The news broke through dozens of wall screens as I stepped off the aircraft gangway into the airport terminal: American commandos had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The tenth anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001 was only a few months away, I had just landed in Italy to lecture on US national security law and policy, and it seemed like some sort stage had been taken with the events that unfolded while I was in the air.
Today, in a decade of the âWorld War on Terrorâ, it is a whole different memory, not the raid on Abbottabad, that emerges from this trip.
After one of my lectures in a crowded university auditorium in Brescia, I was approached by a young Muslim woman wearing the hijab. By name, appearance and English accent, I read her as an Italian of Arab descent, perhaps the daughter of immigrants to Italy or an immigrant herself. Unlike the other students who lined up to talk to me, she had a concise question: “Why is the United States waging war on Islam?”
By reflex, I resisted his premise. What we were seeing and experiencing was not a war against Islam and Muslims per se, I dared. There were complex historical forces at play, pulling various actors into multiple conflicts, I added, and the people and groups the United States had designated as âterroristsâ did not represent all Muslims. But, based on the harsh realities of our time, this woman had concluded that there had to be a war waged by the United States against Islam. And she was far from the only one in this belief. The perception she expressed is still common among Muslims around the world, in the south as well as in the north.
As the world tries to take stock of 20 years of a “global war on terror“, the question of the young woman looms in my mind, with a contemporary twist: do the lives of Muslims matter?
The question can be forgiven given the heavy toll that US-led military campaigns have taken Muslims almost everywhere. In Afghanistan, where America’s longest war has now reached its predictable end, and in parts of neighboring Pakistan, more than 71,000 civilians have perished. In Iraq, since the American invasion, more than 200,000 civilians have died as a result of violence directly linked to the war. In Syria, US operations have claimed hundreds of lives among the 227,000 civilian casualties since the start of the war there. Drone strikes and other US military operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen have left more than 1,000 civilians dead.
These numbers are probably underestimated due to the difficulty of collecting comprehensive data in the war zones that the United States has initiated or maintained. The use of so-called signature strikes increases the number of bodies that US drones leave in their wake, while the totaling of all “military-aged men” killed in those strikes as combatants Just as systematically deflates the number of officially recognized civilian deaths. And the scale of the massacre is only compounded by the hundreds of thousands of cripples and millions of displaced people, their homes and societies destroyed or disfigured.
Ramzi Kassem is professor of law at CUNY School of Law, where he directs the Clear project. In 2020, he was named Freedom Scholar by the Marguerite Casey Foundation
Since September 11, the US government has systematically used the law to allow, operationalize and justify the violence it has deployed against Muslims both at home and abroad. The government has invoked international law to support its invasion of Iraq in 2003, claiming to enforce bans on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that have never been found and on Saddam Hussein’s equally fictitious aid to terrorists. . Government lawyers have also developed legal justifications for claiming that the Constitution does not impede the conduct of the United States beyond our borders, legitimizing the extrajudicial execution of Muslim American citizens abroad and indefinite incarceration. without due process of non-Muslim citizens at Guantanamo and Bagram, as well as their torture there and through a network of black sites run by the CIA or by proxy. Congress has created military commissions that have jurisdiction only over non-citizens and, in practice, are used exclusively to judge Muslims.
Ordinary US federal courts have enforced and maintained sweeping laws punishing material support to foreign groups that have been used almost exclusively in prosecutions against US Muslims – there are no equivalent laws criminalizing material support to white supremacist groups national; there shouldn’t be. The government defended its widespread surveillance of American Muslims, which was emulated by local law enforcement agencies such as the NYPD, and implemented registration of Muslims, Muslim-majority penitentiaries, secret screening programs immigration, the infamous ban on Muslims and even denaturalization initiatives. The erection and development of this alternative legal infrastructure served to amplify and formalize the devaluation of Muslim life.
Yet as the country marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the main narrative in US media and public discourse once again turned to mourning and celebrating American lives – civil and military – that were lost in that terrible Tuesday morning and over the two decades. since. President Joe Biden’s recent remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan counted only lost and injured American personnel, and invoked the need to “save American lives.” The much larger contingent of the war against Muslim victims of terrorism has largely erased in the cascade of remembrance. It is crucial at this historical stage to focus the record of the last two decades on Muslim lives.
Continuing to argue over the supposed purity of US intentions – as US officials and experts often do – over the clear impact of US government actions affecting Muslims at home and abroad would be worse than adding l insult to injury. This kind of self-elevation rejects Muslim humanity and obscures both the United States’ position as the primary purveyor of political violence as well as its share of responsibility for the state of affairs in many Muslim-majority countries. today.
My own attempt at a nuanced answer to the Italian woman’s question ten years ago also failed in a way, missing the forest for the trees. If we expect others to take seriously the proclamations of equality and dignity for all that are rife in the United States, then the legacy of September 11 must be told primarily through the stories of Muslims around the world. whole who have paid a heavy price for American power and prosperity in the 21st century.
Without a broader recognition of the shared reality of millions of Muslims – and concrete steps to repair and transform this reality – we are helping to ensure its persistence and spread. The relentless demonization of Muslims in contemporary American culture and politics, along with the unfolding of extreme and seemingly exceptional policies and practices affecting them, has paved the way for other governments to follow suit.
Rohingya Muslims, long victims of government repression, have recently faced a genocidal campaign by Myanmar’s military rulers in the name of the fight against terrorism. When the US government declared that the use of internment camps and the forced sterilization of Uyghurs and other Muslim populations in the Xinjiang region constituted genocide and crimes against humanity, China defended these practices in part of its own war on terrorism.
Islamophobia, as the dominant ideology, has played a determining role in these horrors; it conveniently oiled the workings of a variety of oppressive systems. But this is not the root cause of the existence of these systems, nor the main force that drives them. The US occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq have served as leverage for US rivalries with Iran, Russia and China. Control of Iraq’s sizable oil reserves has also helped to sate the expansive US extractive appetite, as protracted wars fuel the coffers of the US military-industrial complex and its fallout. Likewise, the Chinese campaign against its Muslim populations is taking advantage of a global Islamophobic climate to brutally strengthen the Chinese Communist Party’s control over the oil-rich regions where Muslims reside.
For countless Muslims and around the world, the message of the past 20 years is clear: Muslims’ rights are expendable, their blood cheap. Any real math with the legacy of September 11 must start there.
â¢ Ramzi Kassem is professor of law at CUNY School of Law, where he directs the Clear project. In 2020, he was named Freedom Scholar by the Marguerite Casey Foundation