Standing behind a lighted case of lamb he’d just sliced at Al Aqsa Halal Meats in Northeast Philadelphia, butcher Emad Oweis contemplated the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 20 years ago Saturday.
For many Arab immigrants like Oweis, that day unfairly stained him as indelibly as the animal blood on his white coat.
“These days, we Muslims don’t get as much discrimination as we used to,” said Oweis, 60, a Palestinian who came to the United States in 1976. “It’s changed for the better. But you still feel like you’re not welcome, that there’s anger against you, although you did nothing wrong.
“Even if we live like angels, some still call us heathens.”
For two decades, Muslim immigrants and their children in the United States have had to endure hostilities, overt or subtle, as though they had melted the towers, cracked the Pentagon, and scorched the Western Pennsylvania ground themselves, killing thousands that late-summer day.
The initial wave of American anger toward Muslims in 2001 generated beatings or worse, and abrogated civil liberties, fostering an abiding prejudice whose ubiquity was stunning, experts say.
The vitriol began to fade until there came a second wave, begun in November 2015, when then-candidate Donald Trump falsely said he’d seen Jersey City Muslims cheering the Twin Towers’ collapse, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Animosity only intensified after he was elected, experts say, after Trump called for a ban on Muslims coming to the United States.
Today, several members of the Muslim community here say that, with a change in administrations in Washington, some of the heated rhetoric has eased. But no one can forget the tumult of the last 20 years.
“I’m a U.S. citizen,” said Oweis’ boss, who goes only by the name Husam, a Jerusalem-born Palestinian who owns Al Aqsa, made distinctive by the green crescent moons that hang over shoppers’ heads, and a recording of the Koran being read over the store’s sound system.
“Overall, things are better than 2001. But I still get closely checked when I travel, and I will sometimes run into someone with prejudice in his heart.
“You deal with it, but it’s frustrating. It makes you feel like you’re not ever really home.”
A ‘hospitable place’
Islamophobia existed here and throughout the world long before Sept. 11, historians tell us.
In general, though, Philadelphia is a “hospitable place for American Muslims, both African American and immigrants,” said Jacob Bender, executive director of CAIR Philadelphia, the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil liberties and advocacy group. “Perhaps it’s the city’s Quaker background, opening it to different religious minorities.”
Marwan Kreidie, executive director of the Philadelphia Arab-American Development Corp., agreed, citing the notable exception of an unknown person perpetuating the hate crime of throwing a pig’s head at Al-Aqsa Islamic Society mosque in North Philadelphia in 2015. Eating pork is prohibited among Muslims.
Still, Kreidie said, “our community has not had problems in Philadelphia like in Illinois and Ohio, where mosques have been burned.”
Bender estimates that close to 200,000 Muslims live in Philadelphia, 80% of whom he identified as African Americans. The Pennsylvania suburbs are home to another 200,000, mostly Arab immigrants and their children.
Between 300,000 and 500,000 Muslims live in New Jersey, the majority in the central and northern parts of the state, according to Selaedin Maksut, the state’s executive director of CAIR-New Jersey. There are around 3.5 million Muslims in the United States, and 1.8 billion worldwide, various estimates show.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the number of hate crimes recorded against Muslims in the United States rocketed to 481 from 28 in 2000, according to the FBI.
Four days after the attacks, a Sikh named Babir Singh Sodhi was killed in a hate crime in Arizona, mistaken for being Muslim because he wore a turban, federal officials said.
In 2016, after Trump was elected, while the overall number of hate groups grew from 892 during the previous year to 917, the number of anti-Muslim groups nearly tripled — from 34 to 101, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“Anti-Muslim sentiment was legitimized from the highest office in the land,” said Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher, director of the International Educational Development Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
She added that while Americans talk about the particular events of the day of Sept. 11 specifically, we “don’t spend enough time reflecting on policies like increased surveillance of Muslims and Arabs.”
Ghaffar-Kucher disagrees with those who say conditions are improving for Muslims and Sikhs.
She referenced the shootings of three young Muslims at the University of North Carolina in 2015; the killing of six people at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee in 2012; and a 2015 incident in Dallas when 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim, was handcuffed and suspended after he brought a homemade alarm clock to his high school, and officials accused him of making a fake bomb.
“I don’t think things are better,” Ghaffar-Kucher concluded.
Another unfortunate aftermath of Sept. 11 was that many young Muslim Americans wanted to disassociate themselves from their religious background, said Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu, education and outreach director for CAIR-Philadelphia.
“These children were asked things like, ‘Does your mom carry bombs under her clothes?’ ” Tekelioglu said. “ ‘Or maybe you’re the bomber?’ ”
Muslim American babies born on Sept. 11, 2001, are 20 today, Maksut pointed out. He sees a difference between people who are that age now as opposed to then.
“A Muslim person who was 20 in 2001 after the attacks had to be on the defensive, under enormous pressure to condemn the violence, while at the same time having to explain it,” Maksut said. “Professors would single them out in class to ask them to talk about terrorism.”
Nowadays, though, Muslim Americans who are 20 are “on the offensive,” Maksut said. “Young people in the Muslim community are in the forefront of fighting injustice, government overreach, and racism.”
Many are deciding to become activists, lawyers, journalists, politicians, and professors determined to help Muslim Americans, he said.
Maksut added that he is one such person.
“When I went to school, my major was decided because of 9/11, which happened when I was a first grader,” he said. “I chose Islamic studies as an undergraduate at New York University, and as a master’s at Columbia University, to better understand history, and to combat the negative narrative against Muslims.”
While they’ve had to live with prejudice all their lives, young Muslims now understand something new and vital, Kreidie said: “What you’ve seen is a real awakening of a community.
“There’s a whole new generation of Arab and Muslim Americans who say we are not going to accept injustice anymore.”