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This opinion originally appeared in Medium.
By Zachary Markwith, Education Director
August 16, 2021
The Prophet Muhammad instructed, “Do not cause harm and do not reciprocate harm.” Applied to the September 11th attacks, the first part of this saying clearly condemns the merciless acts that killed nearly 3,000 innocent people. The second part compels us to question the US response to such violence. It is certainly permissible and necessary in Islam to seek justice against criminals, especially those who murder civilians. However, associating all Muslims with terrorism has had a devastating impact on millions, including me and my family, and many others in the US and around the world.
“Osama bin Laden!” shouted another student at me as he and his friends sped off in a truck on a fall evening in 2001. I had just begun my undergraduate studies at UC Santa Barbara, nestled between the Santa Ynez Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. When not studying, I sometimes surfed and worked at the local Isla Vista Food Co-op. You might assume that I am an Arab or South Asian Muslim, but I am a privileged White man born and raised in California. My parents baptized my four brothers and me into the Catholic Church and took us to Mass on most Sundays, which instilled an enduring affection for Mary and Jesus, the Sermon on the Mount, and the Golden Rule. We were also raised to believe in the 49ers, the Giants, and the Warriors, who have not disappointed. How then does a White kid from California come to experience Islamophobic hate speech in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks?
In 1998, I embraced Islam after reading sacred texts from various world religions, including the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, and the Quran. The Quran confirms that there is one God known by many different names. It also asserts that, “We indeed sent a messenger to every nation.” (16:36) By accepting Islam, at least as I understood it, I was accepting the essential teachings of Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Mary, Jesus, and Muhammad, peace be upon them all. The Quran even seems to suggest that people from other faiths can attain posthumous salvation. The notion that there is only one true path to Heaven always stuck me as parochial and self-serving. However, like many converts I adopted my new faith with a measure of enthusiasm. I studied with Muslim scholars, initially a group of nonviolent Sufis from West Africa, grew out my beard, and often donned traditional Arab dress during that period of my life.
I was walking home from class that fall evening in 2001 in traditional garb when I heard the student yelling, “Osama bin Laden!” After the initial shock, I shrugged it off and kept walking. It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that I encountered hate and discrimination because of my faith. However, I came to realize that I have the privilege of not being visibly Muslim, a luxury not enjoyed by all Muslims, especially Black and Brown Muslims, and Muslim women of all races and ethnicities who wear the hijab or headscarf. When I trim my beard and wear a suit, most hipsters look more Muslim than me. After the 9/11 attacks, there was a dramatic rise in hate crimes against Muslim Americans and others who were thought to be Muslim, which has actually gotten worse in recent years. The first person to be targeted and killed in a hate crime after 9/11 was a Sikh American, Balbir Singh Sodhi. The killer reportedly said that he was “going to go out and shoot some towel-heads.” And, “We should kill their children, too, because they’ll grow up to be like their parents.” Muslim Americans have also been killed, assaulted, insulted, and discriminated against, and have had their mosques vandalized and burned.
Americans of all creeds and colors were affected by the 9/11 attacks. 2,996 people died that day, leaving behind grieving family members and friends. Many of the courageous first responders who survived now face chronic illnesses and are in need of adequate health care, which has been brought to light thanks to the efforts of Jon Stewart and others. My younger brother was among those who decided to enlist in the military after the attacks. He and many other sincere men and women were told that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were necessary to fight the “War on Terror.” Twenty years later, many now question the justifications we were given, including fighting terrorism, finding WMDs, spreading democracy, and liberating women, especially as the Taliban have regained power throughout Afghanistan and our concerns for the human rights of Afghan women and minority groups remain. However, in 2001 almost no one in government or the mainstream media raised any doubts about the Bush administration’s call to perpetual war, with the notable exceptions of Congresswoman Barbara Lee and former MSNBC host Phil Donahue.
A 2021 report from The Cost of War Project at Brown University estimates that 7,057 US troops have died in Afghanistan and Iraq. Thankfully my brother was not among the fallen and returned home to us safely. Many other soldiers were wounded, coming home with physical and psychological scars. The same report finds that 30,177 active duty soldiers and veterans have committed suicide since 9/11, more than four times as many soldiers as died on the battlefield. Moreover, it is estimated that post-9/11 wars have cost US taxpayers $6.4 trillion, money that could have been spent on health care, education, developing clean energy, and a host of other programs that benefit Americans. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had already spoken of these misplaced priorities back in 1967 when he said, “The security we profess to seek in foreign adventures we will lose in our decaying cities.”
And yet the suffering from 9/11 is not limited to Americans. My wife was born in Baghdad. As a child, she and her family decided to leave Iraq during the brutal reign of Saddam Hussein, who was supported by the US at the time. While my wife’s immediate family did not have to endure the initial “Shock and Awe” campaign, and the subsequent war and occupation, they did suffer losses among their extended family and friends. Like most Iraqis, they were relieved to see Saddam no longer in power, but lamented the destruction of the country and loss of human life that ensued, including Iraqis and Americans who were killed. What if my wife’s family had chosen to stay in Iraq? Would she and they still be with us today? It is estimated that the US-led War on Terror has caused the deaths of over a million people, mostly civilians, in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, with another four million casualties from the indirect consequences of war, such as hunger, disease, a lack of medical supplies, and the destruction of infrastructure.
Americans and Muslims are still healing from the pain and trauma associated with the September 11th attacks. When we indiscriminately seek retribution from people who had nothing to do with these crimes, we only perpetuate the cycle of violence and injustice. All human beings, my family and yours, deserve to live in peace and security, without fear that we may be targeted because of our nationality or faith. We must avoid harming others. And when we or our communities are attacked, we must avoid harming people who were not responsible.
Zachary Markwith is Education Director at Islamic Networks Group (ING) (www.ing.org) . He received his PhD in Islamic Studies from the Graduate Theological Union and his MA in Comparative Religious Studies from the George Washington University. He is the author of One God, Many Prophets: the Universal Wisdom of Islam and the forthcoming book And When I Love Him: the Hadith al-Nawafil and the Formation of Sufism.
ING’s mission is to promote peace among all, by fostering a deeper, more nuanced understanding of Muslims and other faith-based, racial/ethnic, and cultural communities, through teaching, learning, and engaging across differences.
 Katayoun Kishi, “Assaults against Muslims in U.S. surpass 2001 level,” Pew Research Center, November 15, 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/11/15/assaults-against-muslims-in-u-s-surpass-2001-level/.
 Valarie Kaur, “His brother was murdered for wearing a turban after 9/11. 15 years later, he spoke to the killer,” PRI, September 23, 2016, https://www.pri.org/stories/2016-09-23/his-brother-was-murdered-wearing-turban-after-911-last-week-he-spoke-killer.
 “Anti-Muslim Incidents Since Sept. 11, 2001,” Southern Poverty Law Center, March 29, 2011, https://www.splcenter.org/news/2011/03/29/anti-muslim-incidents-sept-11-2001.
 Michael Gold, “How Jon Stewart Became a Fierce Advocate for 9/11 Responders, The New York Times, June 12, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/12/nyregion/jon-stewart-9-11-congress.html.
 Kristina Wong, “Lone opponent of Afghanistan war feel vindicated,” The Hill, December 15, 2014, https://thehill.com/policy/defense/227975-lone-opponent-of-afghan-war-feels-vindicated; and Jim Naureckas, “MSNBC’s Racism Is OK, Peace Activism Is Not,” FAIR, April 1, 2003, https://fair.org/extra/msnbcs-racism-is-ok-peace-activism-is-not/.
 Thomas Howard Suitt, III, “High Suicide Rates among United States Service Members and Veterans of the Post-9/11 Wars,” Costs of War Project, Brown University, June 21, 2021, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2021/Suitt_Suicides_Costs%20of%20War_June%2021%202021.pdf.
 Neta C. Crawford, “United States Budgetary Costs and Obligations of Post-9/11 War through FY2020: $6.4 Trillion,” Costs of War Project, Brown University, November 13, 2019, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/files/cow/imce/papers/2019/US%20Budgetary%20Costs%20of%20Wars%20November%202019.pdf.
 Martin Luther King Jr., “Martin Luther King Jr. on the Vietnam War,” The Atlantic, March 25, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/martin-luther-king-jr-vietnam/552521/.
 Nafeez Ahmed, “The global pandemic of anti-Muslim genocidal violence,” Insurge Intelligence, August 1, 2019, https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence/the-global-pandemic-of-anti-muslim-genocidal-violence-c9e735d4575e.