In 1994, Nihad Awad and other American Muslims sought to start America’s first organization for challenging common misconceptions about Islam and the people who practice it. The Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, initially pushed back on Hollywood depictions of Muslims and fought discrimination against women who wear hijabs to work, among other causes. The group snapped more into focus and public attention following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, when Muslims were the victims of dozens of hate crimes in the immediate aftermath on the mistaken belief the attack was Islamist terrorism.
That experience loomed on 9/11, when the organization’s mission truly transformed. Awad was in Washington that day, and later in the same week, he was meeting with President George W. Bush amid a wave of anti-Muslim violence. CAIR’s story came to mirror the experiences of so many Muslim Americans in the years afterward: It would be revealed in an Edward Snowden leak that Awad and other Muslim activists were the subject of a massive government surveillance program. CAIR would often be forced to appear in court to defend itself against anti-Muslim activists and face claims it had ties to funding terrorism. The organization itself would become a boogeyman in the right-wing press.
But what Awad still remembers most vividly is that Tuesday. As the 20th anniversary approached, I called Awad to discuss his experiences then, how CAIR survived in the years after, and what’s changed for American Muslims now. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Aymann Ismail: Can you start by walking me through what you remember on Sept. 11, 2001?
Nihad Awad: It was a regular summer day in terms of routine, getting up and getting ready for work. I listen to the radio as I get ready to leave the house. I was listening to NPR as I was ironing my shirt when I heard the first news about an airplane slamming into one of the Twin Towers in New York. I thought it must have been an unfortunate tragedy, and I was anxious to hear more, but there were no details. Then minutes after that, just as I was ready to leave, I heard the second piece on the radio. Another plane hit the second Twin Tower. I turned on the TV and watched people begin to speculate on what’s happened. I just had a gut feeling when I started to hear the word terrorism.
Do you remember your first thought when you learned of the attack?
Unfortunately, I learned after the Oklahoma City Bombing on April 19, 1995, what happens after any massive terrorist attack. Immediately, media outlets will blame Muslims and Arabs. There is no restraint on making statements, no discipline for people to withhold judgment. The finger pointing starts right then. As the executive director for an emerging Muslim civil rights advocacy group, I knew that things were going to get tough.
What did you do?
I hit the road immediately. I was thinking about my family, because my wife was dropping my children at school about 20 miles away from home, and I could not get a hold of her. I was on my way to Washington, D.C. I heard something—I don’t know if it was the attack itself or what else was happening, I don’t know. When I got probably two miles away from the Pentagon, I saw a big black cloud over it. The highway became completely jammed. I had to back up on the ramp. I decided that there was no way for me to get to Washington D.C. this way. I drove for two and a half hours to get to my office, going past roadblocks and emergency vehicles. It was like being in a horror movie.
I eventually arrived at the CAIR office. The Muslim community leadership were already gathered in our office. That same day, on Tuesday, we were supposed to meet with President Bush at the White House in the afternoon. We started to monitor the news and get to work. And by 11:30, we came up with a statement to condemn the attack, praying for the victims, and wishing for those who have been injured to recover. We sent it to probably 40,000 media outlets that were in our database then. Then we went to the nearby Red Cross to see if they needed any donated blood.
What were you hearing from Muslims right after the attack?
We started to report on the hate crimes and attacks on innocent Muslims—the frenzy. We were receiving reports on both our office phones and personal phones. It was just non-stop ringing. The six years that preceded 9/11 made us aware that we would be doing this work for the rest of our lives. But when 9/11 happened, it was like a volcano. All of a sudden, it erupted. It was a macro-scale of the Oklahoma City Bombing, where we documented more than 220 incidents. Right after 9/11, it was in the thousands.
A few days after the attacks, we bought a full-page ad in the Washington Post for a statement of solidarity with the nation, praying for the victims, and thanking the hero first responders. Every single moment of that day is still in our minds. For us, this was a terrorist attack against all of us as Americans regardless of our background, regardless of our faith, but we have been doubly hurt by this tragedy. First as Americans, and second as Muslims, because the finger-pointing and guilt by association ensued immediately. We stayed in touch with the White House, and eventually we met with the president a few days later.
Tell me about your meeting with President Bush.
The White House did stay in touch with us, and when the president heard about the hate crimes, and when the media started to report on the attacks on the Muslim community, the White House probably realized that it is important for him to meet with our leadership. So we met with him a few days later in the morning in the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington D.C. We received the president in the library. I sat across the table from him after he greeted us, and then he told us that he has been contacted by leaders from around the Muslim world, who called him to condemn the attack and to also voice concern about the safety of American Muslims.
We had a long conversation with him, for almost one hour. I was the first to address him about our perspective and the need for him to remind Americans that any attack on any innocent person, regardless of their faith, will not be tolerated, especially attacks on Muslim women who wear hijab, or Sikh people who might look like they’re Muslim. They were prime targets for these attacks. We told the president that it’s important for him to state that. After that, he invited us to stand with him as he delivered a statement to the public through the media. I did have some private conversation with him also.
What did you talk about in private?
I told him that there is no room for anyone to justify the murder of innocent people in Islam. It’s a crime punishable in this life and the hereafter, and the sanctity of human life in Islam for one person is equivalent to the sanctity of all humanity. I told him that Al-Qaeda leaders have exploited suffering, primarily the oppression of the Palestinian people, because we saw the many statements by Osama Bin Laden on TV. He always talked about how the U.S. is supporting the state of Israel unconditionally without any consideration to the human rights of Palestinians. Emotions were very high. Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, invaded several Palestinian towns. President Bush himself appealed to Sharon to withdraw from the West Bank towns and cities they invaded. I told him the Muslim world was boiling in agony for Palestinians, and Osama Bin Laden exploited the feelings that many people have on the issue. I said Al-Qaeda wanted to create a wider gap between America and the Muslim world.
Unfortunately, they succeeded in dragging American leadership and the West from their homes and into a war that we now look back at as a total loss—in human lives, materially, politically, and morally. We at CAIR voiced our opposition to invading Afghanistan. But we did support U.S. action against Al-Qaeda, because they are an aberration and they deserve a just retaliation. But the innocent Afghans, the destruction of Afghanistan, 20 years of crazy war and drone attacks, for what? Blind anger without visionary or strategic approach to conflicts with terrorists. That fact that there are millions of Afghan and Iraqi refugees scattered around the world with no accountability for the leadership for what happened—It’s been one tragedy after the other.
There was also a betrayal by the leadership and by the media. It was very, very unfortunate. So many values and principles were just thrown out the window. We called on politicians to work as leaders, to speak as leaders, and to protect all Americans, and to recognize that the evil-doers who did this horrific crime did it to all of us. You should not play into their hands and elevate their claims because murder is a murder. A terrorist attack is a terrorist attack, regardless of the identity of the perpetrators or the victims. But unfortunately, we were not fully ready for the backlash.
When did you first encounter Islamophobia after the attack?
My wife is an American convert. She wears hijab. When we purchased a house and moved into a new neighborhood, the neighbor across the street saw my wife and kids moving stuff inside. I wasn’t there, I was at work. And he walked into our property and asked my wife to take off her hijab. He told her it was required in the neighborhood. She asked him, “Who are you to talk to us like this?” He said, “I’m a veteran.” She told him, “Well, my father is a veteran. Who are you to tell us what to do?” That was just the beginning of 16 years, 17 years of daily harassment and bullying against my family, including hate crimes. After a mass shooting in Florida, this guy came and put a statue of a pig on my property, knowing that we’re Muslim. He stalked me, following me all the way to my office, and he was arrested. On a daily basis, he would flip us off. He used to throw nails on our driveway. And whenever he sees us outside in the front yard, he would videotape us giving us the finger. For 16 years, Aymann. Eventually he gave up and moved out. He was trying to drive us from the neighborhood because we’re Muslim. I was always worried about what could happen to my family, because this guy and others who knew where I lived.
Did you ever reach a breaking point? I reminded myself of the Quranic verse اِنَّ مَعَ الۡعُسۡرِ يُسۡرًا (with hardship comes ease) when I experienced hateful Islamophobia. But I’d be lying if I told you I always handled it well.
Look, I was born in a refugee camp. My family was forced from their home in 1948. They ended up in no man’s land in Jordan, where the U.N. built a refugee camp, like what you see now in Turkey or Jordan for Syrian refugees. I lived in a refugee camp with no running water, no electricity, almost living a primitive life, until I was 18. Then I traveled to Italy to pursue a college education. And eventually I came to the U.S. So, with Allah’s help, I learned how to be resilient and patient, and to channel my emotions into something positive.
As you said, اِنَّ مَعَ الۡعُسۡرِ يُسۡرًا . With —not after—with hardship comes ease. Although it is hard in difficult times to hold such values when the reality seems always against you. For us, to start an organization in 1994, when there was no civil rights organization that proceeded us in the history of Islam in America, to fight discrimination against Muslims and to win was unheard of. So, we started something not from zero, but negative.
Once-fringe extremists like Pamela Geller and David Yerushalmi were mainstreamed by national television programs around this time. They’ve made public claims that CAIR is allied with international terrorist organizations, and have done some work in convincing the right that CAIR seeks to infiltrate the United States government. Yerushalmi has faced off with CAIR several times in court, a tactic he admits is intent on draining CAIR of its resources. Were they effective?
The bigger issue is that the government, not just the likes of David Yerushalmi, but the government turned against its own Muslim community, similar to what they did to Japanese Americans during World War II. They started a massive domestic surveillance program targeting activists, including myself and CAIR’s leadership. Every major Muslim activist in the country became a crime suspect for them. They put us on their watchlist and they cut ties with us, instead of working with us against the terrorists. They put us in the same category. They monitored our communications, our finances, our phones, our offices, our homes, when we traveled, we were stopped and harassed and searched. We were dealt as terror suspects because we are American Muslims who challenged the government’s misguided policies.
We received word from Edward Snowden confirming that many of us were under surveillance through the FISA court. And that really gave the green light for the likes of Yerushalmi to target the Muslim community and Islam in America, to try to de-legitimize our existence and to try to de-Americanize. And that was a diabolical strategy.
The Islamophobia network has become a profitable industry. These people made a lot of money by just being anti-Muslim bigots and spreading fear and paranoia about American Muslims and about CAIR as deemed the leading voice in the American Muslim community. So we receiving the brunt of anti-CAIR propaganda on Fox News, and many other organizations, and dealing with the Muslim community’s challenges of hate crimes and discrimination and the isolation that they were experiencing. And not only that, but trying to give the Muslim community reasons to be optimistic and to pursue the fields of journalism and law, and succeed in their lives. We are not only a legal defense organization, but we also help young American Muslims and Muslim families to break the fear cycle and live and fulfill their lives like other Americans without any sense of inferiority because we are here to protect them and the constitution is on our side.
What reason did the Muslim community have for optimism? What does it have now?
Unfortunately, knowing the history of our nation, almost every minority suffered oppression. It’s as American as apple pie. It’s a sad reality that no minority was given its rights. It struggles to gain its rights. And American Muslims are no different. To see a combination of intellectuals, politicians, and media lined up not only against your community—
Having said that, I think the Muslim community has started to prove itself. It did not run away from politics or allow other people to sideline it. We worked hard, we were proactive, we stood up to bigots, and we started to tell our own story. Through decades and generations, people who know nothing about Islam have spoken about us as “experts,” and today, American Muslims speak for themselves. And they also speak for America as elected officials, and I think the human face of the Muslim community is starting to pop up. There are many Americans now who say “Enough is enough. You are entitled to your bigotry, but America stands for all of us.”