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The Silenced Victims of 9/11: Part I

9/11 marked a turning point for history and Islamophobia

It seems almost un-American to say it. The tragedies of 9/11 had grave ramifications for countless individuals ranging from the victim's families, crisis response teams including the NYPD and NYFD, and the nation at large. But there was also another population that suffered deeply that many fail to mention. They are Arab and Muslim Americans.

In the U.S., there are roughly 5.4 million Muslims made up of African Americans, South Asians, and Arabs; additionally, there are approximately 2.5 million non-Muslim Arabs residing in the U.S. (Padela & Heisler, 2009). Hence, the events following 9/11 marked a significant turning point for many minority groups. Discrimination and hate crimes rose sharply, and in the nine weeks following September 11th, the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee confirmed over 700 violent acts against Arabs and on those perceived to be Arab (Kaplan, 2006). The FBI reported a 1600% increase in hate crimes against this group in the year following 9/11.

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In many European countries, discriminatory acts often were perpetrated against those who visibly looked Muslim such as Hindus and Sikhs (Sheridan, 2006). The accidental shooting of a Brazilian man by British police who looked Muslim after the London bombing attacks attests to this very finding. It appears that religious affiliation is a greater determinant of such discrimination as opposed to ethnicity, or other cultural markers (Sheridan, 2006). Thus, appearance as a Muslim, regardless of actual religious affiliation is a major predictor of hate crime and other forms of discrimination. Such discriminatory attitudes lay the foundation for the intensification of Islamophobia that occurred after 9/11.

What is Islamophobia?

The term "Islamophobia" was first coined in 1922 by Etienne Dinet (Cesari, 2006), a French Orientalist painter who throughout his career became interested in Arabic culture and Islam. However, the term came into common usage in 1997 as a result of the British Runnymede Trust Commission on British Muslims (Sheridan, 2006). They define the term as, "dread or hatred of Islam and therefore, to the fear and dislike of all Muslims" (Quraishi, 2005). The term is similar to xenophobia and has become part of our common usage particularly following the events of 9/11.

Perhaps the most comprehensive study of Islamophobia following 9/11 was conducted by the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, which examined Islamophobic sentiment and discrimination across 15 European nations (Allen & Nielsen, 2002). Their findings suggest that although violent abuse was relatively low (though not to say nonexistent), there were higher reports of harassment, aggression, and verbal abuse.

In viewing the widespread nature of post 9/11 Islamophobia, it has been posited that perhaps pre-existing Islamophobic sentiment was re-awakened after the terrorist attacks, suggesting this form of discrimination has existed in many nations prior to 9/11 (Allen & Nielsen, 2002; Sheridan, 2006). Through examining pre and post 9/11 discriminatory attitudes, it was found that indirect discrimination rose by 82.6%, and overt discrimination rose by 76.3%, while 35.6% of study participants suffered mental health problems as a result of this (Sheridan, 2006).

Muslims and Islamophobia in the Media

While Islamophobia has been problematic in the private lives of many Muslims, its toxic nature hasspread to the public domain as well through the media. It is quite evident that the Western media has and continues to negatively portray Muslims and Arabs in both the news media and film. According to El-Farra (1996), many newspapers make liberal use of terms such as fanatics and extremists, in addition to terrorists to describe individuals from the Middle East. In 1995 when the Oklahoma City bombings occurred, many early reports suggested it was the work of Muslim terrorists, thereby reinforcing the notion of Muslims as anti-American criminals.

In addition to the explicit discriminatory attitudes being expressed freely about Muslims in the news media, there has been much concern regarding a similar phenomenon in film. Shaheen (2003) has extensively studied stereotypes pertaining to Arabs in film, and in one film analysis found over 50 films that vilify Arabs as the enemy. He describes how in numerous films, "Arabs are brute murderers, sleazy rapists, religious fanatics, oil-rich dimwits, and abusers of women" (p. 172).

He traces the creation of this stereotype which has been reinforced repeatedly for over 40 years through film. Among his conclusions regarding the perpetuation of this stereotype include the fact that "bash-the-Arab movies make money" (p. 190), and public silence. This includes silence from audiences, as well as Arabs, none of whom figure prominently in the film industry, whether as producers or celebrities. Shaheen reports that American film producers and directors often point to the news to justify their portrayals, stating, "We're not stereotyping...just look at your television set. Those are real Arabs" (p. 189).

How Muslims Are Perceived as Dangerous

The portrayal of Muslims as dangerous has in fact affected the psyche of the nation. The "shooter bias" paradigm (Correll, 2002) is well-known in discrimination research, indicating that when asked to respond quickly to threatening situations, individuals are more likely to become aggressive toward minority rather than Caucasian perpetrators of violence. While much of this research has examined the bias toward shooting at Black versus White targets in simulation video games, most recently, research has indicated a "turban effect." Here, individuals donning cultural or religious garb such as a turban or hijab are shot in these studies more frequently than those without, suggesting this shooter bias to be the result of internalized negative stereotypes toward these minority groups (Unkelbach, Forgas, & Denson, 2008).

Hijab As An Indicator of Low Intelligence and Less Physical Attractiveness

Additionally, implicit negative attitudes toward Muslims are not limited to the idea of dangerous terrorist men. A series of studies focusing on the hijab have provided surprising insights about the perception of Islamic head coverings worn by some women. For example, one study used photographs of Caucasian and South Asian women both with and without hijab, and found that when covered, these women were rated significantly less physically attractive and intelligent than when these same individuals did not wear this attire (Mahmud & Swami, 2010).

Another study found women who wore hijab often had lower expectations of obtaining employment, with expectations being lowered as a function of public contact associated with the job, and higher job status (Ghumann & Jackson, 2010). The findings of this study suggest a manifestation and realization of stereotype threat, as reports indicated as much as a 153% increase in workplace discrimination claims against Muslims following 9/11 (EEOC, 2003).

Hence, while 9/11 was a serious loss for the nation at large, and we come to commemorate the 10th anniversary of this great tragedy, we find there are many reasons to mourn. For as the nation struggled to make sense of the nonsensical and inhumane, another group simultaneously found itself lost as it grieved as Americans as well as Muslims. The generation of young Muslims that grew up during 9/11 had the misfortune of being raised during the time of the "war on terror." They heard taunts of being called "Osama" and "ragheads." Who did these youth become? Did they dare show their faces as Muslims? In Part II of this article, I share with you, the reader, the results of this very investigation, which was at the heart of my dissertation project.

 

Goal Auzeen Saedi, Ph.D., received her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Notre Dame.

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