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How 9/11 changed American Muslims’ relationship with religious liberty

For many Muslims, 9/11 was a wake-up call about the fragility of America’s constitutional protections

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the course of Sahar Aziz’s career.

Before the planes crashed and the buildings collapsed, she’d planned to finish law school and move to the Middle East to do pro-democracy work. After, she still wanted to be a lawyer, but she set her sights on civil rights work much closer to home.

For Aziz and many other Muslims, 9/11 was a wake-up call about not just the fragility of life, but also the fragility of America’s constitutional protections. In the months and years after the terrorist attacks, government officials and everyday citizens constrained the rights of their Muslim neighbors, using national security concerns to justify surveillance, profiling and discrimination.

As a result, Muslims often feel like second-class citizens, Aziz said earlier this month during a virtual panel on the Muslim experience after 9/11. They question America’s promise of religious freedom for all.

“I have spent the past decade working for religious liberty, and one of the most consistent features of that public advocacy is the claim that Muslims (and I as a Muslim) don’t deserve religious liberty,” wrote Asma Uddin, an attorney and author, in her 2019 book, “When Islam Is Not a Religion.”

The Constitution does not vindicate the claim Uddin described, and so, for the past 20 years, American Muslims have been able to the First Amendment and other religious liberty laws to push back against mistreatment. They’ve secured many legal victories, but they carry scars from the fights.

Surveillance and distrust

Even before 9/11, Muslims had an uneasy relationship with America’s national security apparatus. Immigrant Muslims, in particular, were often associated with political violence overseas and faced discrimination as a result, said Aziz, who is the founding director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers University.

The situation devolved further after the terrorist attacks. It wasn’t long before suspicion and anxiety clouded almost every aspect of American Muslims’ lives, said Robert McCaw, the government affairs department director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“9/11 added countless billions of dollars to the federal government’s national security infrastructure, the weight of which was focused on the Muslim community,” he said.

It was hard for Muslims to trust even the person next to them at the mosque, said Rowaida Abdelaziz, who reports on Islamophobia, immigration and other issues for HuffPost, during the panel on Muslim life after 9/11.

Your house of worship is supposed to be a safe haven, “but we were questioning whether the person next to us was an informant,” she said. “The fabric of trust in our community was ripped into pieces.”

Even worse, efforts aimed at building trust and combatting problematic stereotypes would sometimes backfire, leading to more government surveillance and fueling distrust, Aziz said, recalling the fallout from a conference she organized on Sharia law and women’s rights at the University of Texas in 2004.

“There were spies sent by Army intelligence,” she said. “They demanded a roster (of attendees) and a video because they wanted to investigate who they deemed were ‘suspicious Middle Eastern characters’ who attended.”

The one benefit of that confrontation was that Aziz and others involved in the event were able to confirm that the government was concerned about their actions. Many other Muslims have faced extra airport security checks or been turned down for job opportunities without knowing whether government interference played a role, McCaw said.

“You can’t challenge your inclusion on a watchlist if you have no knowledge of whether you’re on one,” he said, noting that, for years, the government refused to confirm who was on their watchlists even in the midst of lawsuits.

Limits on religious liberty

As their relationship with government officials grew more fraught, American Muslims simultaneously lost political and religious allies who could have helped them defend their rights. Few Americans wanted to align themselves with a faith group that was increasingly associated with terrorism, wrote Uddin in her book.

“The ‘war on terror’ that followed the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed the way American culture and politics view Islam and Muslims,” she wrote.

Survey data confirms Uddin’s claim. In 2002, fewer than one-third of Republicans (32%) and Democrats (23%) believed that Islam was more likely than other religions to encourage violence. Today, fully 72% of Republicans and 32% of Democrats hold that belief, according to Pew Research Center.

These shifting ideas about Islam help explain why Muslims so often face discrimination as they go about their lives. Even self-identified religious freedom advocates sometimes question whether Muslims should have a right to freely practice their faith, Uddin wrote.

“Anti-Muslim politics have translated into concrete (limitations) on religious liberty,” she wrote.

Surveys from Pew and others show that most Americans are aware of rising anti-Muslim sentiment. More than 8 in 10 U.S. adults believe Muslims face at least some discrimination in the country today. More than half say Muslims’ religious freedom is being threatened.

But researchers have also found that many of these same Americans are comfortable with restrictions on Islamic practices or government surveillance of Muslims. One-third of U.S. adults have a negative view of the Muslim community. One-third say Muslims’ religious freedom claims threaten the rights of others.

Muslims “are forced to compromise their (free exercise rights) more than any mainstream faith community would find acceptable for itself,” Uddin wrote.

Other religious groups have struggled against similar discrimination in the past. For example, in the 19th century, American Protestants tried to limit the rights of Catholic immigrants due to inter-religious tensions. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints moved West in an effort to leave religiously motivated persecution behind.

Unfortunately, Americans aren’t always good at learning from the past, as Uddin told the Deseret News last month. They forget that religious freedom protections function best when they’re available, on equal terms, to all.

“It seems to me that if people were plugged into their history and saw that fears they were concerned about before didn’t come true, then they’d see their fears won’t come true this time around either,” she said.

Defending and celebrating civil rights

Although there are many legal battles left to fight, American Muslims have secured key victories in recent years in cases involving government surveillance and free exercise restrictions.

For example, earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Muslim men who had been placed on the FBI’s no-fly list after refusing to help the government spy on their faith community. The men won the right to sue FBI officials for monetary damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

This fall, the Supreme Court will hear a related case that may ultimately lead to limitations on when the government can claim state secrets privileges. As it stands, the government’s ability to make this claim often interferes with Muslims’ efforts to challenge surveillance programs.

In the past two decades, Muslims have also won many cases stemming from community resistance to the construction of new mosques. Using a federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, they’ve been able to fight back against discriminatory zoning board decisions, Uddin noted.

However, these and other victories do not erase the pain of past mistreatment or guarantee that the original problem is fully solved. For example, even after a Muslim group in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, won the right to build a new mosque, it could not find enough workers willing to commit to the project to get it done in a reasonable amount of time.

“Contractors began refusing to work on the project, fearing backlash from their religious leaders or community members,” Uddin wrote in “When Islam Is Not a Religion.”

Still, Uddin, Aziz and other Muslims have tried not to let their frustrations and disappointments sour their view of what America could be if it lived up to the vision laid out in the Constitution. Rather than dwell on the struggles of the past two decades, they’re fighting for a better future for themselves and others.

“We do not sit in the corner and pity ourselves,” Aziz said. “We take the initiative. We become proactive. We defend the civil rights of all Americans and defend the Constitution.”