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After 9/11 Trump weaponized anti-Muslim hate — yet praises Jan. 6 insurrectionists

After 9/11, Trump and other GOP leaders helped escalate anti-Muslim hate to levels never seen before. Now they're praising the Jan. 6 attackers.
Illustration of the World Trade Center burning on Sept. 11, 2001 and a photo of the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
GOP hypocrisy is villainizing Muslim and Arab Americans after 9/11, but refusing to call Jan. 6 insurrectionnists “terrorists.”NBC News; Getty Images

In post-9/11 America, Republican politicians made the lives of Muslim Americans a living hell all in the name of appealing to the GOP base. Lies and accusations against us ranged from insisting that we knew who the terrorists were but refused to turn them in to claiming that some of us cheered the 9/11 terrorist attacks to saying our own communities were a “Trojan horse” waiting to attack America.

In post-9/11 America, Republican politicians made the lives of Muslim Americans a living hell.

It didn’t start out that way. In the days after 9/11, as Americans — including Arab American communities like my own — mourned the tragic loss of those killed in the terrorist attacks, then-President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., where he stated, “These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that.”

Shortly after, while speaking to a joint session of Congress, Bush said, “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends. … Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them.” (This is in no way a defense of Bush’s policies that followed, such as the Iraq War.)

But Republican sentiment changed over time. GOP candidates grasped that demonizing Muslims was a winner with their bigoted base, so they dished out a buffet of anti-Muslim rhetoric.

During his 2012 run for president, Newt Gingrich baselessly claimed that Muslims wanted to impose Islamic law on our nation. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., in 2014 claimed without evidence that Muslim terrorists might infect themselves with Ebola to spread it to Americans and boasted in his 2016 re-election campaign that he was “working to keep Americans safe and defeat radical Islamic terrorism.” While campaigning for the 2016 presidential election, candidate Ben Carson declared a Muslim should not be president of the United States — and saw a fundraising bump immediately after.

Given the years we’ve had to endure those claims and more, it’s deeply enraging to see those very same Republicans now downplay the Jan. 6 attack on our Capitol — which the FBI has defined as an act “domestic terrorism” — and to watch them defend the people who waged that attack. (Johnson has repeatedly defended those involved with claims that it was not an "insurrection" but "by and large" it was "a peaceful protest.")

Given the years we’ve had to endure those claims and more, it’s deeply enraging to see those very same Republicans now downplay the Jan. 6 attack on our Capitol.

This is not a political issue; it’s deeply personal. In post-9/11 America, it felt at times that the Muslim community was fighting for our survival as GOP politicians sought to score political points by ginning up hate for us. The real-world impact came in the form of hate crimes against us — from physical attacks on Muslims and our places of worship to widespread bullying of Muslim American students to even right-wing extremist terrorist plots to slaughter us.

The worst of the bunch by far has been former President Donald Trump. As a presidential candidate — and as president — Trump weaponized anti-Muslim hate to levels not even seen in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

In 2015, Trump called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” — a proposal supported by nearly two-thirds of GOP voters at the time. Some of his most dangerous comments included his lie that on Sept. 11, 2001, the “Arab population” in New Jersey was “cheering as the buildings came down.” He claimed that Muslims were protecting terrorists in their communities. Trump called for surveillance of American mosques because he baselessly claimed people were leaving them with “hatred and death in their eyes.”

(My follow-up question for that one is: Has he seen the footage of his supporters attacking the Capitol Police on Jan. 6?)

Given these comments, it’s no surprise that hate crimes against Muslims in 2016 actually reached a higher level than in the year after 9/11.

Today, the same Trump who demonized Muslims for not doing enough to turn in the terrorists is now defending the Jan. 6 terrorists. He has called his "Make America Great Again" fans who laid siege to the Capitol “peaceful people,” “great people” who filled the air with “love.” He tried to gaslight the public by saying Jan 6. was a “lovefest between the police … and the people that walked down to the Capitol,” as opposed to the reality we’ve seen in footage of people in MAGA gear attacking officers.

It’s no surprise that hate crimes against Muslims in 2016 actually reached a higher level than in the year after 9/11.

Trump has defended Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed at the Capitol on Jan. 6 when, as the Department of Justice noted, she “attempted to climb through one of the doors where glass was broken out” to breach a secure area that led to elected officials. Trump called the officer who shot her a “murderer,” despite a Capitol Police review concluding the shooting was justified since “the actions of the officer in this case potentially saved Members and staff from serious injury and possible death.”

I don’t think I can imagine the backlash we would have seen against Muslim American leaders after 9/11 if any had defended that terrorist attack or the terrorists who waged it.

Trump, of course, is only part of the problem. GOP Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, who spoke at a white nationalist event the month after the Jan. 6 attack, previously slammed then-President Barack Obama for refusing “to define the enemy for whom and what they are — radical Islamist terrorists.” On Gosar’s official congressional website, he pledged to “keep America safe from terrorism” and featured an image of Muslim refugee children alongside text that read “The new Trojan horse,” warning these people were “the perfect opportunity for Islamic terrorists to sneak into the U.S.”

Now Gosar is calling the Jan. 6 attackers “peaceful patriots” and slamming law enforcement for what he said is harassment in trying to locate everyone who was involved in the attack. He has claimed Babbitt was “executed” by Capitol Police who were "lying in wait" for her.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., warned when two Muslims were elected to Congress in 2018 — Reps. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., and Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich. — that it was part of “an Islamic invasion of our government.” But when an actual invasion of our Capitol occurred on Jan 6, Greene defended the attackers and referred to those still behind bars as “political prisoners.”

In post-9/11 America, the GOP politically weaponized the concept of "terrorism" to mean a threat from brown Muslims. We’re now experiencing an inverse effect, in which leading Republicans are refusing to use the word "terrorist" for those who have committed acts of terrorism, given they are not brown or Muslim but white and their own supporters.

In the 20 years since 9/11, Republicans have gone from Bush declaring that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists” to today’s GOP leaders openly defending the Jan 6. terrorists. When you look at it like that, you have to ask: Have the terrorists won?