For Immigrant Muslims in the U.S., 9/11 ‘Was a Curse and a Blessing’

Professor Mucahit Bilici

On the approaching 20th anniversary of 9/11, Professor Mucahit Bilici (GC/John Jay, Sociology), author of Finding Mecca in America, reflects on how the attack and the U.S. response to it have affected the American Muslim community, of which he is a member.  
The Graduate Center: How did 9/11 impact the progress that immigrant Muslims were making toward integrating into American society and culture?
Bilici: It was a curse and a blessing. While most literature is focused on the subsequent practices of discrimination, targeting, and overall racism towards Muslims, I find it disingenuous not to acknowledge the fact that 9/11 actually accelerated Muslim integration. Muslims were seeking inclusion and equality before 9/11, as they still do after it, and 9/11 gave Muslim identity in the United States unprecedented recognition, even if it was mostly negative. With some undeniable suffering, hard work, and cultivation of civic skills, immigrant American Muslims were able to secure greater integration.

GC: In your 2012 book Finding Mecca in America you explored the ways that Muslims were finding a home in the U.S. Twenty years after 9/11, how do you think Muslim Americans are faring?
Bilici: The American Muslim community includes large African American and various convert (white, Latinx, etc.) communities and this, together with the coming of age of a large cohort of second- and third-generation Muslims, means that America was already home — the only home — for at least a third of Muslims in the U.S.
However, for immigrant Muslim communities, like many other immigrant communities, the transformation of America into a home and homeland has been a laborious process. There was a time when at least some Muslims saw America as spiritually unclean and morally suspect. They saw no point in interfaith encounters. Some were even skeptical that the English language could function properly as a Muslim language. Today, we are far beyond such distant, doubtful attitudes. Today, American Muslims practice their version of American patriotism in ways that are not merely pragmatic but theological. So, yes, Muslim immigrants found a home in America and their children not only know no other place as home but are increasingly growing proud of it Islamically.
GC: Where were you on 9/11 and what are your memories of that day?
Bilici: I was a graduate student in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at a seminar. My prior perception of the American Muslim community, of which I am a part, was optimistic, especially in comparison to Muslim-majority countries. American exceptionalism seemed to work, even from an Islamic point of view. Free from political authoritarianism and the traditional clergy’s institutional control, American Muslims could produce a better Islam — that was both my observation of the sentiments of most American Muslims and my own wishful thinking. That sentiment was crushed under the collapsing weight of the Twin Towers. It inaugurated a depressive era, one American Muslims have not fully come out from, even 20 years later. This is what I mean when I say 9/11 has been both a curse and a blessing.
GC: How would you assess the U.S. response to 9/11 and what is one thing you’d change about it if you could?
Bilici: The U.S. government’s tendency to securitize all things Muslim or Islamic is an absolute blunder. Most Muslim-originated grievances, anti-Western sentiments, and violence have very little to do with religion. They are about identity. You have to respect the dignity of a people, any people (and that includes “rednecks” in the U.S. whose revolt takes the form of post-truth politics). Power is surely needed but should always be deployed smartly. U.S. invasions of Muslim countries in the Middle East and mass detention of domestic Muslim individuals were poisonous practices. I need not mention President Trump’s various racist policies and targeting of Muslims. A show of strength can also take the form of understanding and civility. The U.S. response to 9/11 lacked any such sophistication or humanity, and we are still seeing the results of those mistakes today.

GC: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Bilici: With the U.S. departure from Afghanistan and the various lessons learned in the last three administrations, my hope is that the Biden administration will have the vision and will to pursue a more rational and dignifying relationship with its Muslim interlocutors, domestic and foreign. As for American Muslims, I have no doubt they will fare well. They are Americans, after all.

Submitted on: SEP 10, 2021

Category: Diversity | Faculty | GCstories | General GC News | Sociology