The Twentieth Anniversary of 9/11 is in 2021. We Must Center the Voices of Impacted Communities.

The Twentieth Anniversary of 9/11 is in 2021. We Must Center the Voices of Impacted Communities. - Proteus Fund

By Alison Kysia, Grant Writer, RISE Together Fund

In one year, we will commemorate the twentieth anniversary of September 11th. In addition to mourning the loss of life and destruction of that day, it was a defining moment in the history of Muslims, Arabs and South Asians in the U.S. A new set of expansive national security and surveillance policies singled out our communities, hate violence surged, and an emerging field and space of resistance and collaboration was born. The twentieth anniversary of 9/11 presents a critical opportunity to correct and complete the historical record, to bear witness and share the ongoing harms of the past 20 years on Muslims, Arabs, South Asians, and other targeted communities. We want to ensure that the human and civil rights impacts of 9/11 will not be overlooked in the narratives of national security and forever wars that will likely dominate news stories about the anniversary.

RISE Together Fund started grantmaking in 2009 to address the criminalization of Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians in the post-9/11 era. Early donors to our collaborative, including Open Society Foundations and Atlantic Philanthropies, believed in the necessity of funding directly impacted voices to lead social change efforts. These foundations, and others, collaborated with Muslim, Arab and South Asian philanthropists to provide resources for this burgeoning movement. The work to address the legacy of 9/11 on our communities has become an enduring challenge, and one that RTF continues to find innovative ways to address.

As the only national donor collaborative dedicated to supporting Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities, our role goes beyond traditional grantmaking. We intentionally direct our grants toward building long-term, sustainable movements, and then work alongside our grantees to help them grow, connect, and develop a collective voice. It is our hope that, as we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 in 2021, our field’s expertise and experience can guide a new chapter in our collective efforts to build a just, multiracial democracy. 

What have been the experiences of Muslims, Arab and South Asians in the post-9/11 era? 

This week, Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist and Nobel Laureate, erupted a social media firestorm when he inaccurately stated that “Overall, Americans took 9/11 pretty calmly. Notably, there wasn’t a mass outbreak of anti-Muslim sentiment and violence, which could all too easily have happened.” After receiving tens of thousands of responses, he chose to justify his position rather than use his platform to amplify the voices of impacted communities. This incident sums up well why we need to center the voices of people who can clarify the consequences of the 9/11 era beyond ill-informed media soundbites.

In the years since our founding, it is increasingly clear to us that post-9/11 policies targeting members of Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and other communities were formulated under the guise of national security but, in practice, continued a legacy of discrimination against people of color. Nearly twenty years on, these policies are cemented and in some cases, have been expanded.

For example, the PATRIOT Act, used after 9/11 to implement mass surveillance of our communities, was just reauthorized in May 2020. The use of informants, famously deployed by the FBI in their COINTELPRO program to target Black Power activists, has increased from 1,500 in 1975 to 15,000 post-9/11. The U.S.-led War on Terror, now in its second decade, has cost over $6 trillion, created tens of millions of refugees, and caused the deaths of 1-1.5 million people worldwide. War on Terror funding also includes the training of U.S. police officers in military engagement tactics, now being used against Black Lives Matter protesters throughout the U.S. Approximately 20% of police officers are veterans and they are more likely to have a use-of-force complaint against them. Much of the fear generated after the 9/11 attacks was used as cover to implement deeply unjust policies and practices. 

Post-9/11 policies frame our communities as posing a unique and ubiquitous threat and need to be constantly monitored as such. While the NSEERS program (National Security Entry-Exit Registration System), used to track Arab and Muslim immigrants in the U.S. after 9/11, was dismantled in 2011, a number of other surveillance programs are still intact. In May 2020, Countering Violent Extremism, a program started in 2014 to purportedly deter U.S. residents from becoming terrorists, was repackaged  as the Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention (TVTP) program with an $80 million budget and $10 million grants spread across the U.S. Despite the fact that the majority of terrorism in the U.S. is perpetrated by white supremacists and anti-government militias, CVE and TVTP focus on Muslim, Black, Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian communities, and particularly on youth. RTF grantee Muslim Justice League documented the use of these funds by the Boston Police Department to surveille Black Somali youth, who are similarly targeted in Minneapolis. According to research conducted by RTF grantee ISPU, when Muslims are accused of violent crimes, they are subject to more severe legal charges, up to three times the prison sentences, and more than seven times the media coverage compared to non-Muslim perpetrators.

These are only a few examples of the kinds of attacks our communities have sustained over the past two decades. We believe that by sharing these experiences more widely, we can provide some much-needed context to patriotic sloganeering that silences diverse perspectives we need to hear if we are serious about building a just, multiracial democracy.  

Which voices do we seek to center during the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 commemorations in 2021? 

We are inspired by the vision of our grantees, the coalitions they create, and their powerful movement building efforts through community organizing, public education, legal reform, civic engagement and intersectional cross-movement advocacy. By amplifying their voices, we can offer meaningful and diverse perspectives on the 9/11 era and the kind of democracy we envision. 

Coalitions including RTF grantees Arab American Association of New York (AAANY), Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), the Brennan Center for Justice, and CUNY Law School CLEAR Project were part of an effective and diverse mobilization of grassroots constituencies to win investigations of and legislation against unwarranted surveillance of Muslim communities in New York City through its New York Police Department (NYPD) Accountability Campaign. CUNY CLEAR, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Debevoise & Plimpton brought the Tanvir v. Tanzin lawsuit on behalf of Muslim Americans who were placed or kept on the No Fly List by the FBI in retaliation for their refusal to become informants and spy on their Muslim communities.

Impressive community-wide efforts have been made to address hate crimes which have risen steadily against our communities in the post-9/11 era, spiking sharply over the past four years. RTF Organizing Team leader Deepa Iyer published a book, We Too Sing America, about the physical and mental health toll of bigotry and discrimination on our communities and the many ways our communities fight back and take care of one another. RTF’s other lead organizer, Arjun Sethi, published a powerful collection of hate crime survivor testimonials. In 2019, RTF grantee Unite Oregon educated policymakers about the SB 577 Hate Crimes Bill, which passed in response to the 2017 Portland train attack of Black and Muslim women. After collaborative efforts among a broad coalition of social justice movement leaders, including grantees like the Arab American Institute, the House of Representatives passed the Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer NO HATE Act on May 15, 2020, to address the underreporting of hate crimes and improve police responses to them.

Coordinated efforts to defeat the Muslim and African Bans since 2017 are examples of the kinds of rapid response moments our communities face and our commitment to center the voices of impacted communities. We supported the #NoMuslimBanEver coalition and many other organizations fighting to defeat this dehumanizing legislation. Via our affiliated c4 entity, RISE Together Action Fund, we supported the National Iranian American Council who met with over 40 congressional offices and worked with a broad network of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian leaders to hold the first briefing on the Ban in September 2019. RTAF also funded geographically diverse grassroots advocacy, know-your-rights trainings, and legislative outreach through the Yemeni American Merchants Association, Arab American Civic Council, Emgage Virginia, and the Somali Community Resettlement Services, so that lawmakers could hear from directly impacted people. In January 2020, the Administration added six more countries to the seven countries banned by the Supreme Court in June 2018. The RTF Organizing Team and grantee ReThink Media held a rapid response call with 100 leaders, forging alliances with African immigrant leaders from UndocuBlack and African Communities Together, resulting in shared talking points and joint media outreach. On July 22, 2020, the U.S. House passed the NO BAN Act, a critical step towards striking down these Bans. 

Given the importance of the upcoming twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and the increased media attention it will garner, RTF will play a critical field coordination role, amplifying the work of our grantees by promoting and funding special projects in the field. We cannot do this without increasing our partnerships with new and existing funders. 

What does the funding landscape look like for Muslim, Arab and South Asian organizers and activists? 

After ten years of building relationships, RISE Together Fund is supported by 30 donor partners. Taken together, we have seen impressive growth in philanthropic support for Muslim, Arab and South Asian organizers and organizations in the past decade. As one of the founding funders of RTF, the Equality Team at Open Society Foundations continues to be a key supporter of Muslim, Arab and South Asian activism. Also predating RTF, the El Hibri Foundation, started in 2001, funds the building of an inclusive America by advancing peace and respect for diversity inspired by the universally shared values of Islam. Since 2007, the Building Bridges Program at the Doris Duke Foundation has sponsored programming to engage U.S.-based American Muslim communities and their neighbors through experiential learning through the creative arts. Founded in 2010, the Pillars Fund has invested $5 million into American Muslim communities by harnessing the wealth within these communities in order to create a more just, equitable, and inclusive society. Emerging funds like the American Muslim Community Foundation, founded in 2016, focuses on creating donor advised funds, giving circles, grantmaking, and endowments for American Muslim communities. In June 2017, Democracy Fund launched the “Fostering a Just and Inclusive Society” project to fund initiatives that protect the civil rights and safety of Muslim, Arab, South Asian and immigrant communities. 

And yet, the needs and demands of our communities necessitate far more resources to meet the challenges we experience. Our communities continue to be underinvested in and excluded from broader conversations and philanthropic opportunities around racial justice and immigrant justice. We also face a tidal wave of funding intended to demonize and criminalize our communities. According to the 2019 report, “Hijacked by Hate,” there are over 1,000 organizations responsible for funding 39 groups in the Islamophobia Network between 2014 and 2016 with a total revenue capacity of $1.5 billion. While RTF and our partners are making efforts to reframe the role of Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities in social justice spaces, we still have a long way to go. 

In preparation for the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 in September 2021, RTF will pursue an ambitious roster of programming goals to raise the voices of our grantees. Messaging research, spokesperson training, and aggressive media outreach will empower affected community leaders to speak for themselves. Local communities throughout the country will share lessons on how they are building networks of solidarity around intersectional social justice issues, because all the injustices we have experienced were informed by histories of inequity. Documentation efforts to record the impacts of the 9/11 era on individuals and communities will safeguard these stories from being forgotten. We invite you to join us in ensuring that the commemorations of the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 are an opportunity to embolden a future where we RISE Together.