Washington D.C, Asharq Al-Awsat – As I prepared to write this article on the legacy of September 11, 2001 on Arab- Americans living across the United States, I expected to hear stories of suffering and accounts of the negative impact of the attacks. However, the interviews I conducted with ordinary Arab immigrants and leaders of the community revealed an entirely different reality. Like other historical events that preceded it, the outcome of the attacks on U.S cities is varied, with some positives emerging from under the rubble. “The problems of some are the blessings of others”, an Arab proverb says.
The U.S government responded to the unprecedented attack on its soil by declaring war on terrorism. Government officials quickly realized that in order to wage war, they needed men and women who spoke Arabic, and to a lesser degree, Pashtun, the language spoken by the majority of Afghans, and Persian, the official language in Iran and parts of Afghanistan. This created an acute need for U.S citizens who mastered the above languages; all doors were open to those originally from the Middle East.
Several government agencies recruited hundreds of Arabic speakers and lured them with excellent salaries and benefits packages, such as the CIA, the FBI, the newly formed Department for Homeland Security, the Army, the Navy, and the Marines, and many others. When it could not fill all the positions, the government turned to advertisers and placed ads in local and community newspapers around the country.
Asharq Al Awsat spoke to some of the leaders of the Arab and Muslim communities in the U.S as well as ordinary Arab and Muslim Americans who highlighted the positive effects of September 11 on the lives of the Arab and Muslims Diasporas.
Imam Hassan al Qazwini, who heads the Islamic Center of America in Detroit, Michigan, which was built following the attacks and is now considered the largest Islamic center in the country, said the events of September 11, 2001 negatively affected civil liberties and the rights of the Muslim population, increasingly subjected to police observation and airport searches.
On the other hand, al Qazwini indicated, non- Muslim Americans were intrigued to learn more about Islam. “The attacks drove many Americans to want to find out more about our religion”, he said. Zuhdi Jasser, Chair of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, in Arizona informed Asharq Al Awsat the events of September 11 separated the peace loving Muslims from the violent few, adding that the tight security measures benefited ordinary immigrants and freed the community from extremists.
This was disputed by Nizar Haidar, Director of the Washington-based Iraqi Centre for Information, who decried the changes in the law, accusing the US government of following security regulations similar to those of the developing world, especially regarding naturalization and residence procedures. In some respects, he said, the new laws violate the principle of equality much celebrated by the U.S, as religious and racial discrimination increase. More positively, in the aftermath of September 11, more Americans sought to learn about Islam as it was partly blamed for the hijacking.
Ahmad Hussein Banma, head of the Yemeni Centre to Combat Terrorism said the battle with extremism amongst the Arab community preceded the attacks. As such, September 11 benefited moderate Arabs as the U.S military concentrated its resources to combat extremist ideologies.
Some observers have claimed the number of Arab immigrants fell sharply following the attacks as thousands left the US without presenting statistics to support such argument. It is unlikely such a scenario did occur, given the continuing low standards of living in the Arab world compared to the US, in spite the intimidation suffered following the events of September 11. What is certain is that less Arabs visited the US because of the additional immigration regulations put in place.
The campaign against Islam, following the attacks, drove many Muslim Americans to participate in local and national politics and vote in general and state elections. This interest peaked after the invasion of Iraq seen by many Muslims in the US as unnecessary. Without taking part in politics, Aran Americans will not be able to make their opinions heard on a national level, let alone influence future decisions.