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Sumayyah Waheed, policy consultant for Muslim Advocates, was once attacked as she wore her hair covered. Hate crimes against US Muslims have exploded by 500% in the years following Sept. 11, 2001, and remain at exponentially higher rates than 2000 levels. Still, Waheed says, more Muslims than ever are running for office and raising their voices in support of progressive change. (Photo courtesy of Waheed)

For 20 Years, Muslims across the US have countered 9/11 bias and discrimination with a groundswell of advocacy that benefits their communities – and everyone else’s.

Kamran Akhtar was on his way back home to Queens, NY in 2004 when he stopped to capture images of Charlotte’s skyline. It was nothing any other tourist wouldn’t do. But this was a post-9/11 world. 

He was arrested and held for six months in Mecklenburg County jail, scrutinized by the FBI and eventually sentenced on several charges – none related to terrorist activities. 

The case roiled Jibril Hough, a civil justice activist and spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, one of the region’s most well-known mosques.  

“They treated him like a terrorist. I mean, they had him in chains at the federal courthouse,” Hough told Cardinal & Pine in an interview this week. “The guy was just taking pictures.”

Hough organized rallies and public forums in attempts to help, but Akhtar was eventually deported to Pakistan. “The man had a wife who was here legally, and children. But due to some errors on paperwork that had to be resubmitted, his family was broken up.”

Hough still gets upset talking about the case. He is familiar with the sting of Islamophobia, having faced overt job discrimination, police surveillance, and harassment himself. Since 9/11, it’s been a familiar story for many in his community.

Some attempted to cope by going quiet, assimilating as much as possible. Hough did not.

“I didn’t really like the apologetic tone that many in the community were giving [after 9/11]. I understand why some would be apologetic, because they didn’t want to leave America and they didn’t want bad things to happen to them, but at the same time, our community was not responsible for what happened on 9/11,” he said.

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Jibril Hough, community activist and spokesperson for the Islamic Center of Charlotte, encourages people of conscience to show up for marginalized communities. ‘Oftentimes people don’t go out [and protest] unless something really hits home or it’s someone who looks like them. We have to get away from that.’

Hate Crimes Against Muslims Multiplied 

Still, the Muslim community paid heavily. In the 20 years since, no demographic has been as impacted by the legal and cultural sea change in the US following 9/11 as American Muslims. 

Hate crimes multiplied against Muslim Americans, spiking 500% from 2000 to 2009 and remaining troublingly high to this day. In 2015, three young Muslim American students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and NC State University were brutally murdered by a Chapel Hill neighbor . Assaults on women who wear their hair covered are not uncommon. Worshippers are harassed. 

Post-9/11, Congress enacted dozens of bills that either directly or indirectly targeted Muslims, and entire government agencies such as the US Department of Homeland Security, National Security Agency, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement laser-focused on the threat of radical Islamists, ignoring the swelling ranks of violent, right-wing militias of largely white Americans. The Patriot Act, the FISA Amendments Act and other laws gave agencies unprecedented access to private citizens’ information with precious little oversight. 

Advocacy Born Out of Bias

Rather than retreat into insularity, Muslims in North Carolina and across the US used the increased scrutiny to shine a light on issues of advocacy. More than 170 Muslims ran for office in the US in 2020, a historic high. On every level, from grassroots community work to the US Congress, Muslim Americans began making their voices heard and their presence known. 

Muslims elected to US Congress, to date, include US Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), André Carson (D-Indiana), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan). North Carolinians installed state Sen. Larry Shaw (D-Raleigh) andstate Sen. Mujtaba Mohammed (D-Charlotte)Nida Allam recently becamethe first Muslim woman to hold elected office in the state when voters chose her to bea Durham County Commissioner.

Summayah Waheed was an undergraduate student when she heard that the towers at the World Trade Center had been struck by planes. Now a policy consultant for Muslim Advocates, a nation-wide organization, Waheed studies closely the trends and policies affecting American Muslims. She attributes much of the rise in Muslim American activism to the backlash from 9/11. 

“Having to see a bunch of laws go into effect that were unconstitutional or codifying religious profiling was upsetting, but it motivated us to do the work,” the Washington-based consultant told Cardinal & Pine. “Unfortunately there’s still a lot of work to be done to undo some of the encroachments on our Constitutional rights, but it’s up to us to keep fighting.”

This activism is making America a safer place for us all. Many Muslims, like Hough, have taken the battle beyond religious discrimination, demonstrating alongside their neighbors against police brutality, economic injustice and on behalf of progressive issues. 

It’s important, Hough said, to show up as allies. “Oftentimes people don’t go out [and protest] unless something really hits home or it’s someone who looks like them. We have to get beyond that and focus on the justice of it.”

Waheed simply advised Muslims looking to make a difference. 

“Find what you’re passionate about and follow that. Not everyone is going to want to go into politics, but there are so many ways to engage in your community and raise your voice,” she said. “At the local level, sometimes you have a bigger impact and that can trickle up.”