As a Lebanese-American Muslim, I spent most of my formative years grappling with the increasing Islamophobia during the Iraq War. I was in the fourth grade—having just crushed it in a game of handball—when I heard it for the first time. “Go back to your country, towel head.” Now, I didn’t wear hijab, so I figured this phrase was being parroted by a child who’d heard adults say the same. I don’t think he understood what he was saying, but I understood what he meant. I wasn’t welcome in my own country.
But Islamophobia in the United States didn’t start there, nor has it ended since.
Our analysis of Islamophobia must not begin with its post-9/11 iterations. Surveillance of Muslims is as old as this country itself, explained Vanessa Taylor, a Black Muslim journalist. During slavery, there were efforts to police religion among enslaved people, with forced conversion to Christianity being common. And it continued after that, with Black Muslims of the Moorish Science Temple being tracked by the FBI in the 1930s and of the Nation of Islam being targeted during COINTELPro.
“All of this is taking place well before the War on Terror,” said Taylor. “You cannot separate surveillance from anti-Blackness… and you cannot separate Muslims from Blackness.”
After 9/11, she said, there was a shift in focus from the “dangerous Black radical” to the “foreign Arab terrorist.” That shift is what began my experiences with Islamophobia and xenophobia. Taylor says the escalation in Iran just continues expanding who is deemed as a threat, with both the NYPD and LAPD tweeting about essentially keeping an eye on Iranians. Though Taylor believes it will begin with Iranians, she says “police signaling their intentions to watch Muslim communities carries a double threat” for Black Muslims. The rest of us who are ambiguously ethnic will certainly not be spared from profiling, surveillance, and Islamophobic abuse.
Thirty-year-old Amani Hamed remembers this abuse from her adolescence.
“After 9/11, I was bullied mercilessly. Kids spit on me, pulled off my hijab, tried to pull off my jacket or lift up my shirt. I was called things like ‘towel-head’ and ‘terrorist,’” she recalls. It wasn’t just other children who demonstrated Islamophobia towards Hamed. When she was in school, a substitute teacher described for the class why the Iraq War was justified because “these people hate us and were out to destroy our way of life.” He insinuated Islam should be considered a terrorist group rather than a religion.
“Every bully in that class took it as a call to action,” said Hamed. This call to action resulted in her being shoved in hallways and having food thrown at her.
She worries that “this escalation [with Iran] is going to reinvigorate Islamophobic and xenophobic people and embolden them to act out against people like myself.” She worries most about friends who are “visibly Muslim women and who speak languages other than English in public or who speak with an accent.”
Having lived in fear makes the impending war seem even scarier. While folks on Twitter imagine what getting drafted and shipped off to the Middle East might look like through memes and gifs, Muslims in America worry. We worry for our own safety and security. We wonder if our relatives abroad will be safe with the increased destabilization in the region. While people joke, we worry as Muslims have been worrying since the inception of this country.
A 22-year-old student in Atlanta who preferred not to be named described the lasting repercussions of the War on Terror.
“[It means] having to always calculate extra time in when traveling with your hijabi friends to make time for them to get ‘randomly’ selected for another round of TSA security checks. It’s the constant effort by leaders in our communities to stress how many of us are doctors or lawyers in an effort to humanize our existence in America. It’s constantly having to correct professors, colleagues, and classmates when they use the term ‘radical Islamic terrorism,’” they said.
It’s exhausting to have to mold your life around the discrimination and microagressions that exist for all Muslims. It’s arguably even more exhausting to wait for the next time there is a surge in Islamophobia—because there is always a next time. Many Muslims fear that the escalation with Iran is just that. Ahmed Darwish—who was active in the anti-war protests in 2003—is reminded “of the awful feeling of powerlessness” he felt as as the Iraq war began.
“It was so obviously wrong, and myself and so many others spoke out against it, but…the war machine drummed on,” he said.
We are already seeing the detainment of Americans of Iranian descent at the border, held for hours only because of their background. This is not new.
Nelab, a 28-year-old Afghan-American woman, recalls the panic of getting detained at the customs checkpoint with her family.
“After an hour and a half, I am in tears and concerned that we won’t be able to make it home. The customs officers angrily told me to be patient and asked that I calm down,” she said. “Being told to calm down when you feel detained despite being an American trying to go back to your own country is quite an ironic concept.”
If the Trump administration is allowed to continue escalating the situation in Iran, these occurrences will only become more common. Not only will people of Middle Eastern descent and Muslims of all racial and ethnic backgrounds be targeted at the airport, but daily life will become harder and more triggering. Already tense and dangerous interactions with police will become that much more terrifying. Traveling abroad will bring with it anxiety and pressure to memorize what to say or due if you’re the one being unlawfully detained on your way home. The state will continue to find new and insidious ways to infiltrate our communities to advance counterterrorism efforts. Funny how these same tactics of profiling, surveillance, and mistrust are never duplicated when it comes to white supremacist terror—no matter how much of a threat that is.
Though I and my Muslim friends and family are angry and afraid, there is a certain sense of consistency throughout all of this. Most of us have spent our lives contending with these issues—the severity of which ebb and flow with the ever-changing political situation at home and abroad. Aisha Sultan, a 45-year-old journalist, remembers many instances of Islamophobia involving her and her family spanning from the late 1980s to now.
Despite all of the fear and trauma, she says, “being Muslim in America means having your loyalty and sense of belonging regularly challenged and worrying about the safety of the people you love. It means learning how to love and live fully despite fears and a pervasive sense of anxiety about what the political moment may portend.”
It’s a particularly bad political moment right now, but I hope that Americans stand up against yet another war in the Middle East. If not, the result will be devastating both here in the U.S. and abroad.
Reina Sultan (she/her) is a Lebanese-American Muslim woman working on gender and conflict issues at her nine to five. A California native, she enjoys the beach, the sun, and complaining about the weather in D.C., where she now lives. Reina is passionate about smashing the patriarchy and eating the rich. Her work can also be found in Wear Your Voice, VICE, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Rewire.News, Greatist, and more. Following @SultanReina on Twitter will provide you with endless hot takes and photos of Reina’s extremely cute cats.