After the attacks of September 11, 2001, patriotism took on many masks and many faces. For some it meant planting flags in their front yards and cherishing the rights we enjoy in this country. For others it took on a flawed and dangerous form. Violence against South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Arab Americans skyrocketed in the weeks and months after 9/11. New government policies painted our communities with suspicion and guilt. The notion that patriotism and racism are synonymous was used against us after 9/11, and the horror has lasted 16 years, flowing and ebbing under Presidents Bush and Obama. That notion has only increased in fury under the Trump administration.
I was in New York on 9/11, working downtown not too far from the attacks. In the days that followed I feared for my safety for the first time in my life: not from planes nose-diving from the sky, but from assaults on the subway or on the street. These fears were not misplaced. The first shots fired after the attacks were on September 15 in Mesa, Arizona, when Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh gas station owner, was killed by Frank Silva Roque, a racist gunman who wanted to “go out and shoot some towel-heads.” During his arrest Roque screamed, “I am a patriot! I stand for America all the way!” This is how he pledged allegiance to our flag.
Our communities experienced many ensuing acts of hate. In the first week after 9/11, 645 bias incidents nationwide were reported by media organizations. In the months that followed, our houses of worship were surveilled by the NYPD and other law-enforcement agencies, our rights were violated and our dignity stripped at airports, and our children were bullied in school and harassed on the Internet. Government policies such as the Patriot Act and the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System were implemented, the latter of which opened cases against 83,000 Muslims entering or living in the United States. The result of this vast ethnic profiling? Zero terrorism-related convictions.
Meanwhile, the body count in our communities has mounted. In 2012, a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, was attacked by a gunman who killed six people and wounded four others before taking his own life. In 2015, three young Arab students in North Carolina were murdered in their homes by their white-supremacist neighbor. In 2016, a Lebanese-American man was shot and killed on his own porch by a racist neighbor who had a documented history of anti-Arab hate.
In 2017, our communities are facing hate violence at levels that rival the aftermath of 9/11. The Trump administration—which is now implementing policies that mirror his bigoted rhetoric on the campaign trail—continues to roll out anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies that embolden hate groups to attack our communities. President Trump has test-fired several versions of the “Muslim ban,” rescinded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and strongly supported the RAISE Act that seeks to slash immigration by 50 percent in a decade, as well as implementing other destructive policies. Since the presidential election, South Asian Americans Leading Together has documented over 150 incidents of violence against those who identify or are perceived as Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, South Asian, Middle Eastern, or Arab American, already surpassing totals from the year leading up to the 2016 election. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, anti-Muslim hate groups grew by 197 percent in 2016, and, according to the FBI, anti-Muslim hate crimes increased by 67 percent in 2015.
In February two Indian-Americans were shot by a gunman screaming, “Get out of my country.” Days later a Sikh man was shot on his driveway in Washington State by an assailant screaming, “Go back to your country.” In August a Minnesota mosque was firebombed in what the governor rightly declared an “act of terrorism.” In May, Jeremy Joseph Christian, a known white supremacist, harassed a Muslim passenger on a commuter train in Portland. When three men tried to intervene, Christian stabbed two of them to death. Reminiscent of Roque’s racism in 2001, Christian proclaimed at his arraignment, “You call it terrorism; I call it patriotism!”
After these attacks, the president remains silent. His silence is a clear signal to the Roques and the Christians of the world that white supremacy and Islamophobia are not only admirable, they are patriotic.
Our communities know that the highest form of patriotism is dissent: We have lived it for 16 years. We’ve spoken out when we’ve seen injustice, and we’ve crowded airports to protest an unlawful “Muslim ban.” We’ve stood united with those from all faiths, colors, and backgrounds, against racism and division in Charlottesville, Boston, Berkeley, and beyond. We’ve stared down ACT for America—the nation’s largest anti-Muslim hate group—and forced them to cancel nationwide Islamophobic rallies originally scheduled for September 9.
The toxic patriotism that hate groups have practiced for 16 years has brought our diverse communities together, anchored in a patriotism of love, not fear. This September 11, I will remember that this is the true patriotism—working with our communities to protect each other, and in doing so, to form a more perfect union.