While many Americans of various faiths have opposed the U.S. government’s domestic and international “War on Terror,” American Muslims who have expressed their criticisms and doubts about these policies have often had their loyalty questioned.
Many Americans wonder why a large number of American Muslims oppose monitoring mosques and Muslim charities, phone wiretapping and airport profiling. Is it because American Muslims are unwilling to tolerate any personal inconvenience or intrusion on their privacy, even if it makes the country safer? Is it because American Muslims sympathize with terrorists, and they don’t want terror plots disrupted?
And many Americans wonder why many American Muslims opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Is it because American Muslims put the safety of their fellow Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq over the safety of their fellow Americans here at home? Is it because American Muslims want al-Qaeda to have bases it can use to strike America again?
It’s true that American Muslims care about their privacy and about Muslims overseas. But it’s also true that they don’t want to see America attacked, because America has given them freedom of speech, religious freedom, and the opportunity to make a living and take care of their families. In addition, the safety of American Muslims is intertwined with the safety of their American neighbors; American Muslims don’t want their families and friends to be blown up, which would happen if there are future attacks in the US. Furthermore, they don’t want to be victims of a backlash (discrimination, hate crimes, and restrictions on civil liberties), which would certainly follow future attacks in the US.
So why do so many American Muslims oppose U.S. government policies described as preventive measures against attacks on the US by perpretators portrayed as Muslims?
It’s simple. Many Muslims in America don’t believe that any Muslims were involved in the 9/11 attacks. A 2007 Pew Research Center study found that 60 percent of Muslims in America are not convinced that Arabs were involved in 9/11; 40 percent do believe Arabs were involved. Pew confirmed the findings of a poll, conducted on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, at the Islamic Society of North America’s (ISNA) annual convention, which found that 62 percent of American Muslims are not convinced that Muslims were involved in 9/11; 38 percent do believe Muslims were involved. A 2002 Hamilton College/Zogby International poll of Muslims (citizens and non-citizens) living in America found that 66% are not convinced that Al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks; 34% said Al Qaeda carried out the 9/11 attacks.
The poll at the ISNA convention also showed that most American Muslims are unconvinced that al-Qaeda is a real organization, operated by Muslims who are trying to attack America. (And the poll showed that most American Muslims are unconvinced that Muslims committed the July 2005 train and bus bombings in London.)
Many also believe that alleged plots discovered since 9/11 were set-ups by government informants, entrapping Muslims who posed no real threat to America. For example, skeptical Muslims cite the case of Shahawar Matin Siraj, who was found guilty of conspiring to blow up a NY subway station. Siraj claimed that he was entrapped by a Muslim informant, Osama Eldawoody, who was being paid by the NYPD. Siraj said the informant suggested the plot and incited him to act by showing him pictures of Muslims overseas being mistreated and by saying he had received a fatwa allowing Muslims to kill American troops. Wary Muslims also cite the case of Hamid Hayat, who was convicted of providing material support to terrorists by attending a terrorist training camp in Pakistan. Hayat claimed he was entrapped by a Muslim informant, Naseem Khan, who was being paid by the federal government. The informant encouraged Hayat to talk about fighting America, encouraged Hayat to attend a terrorist training camp, and cursed at Hayat when Hayat said he hadn’t yet attended the camp.
If Muslims weren’t involved in 9/11 or other plots, many American Muslims argue, there’s no need for the government to watch mosques, wiretap Muslim calls, or profile Muslims at airports. There’s no need for the government to torture alleged Muslim terrorists. And there was no need to invade Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Pew study found that 74 percent of Muslims in America don’t believe America’s “War on Terror” is a sincere effort to reduce international terrorism. The poll at the ISNA convention showed that 68 percent of American Muslims believe the American government is at war with the religion of Islam.
American Muslims hesitate to publicly discuss their views regarding what really happened on 9/11, because they fear being further isolated and marginalized; after all, mainstream media and political leaders tend to mock anyone who questions the official 9/11 story. American Muslims also fear the government will investigate them if they speak out. (Pew found most Muslims in America say life has become more difficult for their community since 9/11, and most believe the government singles out Muslims for scrutiny.)
In private discussions in mosques and Muslim homes, American Muslims often argue that no “real Muslim” would have carried out such attacks against civilians. Furthermore, they say, the 19 young Muslims accused of being the hijackers could not have pulled it off. They could not have snuck knives onto four planes, successfully hijacked four planes using just those knives, and then flown three of the planes — unchallenged by US air defenses — into three buildings including the military headquarters of the US. Many American Muslims believe someone else, someone better connected, hijacked the planes, or that the planes were crashed into buildings by remote control. They also believe the World Trade Center was ultimately brought down by explosives.
The poll at the ISNA convention showed that most American Muslims believe the US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and allowed the attacks to occur. The poll also found American Muslims almost evenly divided about whether the US government actually organized the 9/11 attacks, and also about whether the tapes of Osama bin Laden — claiming responsibility for the 9/11 attacks and threatening future attacks — are real or fake.
Angered by the American government’s perceived political and religious hostility towards Islam and Muslims before and after 9/11, skeptical American Muslims believe the government allowed 9/11 (or orchestrated 9/11) to justify greater domestic control over Muslims and invasions of Muslim countries.
This belief that the US government framed Muslims on 9/11 in order to justify further oppression of Muslims (including shutting down major American Muslim charities which used to benefit the poor in the Muslim world, and high-profile prosecutions of Muslims like Captain James Yusuf Yee who was wrongly accused of spying), creates significant tension and depression in the American Muslim community at the grassroots.
While the general public has never been polled about whether Muslims were involved in the attacks, many Americans have questions about 9/11. A 2004 Zogby International poll showed that 49 percent of New York City residents (whose city was attacked on 9/11) and 49 percent of New York State residents believe the US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and allowed the attacks to occur.
A 2006 Zogby International poll showed that 42 percent of Americans believe that the US government and the 9/11 Commission concealed or refused to investigate critical evidence about 9/11, and 45 percent of Americans want Congress to re-investigate the attacks and whether any US government officials allowed the attacks. Ironically, few American Muslims are actively involved in the growing, self-proclaimed “9/11 Truth Movement.”
A 2006 Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll showed that thirty-six percent of Americans believe it is “very likely” or “somewhat likely” that federal officials either participated in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon or took no action to stop them “because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East.”
Does it matter that so many American Muslims, and other Americans, have such basic questions about such a significant event? Should the rest of the country care?
Our country generally marginalizes conspiracy theorists who reject the official story about any national tragedy, like the assassination of JFK.
So should America just write most American Muslims off as a bunch of kooks?
That would be risky.
After all, American Muslims are an important community when it comes to the “War on Terror.” Government officials often speak about the need for American Muslims to monitor their community and mosques for suspicious activity. And American Muslims can serve as an important bridge between America and the Muslim world, where anti-Americanism is growing. So it’s in America’s interest for American Muslims to feel like they are part of the American family, rather than outsiders.
But is there any common ground between American Muslims and other Americans on security issues? Is there any reason to think that American Muslims might be inclined to help protect America? Or are American Muslims innately hostile to America for religious and political reasons? Pew found that 61 percent of Muslims in America are very concerned or somewhat concerned about the possible rise of Islamic extremism in the US, and 76 percent are very concerned or somewhat concerned about the possible rise of Islamic extremism around the world. In addition, the poll at the ISNA convention found that the vast majority of American Muslims oppose attacks within the US, and they would report plots if they learned about them.
If these American Muslims had believed that some Muslims were involved in 9/11, and if they had believed that there are some Muslims who continue to pose a genuine threat to everyone in America (including a threat to American Muslims), they may have actively supported some domestic and international security efforts after 9/11.
To bridge the gap between American Muslims and other Americans, Muslim organizations (local mosques as well as national organizations) around the country can provide public forums encouraging American Muslims to openly discuss 9/11. Thus far, these organizations — concerned about political correctness and fearful of government investigations of those who take unpopular views — haven’t facilitated such discussions.
Why would American Muslim groups benefit from hosting such discussions? Depending on these Muslim organizations’ perspectives, such discussions would either help American Muslims understand the truth about what really happened on 9/11, or such discussions would help the rest of America understand the truth about what really happened on 9/11. Such discussions would also be good for the mental health of many American Muslims, who keep their tensions hidden.
Of course, fearful American Muslim organizations will not take these steps unless the mainstream media and political leaders permit a safe space for discussion about these issues without marginalizing doubters as “kooks” or investigating them. The mainstream needs to “legitimize” the discussion for it to occur.
So what would these discussions, facilitated by Muslim institutions, involve? The same thing that segments of the country have already been discussing since 9/11.
For one thing, American Muslims (like many other Americans) need a history lesson. Many American Muslims are not well informed about the history of al-Qaeda and various attacks and plots around the world before 9/11. They don’t know about statements issued by al-Qaeda listing its grievances regarding American foreign policy. Nor are they familiar with the violent history of “jihadis” like Ayman al-Zawahiri. Many American Muslims had never heard of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Ladin, or Zawahiri before 9/11. So it looked to many American Muslims like 9/11 came out of the blue, and it looked to many American Muslims like the US government had simply created a Muslim bogeyman. Second, American Muslims need forums where they can raise all their technical and logistical concerns about 9/11, and get their questions answered. How did fires high above the ground cause the massive World Trade Center Towers to collapse? Why was the hole in the Pentagon wall apparently so small, and why is there no clear video footage of a plane hitting the building? Why didn’t fighter jets intercept any of the hijacked planes? Of course, many Americans have been publicly discussing these issues since 9/11, but American Muslims and their institutions have stayed out of these public discussions thus far.
Bringing these discussions into mosques and Muslim conventions will not erase all doubts. But it’s certainly much healthier for all doubts to be expressed openly rather than for them to be hidden, so that American Muslims can be exposed to various perspectives and new information. Regardless of how many minds are ultimately changed, American Muslims will feel more comfortable knowing their country is willing to hear them out. These discussions will be a useful outlet for letting out steam. And American Muslims may become more willing to go to bat for America, here and in the Muslim world.
And questions raised by American Muslims may encourage the country to further investigate nagging questions about 9/11, to help get the country on the same page.
Many other Americans may dislike the idea of letting unpopular American Muslims air their concerns about an issue as emotion-laden as 9/11. But it’s in America’s interest to bridge the gap between American Muslims and the rest of the country.
NOTE: Most Muslims living in the Muslim world are not convinced that Arabs were involved in the 9/11 attacks.
KAMRAN MEMON, a Chicago-based civil rights lawyer, is the founder of Muslims For A Safe America. Muslims For A Safe America encourages honest and informed discussion about how to make Muslims and America safer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was originally published by Islamica Magazine in 2007.