9/11 anniversary stirs painful memories of discrimination for some Arab Americans

Islamophobia became commonplace in aftermath of attacks, then returned under Donald Trump

A family walks to a nearby mosque to attend the Maghrib sunset prayer during Ramadan in Astoria, Queens, New York, U.S., May 31, 2017.  REUTERS/Amr Alfiky
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It was not until Hatem Salama Saleh left his Brooklyn neighbourhood in 2005 to join the US Marine Corps fighting in Iraq that he personally felt the impact of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

“That is when I felt the effects of anti-this and anti-that, as I was the only Muslim American in my whole battalion. That is where I faced reality,” he said.

“Your last name, your first name, you stand out with the Johnsons and the Smiths. But after a while, once you become one with everyone else, it kind of gets brushed aside - everyone is a service member.”

Mr Saleh, 32, is from the Bay Ridge neighbourhood of Brooklyn in New York, home to a community of Arab Americans from Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Syria and other parts of the Middle East spread across a five-block radius.

Locals, a mix of foreign-born and first-generation immigrants, congregate daily to drink coffee thickened with condensed milk and to smoke slowly at street tables.

New York has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the US.

Before 9/11, discrimination was already a part of life for Enas Salem, a 28-year-old Egyptian American who grew up on Staten Island.

But watching the Twin Towers crumble on television, Ms Salem’s heart sank.

She said she “knew everything was going to change, because, one, my uncle was going to be called to duty to serve in the military in a war that targeted people that looked like us and two, we knew we were going to be targeted on American soil because of the way we looked.

“At the time, I was wearing the hijab and people would pull it off of you in the street or throw things at you or use any kind of racial slur they could think of,” she explained over a dish of koshari, the deliciously starchy Egyptian comfort food.

Arab-American New Yorker reflects on backlash after 9/11

Arab-American New Yorker reflects on backlash after 9/11

The backlash was indiscriminate, she said: “It wasn’t just Arabs and Muslims that were targeted, it was anyone who looked brown, anyone who looked different, anyone with an accent. The fear, especially in New York City, was so heightened that there was no room for nuance in any of it.”

A 2002 poll by the Arab American Institute found that more than two thirds of Arab Americans believed they had seen more profiling since 9/11, while one fifth had personally experienced discrimination after the attacks.

Many Arab Americans remember the discriminatory “Special Registration” policy (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System) rolled out in 2002, which required men in select visa categories from 25 predominantly Arab and Muslim countries to check in with US authorities.

Designed to catch terrorists, in reality it was often used to detain people unfairly, said Emira Habiby Browne, a Palestinian American and founder of the Arab American Family Support Centre, whose workload soared post-9/11 as families sought legal protection and emotional support.

But as the years passed, the backlash against Arab Americans and Muslims abated.

“The image smoothed out and there was no stigma anymore,” Mr Saleh said.

Then, as he came into office in 2017, former US president Donald Trump imposed an executive order banning travel from seven mostly Muslim countries, an action widely referred to as the “Muslim ban".

It was “a return to post-9/11”, said Ms Habiby Browne, who now runs an immigrant advocacy centre in New York.

“It was this bigotry that cropped up all over again when things were beginning to get better.

Egyptian-American New Yorkers contemplate 9/11

Egyptian-American New Yorkers contemplate 9/11

“I came as an immigrant and this country was a wonderful place to be. And then everything turned upside down for immigrants. Because of all this misinformation, all these things that people are hearing, and listening to and being fed, it infuriates me. This is not the America I came to,” she said.

Still, the advent of social media has also helped educate people about their communities, Arab Americans say.

“People didn’t understand what a Muslim was, what an Arab is,” said Ms Habiby Browne. “I didn’t realise how little Americans generally knew about the community.”

Today, “people have better sources of information about Islam,” said Wally, a 44-year-old Algerian and now New Yorker who declined to give his last name.

Ms Salem said she agreed: “There is still so much of that discrimination and racism that is 100 per cent there but … there is more of a spread of information that people have access to that we didn’t at the time of 9/11.”

Twenty years after the attacks, the shared devastation over 9/11 remains.

“When the anniversary comes up, a lot of people in the community memorialise it as a loss for our country and our loved ones,” said Hizam Wahib, a 43-year-old Yemeni American and senior director of legal services and expansion strategy at the Arab American Family Support Centre.

“It affected everyone - Muslims, non-Muslims. If you didn’t lose any family members, it feels like you did.”

For Mr Saleh, the former marine, when you are born and raised in the US, "the ground that you walk on is yours. For our parents and grandparents, they are basically long-term visitors. Someone like me, this is my home and my country".

Updated: September 08, 2021, 5:25 PM