Posted on September 11, 2021

Since 9/11, US Muslims Have Gained Unprecedented Political, Cultural Influence

Steve Friss, Newsweek, September 1, 2021

It’s been an impressive 2021 so far for Muslim Americans. The U.S. Senate, that bastion of partisan gridlock, overwhelmingly confirmed the nation’s first Muslims as a federal district court judge and to chair the Federal Trade Commission. Legislatures in five states swore in their first Muslim members, including a nonbinary, queer hijab-wearing representative in, of all places, Oklahoma. Three Detroit suburbs are poised this fall to elect their first Muslim mayors. The New York Jets tapped Robert Saleh as the first Muslim head coach of any American pro sports team. CBS premiered, then renewed The United States of Al, the first broadcast network sitcom with a Muslim lead character. And Riz Ahmed, star of Sound of Metal, became the first Muslim nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor.


As the 20th anniversary of September 11 approaches, the recent rise of many Muslim Americans to positions of power and influence—in Washington and in statehouses, on big screens and small ones, across playing fields and news desks—is a development that few in the U.S. would have predicted two decades ago, Muslims included. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks by the radical Islamic sect Al-Qaeda, anti-Muslim hate crimes exploded and the ensuing global “war on terror” to root out jihadists created a “climate of discrimination, fear and intolerance,” as one think tank described it, that surrounded people of Islamic faith in this country and lasted for years. Then, just as heightened anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. seemed to be subsiding, Donald Trump was elected president in 2016 on an agenda overtly hostile towards Muslims, and revved it up again.

It is the experience of coming of age in this post-9/11 environment, experts say, that drew a new generation of young Muslims to activism, and motivated them to use their voices in political and cultural arenas to debunk misinformation. {snip}

{snip} But trend data suggests the answer is not that simple and anti-Islamic sentiment remains a factor 20 years after 9/11. Anti-Muslim hate crimes, for instance, are second only to antisemitic incidents, FBI statistics show. And in a Gallup poll, one-third of Americans, and a full 62 percent of Republicans, said they’d never vote for a Muslim candidate for president, by far the least support for people of any religion in the survey.

Is the recent rise of Muslim Americans to positions of prominence a temporary surge forged during the backlash of the Trump era or a permanent change in American consciousness? Are the constant, often viciously personal attacks on Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—the most famous Muslims in American politics as well as two of the nation’s most strident progressives—a last gasp of Islamophobia or proof that, in some quarters at least, it’s never going away? If, in fact, the political and cultural shift toward Muslims has staying power, what will the impact be?


When the attacks by Al-Qaeda occurred 20 years ago, the makeup of the Muslim community in the U.S. was much different than it is today: significantly smaller, older, more conservative, less organized, and made up of more Black Americans and far fewer recent immigrants.

In 2001, roughly 1 million Muslims lived in the U.S., according to the Association of Religious Data Archives, versus 3.5 million recently. As a group, they formed a solid Republican voting bloc, with the immigrant community in particular drawn to the GOP’s messages of self-reliance, small government and conservative social policies on issues like abortion and gay rights. George W. Bush won 72 percent of Muslim votes in 2000, according to the Council on American Islamic Relations, or CAIR; other polls put the figure lower but still showed a big GOP tilt. After 9/11 that support plummeted, with just 7 percent backing Bush in his 2004 face-off with Democrat John Kerry.

Party affiliation wasn’t the only shift among Muslims in the U.S. in the post-9/11 years. Before the attacks, Muslim Americans seldom saw themselves as a single community bound by a common faith as much as a disparate collection of distinct ethnic groups—Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, Pakistani and Egyptian among many others—that kept to and fended for themselves, says Niloofar Haeri, chair of Islamic Studies in the anthropology department at Johns Hopkins University. The other large bloc of Muslims in the country were Black Americans who saw the Islam of Malcolm X and boxer Muhammad Ali as both a religion and a political identity used to advocate for the poor and marginalized. That application of the faith, says Haeri, unsettled many immigrant Muslims who came to the U.S. to escape theocracies.


Conservative politicians also spent several campaign cycles in the post-9/11 period ginning up public fear that Muslims wanted to impose Sharia in America—that is, turn religious strictures of Islam into laws akin to those of some Middle Eastern theocracies. {snip}

{snip}  By 2007, 84 percent of 12- to 18-year-old Muslim Americans said they had experienced at least one act of anti-Islamic discrimination in the prior year, a New York University study found. In 2009, more than 82 percent of Muslims in the U.S. reported feeling unsafe, an Adelphi University survey found.

Muslim Americans faced a choice: Grin and bear it or band together and respond, Haeri says. “One of the most consequential changes that happened in various Muslim communities post-9/11 was that those Muslims who were not religious and did not identify as Muslim before 9/11 were suddenly being treated as Muslims whether they wanted to be or not and were asked questions about Islam,” Haeri recalls. “Muslim communities filled with newly self-identifying Muslims. There was a lot of soul searching: Why are we shunning this heritage entirely?”


Adversity fused a far-flung gaggle of nationalities into a coalition of necessity, says Democratic Representative Andre Carson of Indiana, who in 2008 became the second Muslim elected Congress. “This role was paved decades ago by the indigenous African-American Muslim community, but 9/11 allowed the immigrant Muslim community to see that the African-American Muslim community was right all along in calling out racial injustices, calling out governmental excess as it relates to violations of civil liberties and spying on fellow U.S. citizens,” says Carson, who is Black.

At the same time, throughout the Bush and Obama years, the pace of immigration to the U.S. from Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East, Asia and Africa surged. Between 2002 and 2016, the number of Muslim refugees accepted into U.S. rose 627 percent—from about 6,000 a year to almost 40,000—which, along with the highest birth rate of any religious group, caused the sharp increase in the Muslim population. The influx has since stopped, as the Trump administration cut the number of refugees accepted into the U.S. to an all-time low of fewer than 12,000 in total, almost all of whom were Christian, according to State Department data.

During the period, Muslim visibility in everyday life increased for many because of where they live now: the suburbs. Nearly half of mosques are now in bedroom communities outside major cities, up from 38 percent in 2010, according to a July report from the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, which researches trends in American Muslim life. At the same time, the actual number of mosques rose dramatically, more than doubling from 1,209 to 2,769 since 2000.

“The age-old pattern of immigrants achieving financial success and moving away from cities seems to be repeating itself in the American Muslim community,” ISPU notes.

By the election of Trump, who as a candidate in 2015 called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” the American Muslim community was bigger, brasher and uniformly unwilling to roll over. Indeed, observes MSNBC anchor Ali Velshi, Trump’s effort to ostracize Muslims, and a subsequent rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes to levels not seen since 2001, lit a spark.

“Something is happening right now,” says Velshi, who is believed to be the first Muslim to helm a cable network news program. “It feels like a flourishing of Muslims across industries and across platforms.”


The arc of Sadaf Jaffer’s adult life—from college freshman at Georgetown during 9/11 to the nation’s first female Muslim mayor in 2019—offers a useful road map of what has happened to Muslims in U.S. politics over the past two decades and, particularly, recently.

The 38-year-old, who was born in Chicago to immigrants from Pakistan and Yemen, had planned to be a U.S. diplomat and interned at both the State Department and the Marine Corps. But she became increasingly distressed by the anti-Islam sentiment rising across the U.S. and, in 2007, shifted her focus, enrolling at Harvard to pursue a doctorate in philosophy focused on Islamic cultures in South Asia. Her goal: “Understanding Muslim societies better so I could teach about Muslim societies in their complexity.”

By 2017, she was a professor at Princeton University so alarmed by the election of Donald Trump that she decided to go into politics by running for a seat on the Montgomery Township Committee, the governing council for a wealthy, fast-growing New Jersey burg of 24,000 residents about 20 miles north of Trenton. {snip}

Jaffer won that seat and, in 2019, was elevated to mayor. Her status as the nation’s first female Muslim mayor, she says, was blared in foreboding tones across pro-Trump news sites and Twitter. “That caused an avalanche of hate mail—violent ones, too, about how all of us should be removed from the planet,” she says.


If Jaffer wins, she’ll follow on the success in the 2020 election that brought the first Muslim legislators to capitols of Delaware, Oklahoma, Colorado, Florida and Wisconsin, and the first re-election of Omar and Tlaib. There are other firsts likely to come this fall too; the top vote-getters in the August primaries for mayor of Detroit suburbs Dearborn, Dearborn Heights and Hamtramck—enclaves with large Muslim populations—were all Muslims.

In all, a record 170 Muslim candidates were on ballots in 28 states in 2020, up from 57 in 2018, and 62 of them won. Exit polling showed that more than 1 million Muslims voted last year, also a record.


Also notable: Almost all of these winners are Millennials; Tlaib, at 45 and slightly older than that cohort, is an exception. And most of these Muslim politicans report being the target of some form of anti-Islam sentiment while running.

“They sent out emails connecting me with Ilhan Omar and accusing all the Muslim candidates running across the country of being Islamist or Jihadists,” says Delaware state Representative Madinah Wilson-Anton, 27, who ousted a 20-year Democratic incumbent in 2020 to become her chamber’s first Muslim. “But it wasn’t like, you know, I was door knocking and someone was like, go back to your country. Most of the time, negative responses to me were just partisan.”


In office, many of these legislators can point to measures influenced directly by their Muslim backgrounds. Wilson-Anton in June pushed through a new law requiring schools to excuse student absences for religious observances such as Muslim or Jewish holidays. {snip}


Virtually every Muslim elected to state legislatures—and all four who have ever been elected to Congress—are progressive Democrats; Carson, the Indiana congressman, was among the first elected officials to endorse Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Sanders held firm to that support four years later; a CAIR survey in February 2020 found 39 percent of Muslim Democrats supported Sanders versus 27 percent for Biden. For many Americans, this alignment defies well-worn stereotypes about Muslims as extreme social conservatives who would not support a pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ Jewish candidate.


This moment of ascendance for American Muslims is not only about political achievements. Popular culture, too, is seeing a sharp increase in Muslim representation, and the two trends feed each other. Movies and television offer familiarity that helps fuel acceptance, allowing many non-Muslim Americans who don’t personally know anyone who practices Islam to see Muslim characters woven into the fabric of everyday life.


Among those helping to drive this new level of cultural visibility: Ramy Youssef, who won a Golden Globe and a Peabody Award in 2020 for Ramy, a half-hour Hulu dramedy about a first-generation Muslim American millennial struggling with his faith. Also in the cast for the show’s second season was Mahershala Ali, the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award, for his supporting roles in Moonlight (2016) and Green Book (2018). Disney+ is due this fall to drop Ms. Marvel, introducing Marvel’s first Muslim superhero, a shapeshifting, bubble-gum-chewing Pakistani-American teen from New Jersey. And there are past and present recent series like Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj and United States of Al, a CBS sitcom about a U.S. war veteran who helps his Afghan interpreter move to Ohio.