Life

Bush’s Empty Words on Post-9/11 Tolerance Were Good, Actually

The White House once felt an obligation to stave off vigilante violence against Muslim Americans, not stoke it.

Bush gestures with his hands while speaking at a lectern to a group of Muslims. A Muslim leader is seated to his right.
President George W. Bush at the rededication ceremony of the Islamic Center in D.C. on June 27, 2007. Dennis Brack/Pool/Getty Images

On Sept. 11, 2001, I was 11 years old, in a Muslim school in northern New Jersey, just a few minutes’ drive from lower Manhattan where the Twin Towers burned. My dad worked as a driver in that area, so when the planes crashed and my school was evacuated, all I could think about was if I’d ever get to see my dad again. He made it home eventually, but many others didn’t. I remember feeling that day that I was under attack as an American.

In the next few days, I’d feel under attack as a Muslim. Our imam at our masjid brought to the prayer a big box stuffed with tiny American flags. He told us that if any of us felt unsafe, we could hang these flags out of our cars or out of our homes. Stories about Muslim women in hijabs and Muslim men with big beards being accosted in the street in hateful “revenge” attacks became commonplace. An FBI hotline was flooded with anonymous tips—96,000 of them in the week after the attacks—and the bar for being suspicious felt as low as being visibly Muslim. It didn’t feel safe to be Muslim outside of the mosque.

All over the country, not just my corner of Jersey, hate crimes against Muslims—and anyone perceived to be Muslim—soared in the days after 9/11. The White House sought to stave off a full-blown wave of violence. President George W. Bush quickly made the distinction between Muslim Americans and the terrorists who attacked us. On Sept. 17, Bush famously gave a speech from inside the Islamic Center of Washington. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam,” he said. “That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”

He’d go on to reaffirm this position several times in the weeks after, saying, “The war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs.” Another time: “The terrorists are traitors to their own faith, trying, in effect, to hijack Islam itself. The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends.” And: “The Muslim faith is based upon peace and love and compassion. The exact opposite of the teachings of the al-Qaida organization, which is based upon evil and hate and destruction.”

But as he made those speeches, his administration was beginning to roll out its signature “Patriot Act,” which gave the government power to lawfully surveil Americans with no probable cause, monitor their phone and email communications, collect bank information and transactions, and track anyone’s internet activity. Muslim Americans, and people who could be mistaken for Muslim like Sikhs and Indians, became terrorism suspects. The Bush administration also rounded up thousands of Muslims suspected of terrorism for having jobs or living in an apartment with other Muslims; they were brutalized and humiliated by their arresting agents. The government also produced a no-fly list that was so carelessly thrown together that it included many children under the age of 5. In 2002, the New York Police Department assembled a surveillance team that mapped Muslim communities, even in New Jersey, like they were enemy combatants. The program famously produced zero leads on terrorist activities, but did irrevocable damage to the relationship between Muslim Americans and law enforcement.

Even as a preteen, I didn’t believe Bush when he preached acceptance of Muslims. Just experiencing the humiliation of allotting time for interrogation at the airport was enough to understand his words were empty. My teenage brother was on the no-fly list, and we’d have to wait while he was taken to what we darkly joked was “the Mohammed room.” I remember going through mental gymnastics, telling myself that “GWB sucks but America rules.” In New Jersey, I felt vulnerable to law enforcement, but I thought my neighbors had my back. They’d known and respected us as valuable members of the community long before 9/11. I was more worried about the Americans who weren’t interacting with Muslims regularly—what would they do?

But for me, it helped that Bush said, “We do not fight Islam. We fight against evil.” That gave me just enough room to blame the government for bad policies and not give up on the country entirely. It didn’t matter whether or not Bush believed what he was preaching. The implication was that if he were to say outright that we were at war with Islam, it’d hurt him politically. Surely the public would be horrified if he were openly to declare war on millions of Muslims and encourage violence against them. Even if his government produced racist and xenophobic policies, I could still convince myself that the country at large accepted me.

That illusion fell apart with Donald Trump’s victory in 2016.

One of Trump’s signature promises at the start of his campaign was to outright ban Muslims from entering the United States, dangerously conflating Muslims generally with terrorists. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on,” he said. He barely got the last words out before he was drowned out by raucous applause. As a Muslim American, I felt under attack again. Saying Muslims instead of terrorists was no accident. It was a choice that gave his supporters a broader view of who exactly they should see as the enemy, putting all people who identify as Muslims in the same group. Still, I thought, there was no way enough Americans would excuse that kind of animosity toward their Muslim neighbors and vote him in, right? But they did.

After Trump’s win, I’m learning the value of lip service. To be clear: Bush did enormous harm to Muslims in America, and his record is indefensible. But that little bit of affirmation that we weren’t the enemy, even if it was superficial, protected me from feeling entirely cast out as an American. It made me feel safe. At least elected officials acknowledged they understood there was a difference between Islam and terrorism, even if their policies often blurred those lines. But with Trump, the line has vanished. After spiking in 2001, the number of physical assaults against Muslims would only again rise to that level after Trump announced his plan to ban Muslims in 2015. This time, the point was not to stave off violence, but to stoke it.

Trump’s travel ban is arguably nowhere near as consequential as Bush’s Patriot Act. For the average Muslim American citizen, Bush’s policies were much more dangerous. But Trump has pushed the Overton window for what is acceptable to say out loud about Muslim Americans.

Bush’s words, as hollow as they now seem, gave me a reason to believe that there were adults in the White House who felt responsible for how their words affected the people around me. I can only imagine how Trump’s cavalier xenophobia would have worsened the way Muslim Americans experienced 9/11. What if he had told his supporters that Muslims in Jersey, where I was, were celebrating the attack?

Still, the president’s hateful rhetoric has backfired in one important way: It drove Muslims to run for seats of power. His victory in 2016 is what inspired Muslim congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib to run in 2018. That year, a record-breaking 100 Muslims ran for office. And as the representation and power of the Muslim American diaspora grows, we’re finally getting to speak for ourselves.