The Ghosts of 9/11

Two decades later, 9/11 continues to haunt Americans

A stern warning marked the start of an APA 2021 session titled Surviving and Thriving 20 Years After 9/11. The cautionary words came from presenter Deepa Iyer, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Building Movement Project. “I want to let folks know that there might be some information that I’m showing here that is troubling. So please use your discretion in terms of viewing this presentation.”

With that, Iyer’s went on to explain what the United States looks like as Americans – particularly Americans with a South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh background – approach the 20th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  

To help attendees grasp the haunting ghosts of 9/11, Iyer separated her presentation into three questions.

  1. How did – and does – the post-9/11 environment affect South Asian, Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities?
  2. What are the lingering effects of cumulative and collective trauma on South Asian, Muslim, Arab, and Sikh community members and activists?
  3. How do we create ecosystems that value justice and wellbeing?

The days, weeks, years, and decades after 9/11

Iyer described a post-9/11 confluence of three different trends:

  1. Islamophobia: fear of anyone Muslim or perceived to be Muslim
  2. Xenophobia: intense, irrational fear of anyone from another country
  3. Intensified long-standing racism: in this case, tightly connected to the xenophobic trend infecting the country

Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, Iyer added, hate and state violence shook the South Asian, Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities.

The hate violence, she explained, rooted in bigotry and discrimination, escalated quickly to murders and assaults. For instance, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a gas station owner, was murdered on September 15, 2001 as he planted flowers to honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks. His murder was because he was a Sikh American. This sort of violence quickly spread to mosques, temples, gurdwaras, and the like.

“While many people believe that hate violence after 9/11 did not extend for a long period of time, that is untrue,” Iyer said. “In 2012, for example, and Indian American immigrant, Sunando Sen, was pushed into the New York city subway tracks in an act of hate violence. Again in 2012, six people were killed by a white supremacist in a Sikh temple of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.”

Hate violence escalated into bullying of innocent children, with Iyar recalling the 2015 incident when a young, black immigrant Muslim, Ahmed Mohamed, brought a science experiment to school that was assumed to be a bomb.

“Beyond schools, we started to see discrimination and bigotry at the workplace, on airlines, and in airplanes, where traveling while brown meant you would be secondarily screened and sometimes not allowed to fly,” Iyer emphasized.

State violence, too, polluted America. Federal and state government as well as local law enforcement policies around the country targeted people based on their nationality and faith. Iyer recalled detentions and deportations of people with South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh backgrounds. She pointed to the USA Patriot Act, which was meant to deter and punish terrorist acts in the United States and around the world, although many believe the Act kick started harsh surveillance of certain community members and allowed government officials to target citizens not under criminal investigation.

“Unfortunately, the state and hate violence has not ended and was exacerbated during the Trump administration,” Iyer said. “We saw an uptick in hate incidents – right after the 2016 election.”

An example would be the 2017 murder of Srinivas Kuchibotla, an Indian American engineer in Kansas. And, Iyer added, “We continue to see state violence in terms of policies like the Muslim ban.”

The evidence is clear, Iyer explained, and it says that even two decades post- 9/11, those in South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh communities continue to experience racial profiling, surveillance, hate violence, state violence, bigotry, employment discrimination, school bullying, and airport profiling. “This is how many of our communities have had to deal with the impact of post-9/11 America,” she said.

The Impact of Ongoing Cumulative and Collective Trauma

“We know that racial trauma is something that occurs in communities as well as in the individual – especially if someone has faced generational trauma related to racism, being told this is not your country, and hearing, ‘you don’t belong here,’” Iyer said.

Long-term cumulative and collective trauma can result in a sense of hyper-vigilance. “This is where you’re always on alert – concerned that you, your community, or your family members will be subjected to violence and discrimination,” Iyer explained.

A response to no longer having safe spaces, such as a place of worship, creates a feeling of not belonging, of being excluded, and of being ostracized. This, Iyer said, can lead to feelings of isolation and feeling invisible.

Some people, Iyer noted, feel a sense of shame – even two decades post-9/11 – because they wonder if they’re doing something to perpetuate continued trauma in their community and to themselves.

In some cases, ongoing trauma produces a self-censoring reaction, meaning that someone might cease to speak their native language, change their name, stop religious practices, and break all visible ties with their nationality.

Iyer also emphasized that members of South Asian, Muslim, Arab, and Sikh communities have suffered and continue to face depression, withdrawal, long term health consequences, and reduced self-esteem due to ongoing cumulative and collective racial trauma.

A Bright Light for a Better Tomorrow

“At the same time, we’ve also seen people engaging in ways to empower themselves. Young people, particularly those who were born in the shadow of 9/11, are becoming activists, builders, and storytellers in their communities, deciding that it is important to raise their voices, and build safe, brave spaces for their community members,” Iyer said.

Evidence of this bright light is the formation of multi-racial collectives and solidarity between Black, South Asian, Arab, and Muslim communities. For example, Iyer spoke of the collective of organizations that pushed back against the 2017 Muslim ban policy – referring to the Trump administration’s executive orders that prohibited travel and refugee resettlement from select predominately Muslim countries.

“But these actions of solidarity also come with consequences,” Iyer said. “For activists, as well as community members, we’ve seen a tremendous impact on wellbeing.”

Citing an example of the emotional consequences endured by one activist working for a better world, Iyer quoted a reflection from Sasha W., who was with the organization NQAPIA (The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance) : There have been many times in this work, especially in the past year, that I’ve wondered how long I can sustain myself in our movements, when the trauma that I hold hits so close to home. As organizers who are so often holding space for loved ones, community members, family members – how do we find space to release that trauma? How do we find space for our own healing?

Given this environment, with community members as well as activists dealing with vicarious and direct trauma, Iyer asks how can we create ecosystems of justice and wellbeing?

“The way we can do this – for activists in particular – is to make sure there are safe and brave spaces for dialogue. That they have access to healing justice resources, whether that’s a sabbatical or access to a therapist. It’s important to have community-based groups that focus on wellbeing, such as the Muslim Wellness Foundation. And for those who are practitioners, tune in to the ways in which our communities are dealing with and holding collective and community trauma. We need practitioners ready to speak out against structural Islamophobia, racism, and xenophobia.”

In other words, Iyer emphasized, be ready to play your role, whether that’s a visionary, caregiver, therapist, or disrupter who can help sustain the nation’s wellbeing.