My Post 9/11 thoughts about why Muslim immigrants hesitate to organize against terrorism

I had a conversation yesterday with a woman from Belize who asked, why didn’t Muslim immigrants from other countries living in NYC stand up and decry terrorism after 9/11, in the same way, for example, Iranian-Americans organize to protest their countries actions?

I thought about that and here’s what I said:

1. Having spent my formative years in Boston, where I met immigrants and foreign students from all over the world, and then moved to New York, where I spent the last 16-years before relocating to North Carolina, I’ve had the opportunity to communicate with many foreign nationals, including Muslims practicing in the mosque in the basement of my apartment building in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

This is unscientific and purely opinion, but what I found was that many of the people I talked to have lived here for a good number of years. Whether they were cab drivers, shop owners, students, or religious practitioners, they all gave me a sense that being in America was better than being where they came from. Even though it’s very difficult to start from scratch in a new country, they seemed to convey a sense that they would rather be here.

What I take from their sentiments is, why would they organize and stand up against terrorism grown from a place they many never have seen or experienced? Just because they are Muslim doesn’t mean they know any extremists, nor does it mean that they were in any proximity to affect the discourse. I believe that most of these people think that now that they are in American, they are being attacked by others who they have no connection to. If you really don’t know anything about those people, then why would you get up and organize against them, when you feel like you’re in America and you’re part of America? It’s like…they attacked you too! Not as a citizen living amongst the terrorists in the mountains of Afghanistan, but as an American immigrant (or citizen) who lives HERE.

I ran into an Algerian man the other day here in Carrboro, NC. He has not been able to go back to his country, because of the extremists there. He said the country was once peaceful, but now it’s tumultuous and dangerous. His children are in school here. His wife works here. He is starting a business here. In my mind, he feels like he is part of the fabric of America. Instead of going to a mosque and organizing protests against extremism, he’s pursuing his own path in America. If he feels like us, then he is us, and he’s just following along with what you and I do, instead of activating some type of protest.

2. While I’ve only attended a service at one mosque in all of my 46-years, I’ve read in the news that since 9/11, there has been deep and meaningful reflection in the Muslim community about identify and responsibility for themselves and others. From what I’ve been able to read so far, there are those that are renouncing their religion based on the actions of extremists. There are others who are hiding their identities, fearing any type of backlash. And, there are others who are increasing their embrace of their religion in the face of the extremists hijacking their faith and twisting the meaning to justify the killing.

There is a lot of energy going into this conversation in Muslim communities in America. I don’t believe they are ignoring this discussion. We have to remember that many Muslim’s and people of other faith’s were killed on 9/11. These individuals families share the same grief and pain as you or I, and everyone else affected by 9/11. I don’t think they are ignoring it, it’s just that you don’t hear about it. That leads to my next point.

3. Until Al Jazeera got a US channel, and that’s only through a few domestic cable operators, the news from Muslim communities is shared through hyper-local media outlets. For example, the mosque newsletter, a Facebook page, or a local community newspaper. Many Americans will never see the discourse taking place in these back-channels, because we consume mass media of CNN, Fox, MSNBC, CBS, NBC, ABC, and PBS or NPR.

Although we do see stories from time to time about the struggle of American Muslims to come to terms with the events of 9/11 and what that means to be Muslim on CNN or in the New York Times, these stories are few and far between. It’s difficult for the American public to understand what goes on in the domestic Mulsim community, because it’s not covered in the same way as the Christian or Jewish communities, who make up a large majority of the US population.

It is only now that we are seeing more Muslim comedians, newscasters, reporters, actors, and others in the media. But, they are a minority, and as such, I don’t believe we hear as much from them directly, as we get dissected through other mainstream outlets.

4. Lastly, maybe newly arrived Muslims do not protest, because it’s better to be invisible in a world where, as a recent immigrant, the FBI can show up at your doorstep at any time and detain you. If you just arrived here, maybe it’s that other Muslims have told you that if you rock the boat in any way, you could be the target of law enforcement.

Becoming a target of law enforcement can stigmatize you and your family and possibly impact yours and your families ability to find and keep a job. Once detained, you could become an outcast in your own community, therefore impacting your ability to provide for your family.

I would think that there are many who decided that getting involved is not worth the risk. And, like the Algerian I met the other day, they won’t got to mosque, because they may have encountered someone with extreme views there, and they don’t want to be associated with those views, so they stay away.

Additionally, some might be fearful of their own or their family’s safety. Maybe, for recent arrivals, they have some ties to individuals or mosques were there is some radicalism. They may have moved here to escape the pressure and they don’t want to call attention to themselves. Remember, where they are from, if you organize and protest against America, then that’s acceptable. But, if you organize and protest against your own, you risk being picked up and never heard from again. At least, that’s my understanding of it.

Should recent Muslim immigrants and American Muslims get involved in pushing back against extremism? Why should it be the responsibility of a Muslim living in American since birth to apologize for extremism or try to convince extremists that they are wrong and we are right? When’s the last time you went out to a right-wing extremist camp down south or out west and convinced ultra-conservative paramilitary groups to put down their weapons and stop training? When did anyone try and prevent Timothy McVeigh from doing what he did?

While I’m sure there are some things we can all do to ask extremists in our midst to not murder innocent men, women, and children for their own political, social, or religious purpose, it’s not as easy as you think. These extremists have, in many cases, made up their minds already. What is a protest going to do? Well, maybe it would lead to embarrassment for those who fund terrorism. If the money dries up, will the murder stop?

These are all huge questions with no easy answer. Again, there is no science here. These are just my personal opinions based on personal observations and ingesting information from various points of contact. I’d like to hear what you think.


  1. Hanan Mahmood says:

    I can at least speak from my experience as muslim community member in Brooklyn… #4 is spot on!! Immediately after 9/11 muslim community's knee jerk reaction was to stay mum. This was justified by revenge killings of gas station and 7-eleven workers who were killed simply because they looked a certain way (Ask Sikh community, who lost several members simply because they have long beards and head coverings similar stereotypical radical Muslims). You don't have to dig too far to hear about people shaving their beards and even change their names just to stay under the radar. They were not breaking any law but knew this was big enough of a tragedy to get inappropriate response.

    We're seeing recent reports of likley illegal collaboration of NYPD and CIA on Muslim communities. However, these has been well established and known facts among Muslims in east coast (again, I can't speak for gov't activities in other states);

    Another reason is that even legal immigrants don't know their rights. In many's homeland law is NOT above political or security (police, army, or spy agencies) authorities. Sadly, that's exactly what has happened here in USA as well so they feel justified in staying under the radar. Tragedy is that staying quite is being equated with cooperating with enemy despite the fact that several high profile extremist arrests were made based on tips provided by members of muslim community.

    • djtonyz says:

      Thanks for your comment. I appreciate you taking the time to state your views. In my mind, these are incredibly complex issues for each and every Muslim individual in this country. It can\’t be explained in a sound bite. And, when Fox News and other right leaning media outlets demand Muslim\’s stand up and be accountable, when are those very people demanding accountability going to do that themselves for all the murder and mayhem they\’ve cause around the world, with American bombs in far away places? I understand why we go to war–to protect this country. However, we\’ve been at war for 10-years and I don\’t feel any more protected now then I did then. All I can say is that I am sorry to the new immigrant who came here for the American dream or I\’m sorry to the family who were born here, but practice the Muslim faith, that we are not living up to our Constitution when we blame the Muslim community. There are bad actors in every community. That should be our focus. I understand you have to look at a lot of people to figure that out. Hopefully, we\’ll change the mindset day by day, week by week and see what happens.

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