15 Years After 9/11, Muslim Americans Are Poised to Overcome Hate

Fifteen years later, there are reasons to despair about the state of Muslims in America—but still more reasons for optimism about it.

By Dean Obeidallah 09.08.16 1:05 AM ET

So what’s it like to be Muslim in America 15 years after 9/11?

We see concerning signs and poll numbers about how our fellow Americans view us. Donald Trump and others on the right openly demonize us. And there’s been an alarming spike recently in hate crimes directed at us.

But I’ve never been more optimistic about our future in America.

Why? Well, in large part because Muslim Americans are successfully becoming more involved in two fields—media and politics—that enable us to define ourselves accurately and empower our community.

Fifteen years ago, I stood on the corner of 8th Street and Sixth Avenue and watched the Twin Towers collapse, shocked and awed at what became one of the defining moments of my life. Before that day, I had little connection to my Arab heritage or the Muslim community. I truly identified as a white guy. As I have joked, all my friends had names like Monica, Chandler, and Joey.

To put it simply, on Sept. 10, 2001, I went to sleep a white American, and on Sept. 11, I became a (hated) minority.

At first, I fiercely resisted losing my “white privilege.” As a white person I never was called to answer for the bad acts of a few white people. Now I’ve become somehow responsible for any bad act committed by any Muslim anywhere in the world.

But over the years I slowly embraced my minority status. I became more connected to Islam. (My father was Muslim and my mother is Italian and Catholic, so I was raised with both faiths.)

Today I’m proudly a Muslim American, which is a beautifully compatible identity, despite what some on the right say and suggest. However, it’s been alarming to see how many of my fellow Americans have come to view Muslims in a negative light. An ABC poll released in October 2001 found more Americans than not had a more favorable view of Islam than unfavorable (47 percent to 39 percent [PDF]). Flash-forward to December 2015, and just 33 percent see it favorably, against 61 percent who do not.

Obviously, 15 years of al Qaeda and now ISIS play a big role. But their message of terror and a clash of civilizations overlaps and combines with that of professional American bigots who make a lucrative living demonizing us and Republican politicians like Trump who profit from fear. The Republican nominee has taken stoking hate versus Muslims to levels never seen before by a major party candidate, from his bald-faced lie that “thousands” of Muslims cheered on 9/11 in New Jersey, to falsely claiming Muslim Americans are not working with law enforcement to counter terrorism, to his grossly irresponsible comment that “Islam hates us.”

The results of the rhetoric from Trump and other anti-Muslim bigots go past bad poll numbers. We have seen a bone-chilling spike in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the past year, with attacks on our places of worship, physical attacks on us, and at least 15 Muslim Americans murdered in circumstances that our community views as hate crimes, including three in New York City in the last few weeks.

And heartbreakingly, Muslim-American children have borne much of the hate, with one recent study finding over 50 percent have been bullied simply for their faith.

With all this, why am I optimistic? Well, for a few reasons. Since 9/11, our community has become involved, with some success, in media and politics, as we were forced to become keenly aware of how we were being defined inaccurately in both worlds.

Before 2001, no Muslim had ever been elected to the United States Congress. Now there are two: Reps. Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Andre Carson (D-IN). There are also numerous Muslims elected to state and local offices. Just a few months ago, immigrant Ilhan Omar made history as the first Somali-American Muslim woman ever to win a primary for state representative in America. (She’s expected to win in November.)

There are also an increasing number of Muslims working on campaigns ranging from local races to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. Clinton, in fact, is the first presidential candidate to have a dedicated Muslim outreach coordinator. A national Muslim political action committee, Emerge USA, seeks to empower Muslims to become involved in American politics.

And Tuesday, Obama made history by nominating to the District Court of Washington, D.C., Abid Qureshi, who if confirmed would be the first ever Muslim American to serve as federal judge. (We can expect the anti-Muslim forces to go after him hard.)

In media—both news and entertainment—we are also seeing progress, although it’s slower. We now see people like Fareed Zakaria, Aasif Mandvi, and The Daily Show’s Hasan Minhaj regularly on TV. And there’s even more happening off-screen, with an increasing number of Muslims toiling away in newsrooms. I personally know of several projects being developed in the entertainment world that star Muslims (and get this—they aren’t terrorists!).

Beyond that, younger Americans (18-24) have a far more favorable view of Muslims (65 percent) than older ones.

And arguably even more important is that a recent poll backs up in a big way a point I’ve been making for years: People who know a Muslim personally hold much more favorable views of Muslims and Islam. Just 25 percent of independent voters who don’t know a Muslim hold a favorable view of Muslims. But if that person knows a Muslim “very well”? The number shoots up to 78 percent. (I wish we could assign everyone a Muslim friend.)

And the same goes for Republicans. While in general only 22 percent of GOPers hold a positive view of Islam, it’s 59 percent among those who know a Muslim very well.

It’s polls like this that inspired me to open my SiriusXM radio show every day by saying, “I want to be your Muslim friend.” Muslims make up only 1 to 2 percent of the nation, making it impossible to give each American a Muslim friend in person. The media gives us an opportunity to extend our reach.

I’m sure the years ahead will be challenging ones for the Muslim American community. But the anti-Muslim hate we see now will fade—our nation’s history tells us so. Jews and Catholics before us endured similar barbs, slurs, and fears, and in time overcame them.

Deep in my heart, I am certain that we, too, will overcome.