Anny Bakalian is Associate Director and Mehdi Bozorgmehr
is Co-Director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at
the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Bozorgmehr is also
Associate Professor of Sociology at the City College and the Graduate
Center, City University of New York. Their latest endeavor, was writing Backlash 9/11: Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans Respond, which was published by UC Press in January 2009. Their blog entry below, talks about their inspirations for the book.
By: Anny Bakalian and Mehdi Bozorgmehr
Almost immediately after September 11th, we began receiving calls asking us about the backlash against Middle Eastern communities. We were both troubled by the violence being committed, even against people whose origins weren’t remotely similar to those of the hijackers. The government loudly proclaimed that violence against Muslim and Middle Eastern Americans would not be tolerated. However, for the communities affected, the actions of the government and fellow Americans spoke louder than words. Unfortunately, many men from these communities were deported, detained without charges, and required to register with authorities. Profiling was widespread and “flying while Muslim” became a liability.
About a week after the attacks, there was a request from the National Science Foundation for research proposals regarding any aspect of 9/11. We applied within a week, and 24 hours later we received a grant. As anyone who has ever applied for any sort of funding knows, that sort of fast turnaround is unheard of.
After considering our options, we decided the best way to study the backlash would be to talk with the leaders of community organizations, many of whom had become representatives of their populations in the local and national media. We interviewed 75 leaders across the country. While we had set out to study a backlash, something that has sadly happened at various times in our nation’s history, we began to find that the targeted communities were responding in unprecedented ways.
Instead of hiding from public attention, organizations representing Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans mobilized to demonstrate their commitment to the United States while defending their rights. They distanced themselves from the terrorists and condemned their actions. They educated the public about the Middle East and the Muslim faith through the media, books and pamphlets, and presentations in churches, synagogues and colleges. They actively involved their constituents in voter-registration, know-your-rights forums, and civic and political integration activities.
Our book tells a story, part of which we didn’t initially expect to be writing. In addition to the backlash committed by both the U.S. government and ordinary citizens, we found ourselves also telling a story of resistance on the part of Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans. In comparison to the treatment of the Germans during WWI and the Japanese during WWII, the post-9/11 backlash was tempered. We believe that the existence of Civil Rights laws and advocates were critical to this outcome. The lesson we wish to draw from our work is that Civil Rights Laws must not be compromised but strengthened to prevent profiling and scapegoating in the future.