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A Perfect Storm in the Making for 17 Years: A Reflection and Call to Action

What could have happened if more Americans had heeded the alarm bells that community advocates were ringing about the dehumanization of entire groups of people, rather than capitulating to fear and tacitly accepting discriminatory policies?

Members of South Asian Council for Social Services rally against NSEERS in New York City in 2003 (Photo: Getty)

Members of South Asian Council for Social Services rally against NSEERS in New York City in 2003 (Photo: Getty)

As Americans mark the 17th anniversary of the September 11th attacks this week, we will reflect on where we were on that horrible day, honor the memories of the people who lost their lives, and pay tribute to the first responders who were on the scenes in New York City, the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania. But no national reckoning of 9/11 would be complete without a clear-eyed assessment of the domestic War on Terror waged against Muslims, South Asians, North Africans, and Arabs for the decade and a half after the attacks.

Such a review isn’t merely a historical exercise. It is particularly relevant today because the policies and practices that many Americans are outraged by like the Muslim ban, the denaturalization taskforce, and aggressive immigration enforcement all have their origins in the post 9/11 era. Today’s devastating policies targeting immigrants and refugees are rooted in anti-Black racism, xenophobia, and imperialism, and they became commonplace and even palatable in the post 9/11 era through a framework of fear and national security. And now the perfect storm that began brewing in the months and years after 9/11 is wreaking havoc on everyone.

Now the perfect storm that began brewing in the months and years after 9/11 is wreaking havoc on everyone.

Painful as it was, it wasn’t a complete surprise that the first salvo in the Trump Administration’s assaults on immigrants and communities of color began with the Muslim and refugee ban. That’s because it has a post 9/11 antecedent in a program called the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required males 16 years and older from 25 Muslim-majority countries to submit themselves for interrogation and fingerprinting at immigration offices. NSEERS, along with lesser-known programs implemented in the wake of 9/11 like the Absconder Apprehension Initiative and the Controlled Application Review and Resolution Program (CARRP), set the stage for the government to profile people on the basis of national origin, faith and immigration status, deport thousands of immigrants, and call into question sacrosanct privileges of citizenship.

In the years after 9/11, local and federal law enforcement routinely worked together to map and surveil mosques, Muslim schools, and restaurants through the New York Police Department’s Demographics Unit, Joint Terrorism Task Forces, and the countering violent extremism (CVE) program. Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) flexed its enforcement muscles by empowering Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officials to develop arbitrary watch lists, to engage in warrantless searches, interrogations and investigations, and to conduct raids of South Asian, Arab, and Muslim small businesses and neighborhoods.

Under the Bush and Obama Administrations, law enforcement agencies honed and sharpened the narratives, tools and infrastructure to carry out surveillance, incarceration, and deportation. The Trump Administration has taken these mechanisms to target not only Muslim, South Asian, Arab and Sikh immigrants, but all Brown and Black immigrants and refugees. Once it was apparent that Muslims could be subjected to mistreatment without widespread public indignation, it became easier to target other vulnerable communities as well by using the same rhetoric of fear, suspicion, and criminality.

Once it was apparent that Muslims could be subjected to mistreatment without widespread public indignation, it became easier to target other vulnerable communities as well by using the same rhetoric of fear, suspicion, and criminality.

The Trump Administration wants us to believe that every Black and Brown immigrant is a potential terrorist, criminal, job-stealer and culture corruptor. The impact of this dangerous narrative has already been devastating. In just the first year and a half of this Administration, we have witnessed a barrage of anti-immigrant policies including the denaturalization taskforce, the denial of passports to U.S. citizens of Latino descent at the border, barriers to entry for international students, H-1B workers, and refugees, abuses of child detainees, and discriminatory treatment of Sikh asylum seekers.

The government has also eliminated temporary protected status, which could force an exodus of 300,000 people to countries like Haiti, Sudan and Nepal, and increased deportations of Vietnamese Americans. Looming on the horizon is the Administration’s plan to revoke employment visas for the spouses of H-1B workers, the lowering of refugee admissions, and a proposed rule that could restrict green card eligibility for immigrants, including pregnant women and children, who avail themselves of social service programs like Medicaid and food stamps. At the same time, hate violence continues to be on the rise; a recent report by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) found a link between the Administration’s anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric and hate incidents against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities.

In these difficult times, there is hope and there is help. People-centered movements are rising up now, as they did in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Back then, Muslim, South Asian, Arab and Sikh communities were forced into a posture of crisis management and rapid response. We created temporary scaffolding in the form of grassroots and national organizations, legal workshops, and information exchange networks to shore up and protect our neighborhoods, places of worship, and families. For my part, I began working at South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and by the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, it was clear that we weren’t in the midst of a temporary “backlash” anymore. We sounded the alarm bells on the long-standing effects on the War on Terror while building our communities’ safety, well-being and power at the same time, an extremely difficult balancing act to maintain and sustain.

Today, Muslim, South Asian, Arab and Sikh communities remain in a posture of constant vigilance. Community organizers are sharing their knowledge with the latest immigrant and refugee communities targeted by the Administration. Advocates are replicating the power of the multiracial coalitions that stopped anti-Sharia legislation from being enacted in Tennessee, that successfully guided the passage of the Community Safety Act, an anti-profiling law in New York City, and that persuaded the mayor of Los Angeles to decline federal funds for countering violent extremism programs. At the same time, grassroots groups are also creating new visions for community safety, healing, and liberation in these darkest of hours to prepare for the dawn that is ahead. Some examples include Aman Zones, a project of the National Network on Arab American Communities, wellness programs organized by DC’s Justice for Muslims Collective, anti-racism trainings convened by the Muslim Anti-Racism Collaborative, power hours hosted by the Partnership for the Advancement for New Americans in San Diego, Black Muslim psychology convenings organized by the Muslim Wellness Foundation, and hate-free zones supported by groups including DRUM — Desis Rising Up and Moving in New York City.

We must promote the leadership of an emerging cohort of women from Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities who are organizers, lawyers, leaders, and elected officials.

To withstand the hostilities of the current climate — and to recover from it, which will take decades at minimum — we must make both rapid response and long-term interventions. For example, community-based organizations must receive significant investments from philanthropists and foundations to build their long-term capacity and stability, not just to create one emergency program after another. We must promote the leadership of an emerging cohort of women from Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities who are organizers, lawyers, leaders, and elected officials. We must support the growth of organizations and individuals who work at the intersections of various identities, including Black Muslims, undocumented Sikhs, and queer and trans South Asians. We must highlight storytellers, artists, and writers who utilize the arts, literature, and media to shape accurate and inclusive representations of Muslim, Arab, South Asian and Sikh communities. Community groups should have the resources, space and time to address the other pressing issues confronting people, such as access to housing, education, and a living wage. And, we need to understand the impact of multigenerational trauma on our communities and make room for healing and recovery.

But our communities cannot take on the work of rapid response and rebuilding alone. Mayors and city councils at the local level must acknowledge their roles in allowing detention centers and collaborating with national security taskforces, and sever those ties in favor of policies and partnerships that uphold a vision of a multiracial democracy. University presidents, civic and business leaders must use their platforms to speak out strongly against Islamophobia and xenophobia. Every workplace in America must establish programs and practices to ensure the safety and well-being of employees who feel most vulnerable in the current political climate. Media outlets should come to our communities for analysis and information about how the Trump Administration’s policies are affecting us. Allies must reframe the idea of “national security” through the lens of racial and immigrant justice, and counter Islamophobia at every level. From houses of worship to family dining rooms, we must make room for conversations about anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, and white supremacy.

It shouldn’t have taken nearly twenty years after a national crisis and the ascendancy of an administration with ties to white supremacists and the Islamophobia industry for us to understand the scope of the 9/11 War on Terror. As we mark the 17th anniversary of 9/11, let us ask ourselves what could have happened if we had taken a different path in the aftermath of 9/11. What could have happened if more Americans had heeded the alarm bells that community advocates were ringing about the dehumanization of entire groups of people, rather than capitulating to fear and tacitly accepting discriminatory policies? Or, instead of embarking on a war against Muslims and immigrants, what if our government, along with civic, business, and educational stakeholders had launched campaigns and efforts to build mutual understanding and respect? These are the reflections and conversations we must have now in order to prepare for what’s ahead.

On the 17th anniversary of 9/11, let us pledge to stay vigilant and not succumb to fear, to offer alternative models and examples that center communities, and to raise our voices at every sign of dehumanization against any group of people.

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Deepa Iyer

Deepa Iyer

Deepa Iyer, currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion, has been Activist in Residence at the University of Maryland and the executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). Her first book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future, was published in 2015.

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