has inched closer to life in wealthier countries.

Yes, the withdrawal was a disaster, corruption was always rampant and, assuming they stick around, the Taliban are going to have to build government institutions almost from scratch. But the ultimate verdict on Afghans’ future will be decided in the months and years to come.

Though riven by violence, poverty and corruption, Iraq is technically a democracy, 18 years after the US launched a “shock and awe” campaign to topple Saddam Hussein. As the remaining US forces prepare to withdraw, Iraq ranks a full 10 places ahead of Turkey on the German Research Foundation’s latest Democracy Matrix. And as Iraq heads toward next month’s elections, considerable hope has swelled around the Tishreen movement that emerged during massive protests in December 2019.

As for the domestic fight against terrorism, the US has seen zero major attacks on its soil by Al Qaeda or ISIS since 9/11. In the last 20 years, in fact, more Americans have died at the hands of right-wing extremists (114) than Islamist extremists (107), according to the New America Foundation. The EU, on the other hand, for a long time suffered one violent Islamist attack after another: it lost 133 people in 2016 alone.

This may be because the US has more stringent border and aviation controls and enacted harsher laws, such as the Patriot Act and former president Donald Trump's so-called “Muslim ban”. But it is likely also because EU states are deeply nationalist, unlike the US melting pot, and weak at everyday counterterror. The French, Danish and Austrian governments, for instance, have taken what many view as discriminatory positions against the most conservative Muslims, even those who are citizens, often making them feel as though they must choose between their religion and their state.

The result is deeply marginalised and frustrated Muslim communities. In 2018 in Vienna I interviewed German-born Elif Ozturk, an anthropology grad student who wears a headscarf. She said she faced daily harassment, that her job prospects were slim and she had difficulty finding an apartment because many landlords refuse to rent to Muslims.

This is not to say American Muslims live on easy street; neither hate crimes nor discriminatory practices are uncommon. But American Muslims have income levels similar to the rest of the population and have been much more widely embraced, particularly in recent years, despite the rhetoric of Mr Trump and his ilk.

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This is not to say American Muslims live on easy street

The backlash to the post-9/11 anti-Muslim backlash has been an outpouring of acceptance. Countless civilian outfits have been launched to bring the two sides together. Muslim activists like Chicago’s Eboo Patel and Rami Nashashibi have boosted Muslim development and shone a light on more humane elements of Islam. Wa’el Alzayat runs Emgage, which promotes civic engagement among US Muslims.

This Muslim wave is beginning to shape American views, gaining prominence in culture and politics. This year, for the first time ever, a major professional sports team named a Muslim head coach. In 2013, Ayad Akhtar won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Disgraced, which opened American eyes to the Muslim perspective. BoomGen Studios, run by Mayhad Tousi and bestselling author Reza Aslan, recently launched the first major network sitcom with a Muslim lead. United States of Al, as it’s called, will address the Afghan disaster in this week’s season 2 premiere.

Ramy, created by and starring New Jersey-born Ramy Youssef, won a Peabody Award last year and is one of the smartest shows on American television. Speaking of New Jersey, Sadaf Jaffer interned at the State Department and the US Marine Corps and earned her doctorate in Islamic cultures at Harvard before becoming America's first female Muslim mayor in 2019. Now, she is running for New Jersey state legislature, which would be another first.

Muslim Congressmen and women like Keith Ellison and Rashid Tlaib have won elections and helped enable their Congressional colleagues to speak out in support of semi-taboo causes, such as the Palestinians. Madinah Wilson-Anton, elected last year to the Delaware state legislature, recently pushed through a new law requiring schools to accept student absences for religious observance, such as Muslim or Jewish holidays.

Might it be a stretch to view all this as counter-terrorism? A causal connection is impossible, and I may be biased. But experts seem to agree. In an article titled “How to defeat terrorism,” Brookings analyst Norman Loayza asserts, “The U.S. has mostly succeeded in what many countries, including some European ones, have failed: the integration of people of different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds.” Leanne Erdberg Steadman, the Countering Violent Extremism director of the US Institutes of Peace, argues that non-violent citizen movements are the missing piece in the global terror fight.

It may seem implausible right now, but it’s not impossible that, rather than driving Muslims and the West further apart, the aftermath of September 11 has shown us how to begin moving closer together.

Twenty years after 9/11, that seems the surest way to defeat terrorism.

Updated: September 13th 2021, 9:19 AM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National