Anarchist and student activist Tami Peterson, who was born in the US but is now based in London, also recently wrote this piece on "Islamophobia in America: 9 years on from 9/11", and has kindly given us permission to reprint it.
In August of 2001 I got a job in lower Manhattan with a financial software company. I remember the awe I felt having moved to the Big Apple, the energy, the sheer excitement of living in the hustle and bustle of the if-you-can-make-it-there-you-can-make-it-anywhere New York. NYC is also a gathering place of sorts for those in the States who have grown up elsewhere. Huge numbers of artists, bohemians, queers, activists and liberal minded people move there every year, mixing with the multicultural beauty of the city from Queens to Manhattan to the Bronx and Brooklyn. Yet this is far too pretty a picture of NYC which carries such charm precisely because it is a city that is at the same time dangerous, human, alive, sordid and real.
I lived in Brooklyn with a native NYer, a Latino whose mother was Ecuadoran and father Puerto Rican. I remember feeling distinctly on top of the world in a city that I adored, a far cry from my upbringing as a Mormon in conservative Utah where knowing anyone who was non-Mormon or non-white was rather unique.
This romanticism of New York was short lived as the whole world changed on the 11th of September 2001. When one lives through such a dramatic event, it is difficult to separate the intimately personal horror one experienced with the dramatic political event itself. My experience was terrifying and I still find it incredibly difficult to talk about. I saw people falling to their deaths, heard horrific noises, saw horrendous things and was diagnosed, along with 20% of NYers who were in the vicinity, with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) which unexpectedly manifested itself in me fully after the 7th of July, 2005 bombings in London. I am currently on the World Trade Center Health Registry along with 50,000 others who were there on the day so that they can monitor long term health effects of the event.
Nine years on, the images, the stories, the horror and the terror seem almost strangely blasé. Every year the photos reappear with some new political analysis whether Judith Butler in her Precarious Life, Slavoj Zizek in First As Tragedy, Then as Farce or Noam Chomsky in his 9-11. The left has rightly been determined to utilise and try to understand 9-11 for its political implications, meaning and ongoing relevance to politics.
Having moved to Britain in 2004 I was confronted with a variety of analyses of the event with which I was previously unfamiliar. Chief amongst these was the claim that 9-11 was not to be condemned because this would imply that US imperialism and Islamic terrorism were equal threats. In addition others had claimed that whether one liked it or not, this was an “anti-capitalist” act and therefore in some way progressive. What these views failed to fully understand was that far from being “anti-capitalist” the attacks helped to prop up the system, were used as a justification for war and undoubtedly prolonged the life of a Bush administration which was profoundly unpopular in the days before the attack. (And for the record I despise the so-called “9-11 Truthers” who spend more time on ridiculous conspiracy theories than having any real concern for the victims or those still dying from being first responders while breathing in the toxic dust.) The capitalist system is good at using reactionary events to its advantage and this has been borne out in a variety of ways as the attacks continue to be used to justify the deadly war in Afghanistan to the continued presence in Iraq to innumerable misuses of state terror from Russia to Israel to China.
This is further evidenced by the reactionary response to 9-11 that is feeding the current wave of Islamophobia in the United States. This is a tragedy lived twice over; yet one would be hard pressed to see the latest events as mere farce. Nearly sixty Muslims lost their lives in the attacks on 9-11, yet this alone is not reason enough to oppose the increasing Islamophobia in the US. On the24th of August, 21 year-old Michael Enright hailed a taxi near 24th street in Manhattan. He asked the 43 year-old Bangladeshi immigrant Ahmed Sharif “Are you a Muslim?” and when Sharif said “Yes” he pulled out a knife, cutting Ahmed’s throat, face and forearms. Luckily Sharif lived and Enright is facing 25 years in prison.
It is the reactionary politics of movements like the Tea Party that feed off of the victims of 9-11 to fuel hatred, racism and Islamophobia using ignorance, exaggeration and fear. Do a simple search on Facebook for “Ground Zero Mosque” and it becomes clear that the misinformation about Park51, a Muslim Community Centre which includes a prayer room, which is NOT being built on ground zero but a number of blocks away, is as misinformed as it is hateful. There are claims that President Obama is allowing a “victory monument” for terrorists at Ground Zero, that a “super mosque” is being built at Ground Zero, that Muslims are celebrating the triumph of their “hateful religion” due to “liberal communists, socialists and fascists” like Obama (yes, I am not sure how one can be all three of those either).
Lost is the American ideal that I and most others were taught from their youngest days, that we were a country founded because of the need for religious freedom, that our forefathers fought and died for that right and that immigration and the acceptance of others is at the very heart of what the United States is all about. Whether one chooses to believe this about the US, the fact that this once staple of teaching young school children across the country in conservative and liberal areas alike is fast being replaced by a fierce hatred of the “other” whether it be Mexican immigrants in Arizona or Muslim cab drivers in New York City, is a phenomena worth watching closely. It cuts across the very core of the country and reveals how the United States now sees itself; increasingly isolated, superior and always right. Lost is any kind of humility, a respect for knowledge and wisdom and promoted is an attack on all things secular and non-Christian.
It is this cynical use of a tragic event to subvert some of the most cherished values of the United States, a tragic event which occurred in one of the most alive, beautiful and multicultural cities, that is perhaps most galling. I can still remember the feeling I had when visiting my native Salt Lake City, Utah and seeing the innumerable bumper stickers vowing to never forget alongside another calling for supporting the war in Iraq. “What the hell do you know about it? What the hell do you know about beautiful, multicultural New York and those that died? Who are you to call for others to be killed for something you know nothing about?” I remember thinking.
Analysis is one thing, using such a tragedy to promote war and state terror is quite another. Yet this has been done since mere days after the attacks with George W. Bush standing on the smoldering pile at Ground Zero yelling into a megaphone about how “the people who did this” were going to pay. For many he meant Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden, yet nine years on it would appear that it is innocent Muslims that are the ones that are still paying for the horror of that day. The reality is that the Muslim victims of 9-11 far exceed the sixty from the day itself, they include the hundreds of thousands killed in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine. They include Muslims tortured and killed in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. They include Muslim rescue workers who rushed to the scene on the day and who along with their brothers and sisters have been snubbed by a government which has refused to support those still sick and dying from the toxic smoke and dust. They include victims of Islamophobic hate crimes across the world and Muslim victims of state terror in the name of “security” and “freedom”.
The victims of 9-11 are continuing to die around the world every day because the victims of 9-11 are also the victims of the responses to 9-11. Yet the oldest victim is not a person at all but an idea. It is the idea that America is a country where people of all faiths are respected and welcome, an idea which is enshrined in the US Constitution. It is a tragic loss from which the United States will find it very difficult to recover.