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Racial and religious profiling remains a legacy of 9/11 — one we must end

Americans from Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian and other communities were suddenly subject to a torrent of suspicion and hate after 9/11, and that suspicion has been institutionalized by discriminatory government profiling and policies.

Palestinian Americans from Frederick, Maryland, listen to speakers at a May 2003 civil rights rally in Washington, D.C. The sign reads

(RNS) — On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Sat Hari Singh — a Sikh who keeps his beard and turban — became a hero. 

A train operator for the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York City, Singh made a snap decision to drive his train away from the city as soon as he saw smoke billowing into the Fulton Street Station. In the aftermath of the attacks, he was recognized by the MTA as a “hero of 9/11.”

But weeks later, his employer instituted a “brand or segregate” policy, requiring individuals such as Singh to pin the MTA’s logo on their religious head coverings. Overnight, he went from a hero to a suspect, and it took years of litigation to reverse the discriminatory policy.

Similarly, an American Muslim named Mohammad Salman Hamdani was treated with suspicion before being acknowledged as the hero he was. Hamdani, who immigrated to Queens from Pakistan as a child, was a volunteer emergency medical technician and a cadet working to serve in the New York Police Department. He died at ground zero helping those in need but was initially treated with suspicion due to his family’s background. It was only after his body was recovered in March 2002 that his name was cleared. Yet even today, his name is listed among the civilian victims of the attacks and not recognized as a true first responder.

Stories like these are all too common: Americans from Muslim, Arab, Sikh, South Asian and other communities were suddenly subject to a torrent of suspicion and hate after 9/11, and that suspicion was institutionalized by discriminatory government profiling and policies as part of the “war on terror” that continues to have a disparate impact on millions of Americans today.  

Individuals with Arab or Muslim names, brown skin or visible religious articles were profiled, whether by police, federal agents at the airports or their employers. Places of worship, most commonly mosques, were surveilled without warrants or legally sufficient justification.

Individuals were placed on government “watch lists” or “no fly lists” due to their ethnicity or faith. Arab American and American Muslim children, or those perceived to be, were bullied in schools, called “terrorist” by their peers. And all manner of bias incidents, from verbal harassment to physical violence, were suffered by members of our communities. The first person killed in a post-9/11 hate crime was Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turbaned Sikh man who was shot to death while planting flowers outside of his gas station in Mesa, Arizona. 

FILE - In this Aug. 19, 2016 file photo, Rana Singh Sodhi, kneels near his service station in Mesa, Ariz., next to a memorial for his brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Sodhi, a Sikh American was killed at his Arizona gas station four days following the Sept. 11 attacks by a man who announced he was "going to go out and shoot some towel-heads" and mistook him for an Arab Muslim. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

In this Aug. 19, 2016, file photo, Rana Singh Sodhi kneels near his service station in Mesa, Arizona, next to a memorial for his brother, Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered in the days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American, was killed at his Arizona gas station four days after the Sept. 11 attacks by a man who announced he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads” and mistook him for an Arab Muslim. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

Like our fellow Americans, we were collectively victims of the terror attacks — but we were not allowed to mourn the same way, as we were also victims of prejudice and suspicion. Twenty years later, serious policy change is still needed to move forward.

Despite thousands of hate crimes and bias incidents every year, the federal government does not mandate that state and local law enforcement provide accurate, verifiable hate crime data to the FBI. That hate crimes are undercounted in our country is undisputed fact, with high-profile cases demonstrating the problem. Without a serious effort to mandate better data collection and reporting, we remain woefully behind in our attempts to address the policy problem of hate in America. The recent enactment of the Jabara-Heyer NO HATE Act as part of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is a good first step, but more must be done to achieve meaningful, mandatory reporting.

To address some of the policies that have violated our communities’ civil rights and liberties since 9/11 — and continued injustices perpetrated against the Black community — Congress must also move to pass the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act. The existing guidance on profiling contains sweeping loopholes in the cases of national security, border security and local law enforcement. Policing and surveillance authorities have been too often abused, affecting congregations in houses of worship and individual people in the airport or on the street. Through this legislation, we can end these discriminatory policies — and additional action is possible through further reforms at the Department of Justice.   

And finally, we must confront the primary threat facing the United States: white supremacist violence. Congress should push forward legislation such as the Domestic and International Terrorism DATA Act — without creating new domestic terrorism charges that could be weaponized against the very communities we seek to protect, including Black and brown communities. Our government should appropriately prioritize the federal resources we have rather than creating new legal mechanisms that could be misused against people and communities that are, 20 years on, still cast as threats by those who use fear and xenophobia in pursuit of political power. 

On this solemn anniversary, we cannot rely solely on the rhetoric of remembrance and unity. Our country must continue to heal from the trauma of 9/11, and that means grappling with the painful experiences of those of us who became targets of suspicion overnight — and were treated as such by some of our neighbors, co-workers and elected officials. Any attempt to sweep this history under the rug dishonors the memory of those we lost, whereas an earnest effort to build a better, more just society is truly the only way we can heal.

(Maya Berry is executive director of the Arab American Institute, a national civil rights advocacy organization founded to mobilize a strong, educated and empowered Arab American community. Satjeet Kaur is executive director of the Sikh Coalition, the nation’s largest Sikh civil rights organization, which fights for the right of all Americans to practice their faith fearlessly. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)