The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, sparked anti-Muslim sentiment, even hate crimes. Photo: AFP / Seth McAllister

September 11, 2001, was one of the darkest days in US history and a watershed moment in the global consciousness around the West’s relations with the Muslim world.

The terror attack on that day, which The New York Times once called “one of the most audacious attacks ever against the United States,” sabotaged the notion of the impregnability of America and violated the honor of a nation envied by friends and foes for its economic strength, political stability, military might and technological supremacy.

The images of the 9/11 attacks, seared into the national collective memory of Americans, immortalized by detailed chronicles of investigative journalists and documentary photographers, might never be consigned to oblivion. The tragedy is certainly one of the most extensively debated events of the 21st century. And it is not only the loss of 2,977 lives or the gigantic economic loss amounting to US$123 billion sustained by the United States that perpetuate its historical impact.

The 9/11 attacks fired up the imagination of a generation of authors, filmmakers and musicians to produce a profusion of books, movies and songs about the disaster, inspired in-depth debate in the media that continues to this day, and even kindled bizarre conspiracy theories that attracted their own partisans.

But more important, they dislodged the sense of immunity that most Americans had felt for decades while walking down the streets of New York and Washington, DC, believing that the menace of terrorism would never reach the shores of the United States.

As the world’s unchallenged superpower, the response by the United States to the infringement of its national security on that chilling day needed to be decisive and forceful.

A “war on terror” project was soon set in motion, the Department of Homeland Security was launched tasked with doubling down on the security of the US borders and soil, an array of counterterrorism legislation and executive orders were adopted, and congressional laws have since been capitalized on by three successive commanders-in-chief to deploy troops in at least 18 countries.

Some 7,052 Americans in uniform have been killed since, and 53,244 others wounded.

Brown University estimates that the cost of the war on terror had exceeded $5.4 trillion by 2019, and researchers believe the United States will dedicate a further $1 trillion over the course of the next 40 years to look after the veterans of what some see as a neocolonial campaign.

The contagion effects of the war on terror, however, should be tracked in territories that actually had no role in that massive act of inhumanity on September 11, 2001.

The 9/11 hijackers were 19 al-Qaeda affiliates from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Egypt. But in retribution for their felonious escapade, embodying the vile thirst of a notorious gang for spreading havoc, it was an entire religion that became the target of a relentless smear campaign, and the Muslim world as a whole was villainized – a misguided venture that is still in progress and hasn’t made America safer.

In September 2001, al-Qaeda had fewer than a hundred members, but at its strongest in 2019, it boasted some 40,000 recruits. Although it seems to be in disarray now, al-Qaeda hasn’t vanished, and US State Department officials admit it is more powerful than before.

The war on terror never exterminated al-Qaeda and its spin-offs across the Middle East and North Africa in their entirety. Nor did it root out the pernicious ideology of the death squad that continues to enthrall young men who were not even born yet on September 11, 2001, to see with their own eyes how violent extremism can ruin lives and entangle the world in insecurity.

This costly campaign, which is believed to have displaced upward of 37 million people globally, hasn’t been able to prevent ISIS, the newest incarnation of a consistent thread of global terrorism, from becoming a launching pad of violent attacks throughout the region, either.

The way the US government responded to the 9/11 attacks in rhetoric and action, and the reflection of that disturbing episode in the US media, turbocharged a thrust of anti-Muslim prejudice that had existed in the public sphere in America previously, but needed a stimulus to come to the surface, and found that impetus in the polarization of American society along religious and racial divides after the September 11 events.

According to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, in 2000, only 33 offenses motivated by anti-Muslim bias were reported. In a significant departure from the pre-9/11 trends, UCR revealed that 27.2% of all hate crimes reported in 2001, namely 546 incidents, were anti-Muslim, and this includes 455 anti-Muslim hate crimes that occurred after the 9/11 attacks.

An inflammatory discourse on “Islamic terrorism” was triggered, and Muslims everywhere found themselves receiving angry looks, presumed to be the culprits behind the desecration of the integrity and security of America, the torchbearer of the free world.

It took less than five months for then-president George W Bush to float the idea of an “Axis of Evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, comprising Iran, Iraq and North Korea. These rogue states, according to the president, were outposts of criminality harboring malevolent ambitions to produce weapons of mass destruction and sponsor global terrorism.

Yet to this day, no evidence has ever been produced substantiating the idea that any of those three countries were involved in the 9/11 attacks.

The Iranian what ifs

Three years after the 9/11 saga, Bush conceded that the Central Intelligence Agency had found no links between Iran and the suicide hijackings.

And this year, Western media played down US Vice-President Mike Pence’s allegations that the deceased commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, had helped the 9/11 terrorists travel to Afghanistan as a “conspiracy theory,” reminding him of the 9/11 Commission’s independent conclusion that it had “found no evidence that Iran or Hezbollah was aware of the planning for what later became the 9/11 attack.”

That said, the seismic change the 9/11 calamity precipitated was that the US political and intelligence elites had found a new scoundrel to blame indiscriminately for the entirety of the security challenges facing America: Islam and Muslim-majority countries subscribing to sharia laws, including Iran.

Regardless of whether or not Islamic teachings were genuinely the motivation of those 19 brainwashed, callous terrorists who committed the attacks, a new, gloomy era in the relationship between the United States and the Muslim world was initiated, characterized by mutual cynicism, fear, tensions and unbridgeable gaps.

Muslim-baiting tropes became a fixture of newspapers and TV stations, Islamophobic bombast by politicians and public-officer holders morphed into the new normal and even a plus for appealing to a resentful electorate nationwide, and anti-Muslim discrimination and hate crimes were stitched into the fabric of daily life.

Iranians paid a heavy price for the outpouring of anti-Muslim rage that followed the 9/11 attacks. Unable to point the finger of accusation at a traditional, stalwart ally – Saudi Arabia – that was the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and 15 of the plane hijackers, as well as the provenance of Sunni extremism, the US government diverted the victimizing narrative toward Iran, which it termed the world’s leading state sponsor of terror.

It became quite accepted and customary for American politicians and mainstream media to refer to Iranians as terrorists. Two examples are President Donald Trump calling Iran the “number one nation of terror” in 2019, and a “terrorist nation” one year before that.

This sort of hate-mongering, partly the outcome of the deterioration of Iran-US relations following the 1979 revolution and partly the upshot of the post-9/11 feelings against Muslims and Islamic nations, emboldened white supremacists and alt-right nationalists, both in the United States and internationally, to target Iranians, harass and disparage them and call them terrorists in hate crimes that can have immeasurable traumatic impacts on the victims.

In one case last year, an Iranian refugee in Portland, Oregon, Hasel Afshar, who is a member of Baha’i faith, returned home from a trip to Canada, to find his apartment assaulted and vandalized with hate-filled graffiti, including one in which it was written on a wall in one of the rooms in large red letters “f*ck you terrorist.” In some of the graffiti, he was called a Muslim terrorist, whereas he is actually not a Muslim.

A comprehensive risk analysis by the Cato Institute found in 2019 that in the time period 1975 to 2017, foreign-born terrorists who entered the United States as refugees, students, visitors, asylum-seekers or workers killed a total of 3,037 people on the US soil, accounting for 86% of all murders caused by terrorists.

Within this timeframe, “zero” people were killed by “Iranian terrorists,” while terrorists of Lebanese origin killed 157 people and terrorists of Emirati origin murdered 313 citizens. The inventory even lists eight people killed by Uzbek nationals.

Throughout the years that have elapsed since the 9/11 attacks, many Iranians have been asking valid questions about their standing in the world, global perceptions of their country and the reason they have been put on a trial of isolation and vilification by the United States.

What if 15 of the 19 assailants of the September 11 cataclysm had been Iranians? What if the Boston Marathon bombing perpetrators had been Iranians? What if the deadly San Bernardino attack of 2015 had been pulled off by a green-card-holding Iranian couple?

These what ifs, and tens of questions along the same lines, continue to be asked by Iranians, who believe they don’t deserve to be eschewed and slandered, when in fact they are a nationality with a revered culture, and ambitions for a more prosperous, democratic future. These are questions, the posing of which unveils the grievances of a nation at being viewed and treated with suspicion, frequently misunderstood as ripe for radicalism and a source of global instability, in sharp contrast to what it actually stands for.

The evidence is clear that the United States will never eradicate global terrorism by going down the path of persistently defaming an entire faith and shutting the doors on any opening for dialogue with a nation that sits at the crossroads of Western and Eastern culture and history.

Fighting terrorism needs acquiring a clear understanding of the roots of this global threat, investing on the right priorities and engaging with all stakeholders that have an interest in preventing further al-Qaeda- and ISIS-like cults from emerging.

Kourosh Ziabari is a journalist based in Iran. He is the recipient of a Chevening Award from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also an American Middle Eastern Network for Dialogue at Stanford (AMENDS) Fellow.