Within hours of the announcement of Osama Bin Laden’s death, news crews appeared outside mosques. In the still frigid dawn in Des Moines and the already balmy humidity of New Orleans, Muslim Americans emerging from fajr prayers were asked their reaction to news of Bin Laden’s death. Their response was that of any other American; a killer had been punished and an elusive closure delivered to a terrible tragedy. These moments in the aftermath a jubilant morning, represent in a nutshell the tremendous burden Muslim Americans have borne on their weary shoulders since the attacks of September 11, 2001. They never have and never did support terror, but in the decade hence, they have had to become adept at denouncing it, paying again and again the price for an imagined complicity, forced again and again to prove their loyalty.
The death of Osama Bin Laden thus brings not only closure to the victims of the terrible tragedy, the thousands (including Muslims) who perished that day, but also the possibility of reprieve for an American Muslim community plagued by hate crimes and public suspicion. In recent months, the escalation of political rhetoric against Muslims, the concerted effort to construct an entire community as a sinister bogeyman, demonize their everyday religious practice as inherently evil have provoked exercises in victimization largely unknown a decade ago. Women wearing hijab have been chucked off planes and men speaking Arabic reported to the FBI just for the act of speaking loudly on cell phones. Anti-Sharia bills have cleared legislatures in Oklahoma and Tennessee, all touted as integral steps toward “Keeping America Safe”, and similar bills are poised for introduction in Alaska and California.
In the midst of this era of seemingly unending suspicion, the death of Osama Bin Laden could augur the beginning of a new era for Islam in America. With the mastermind dead, the image of the tragedy can now perhaps be extricated from the beliefs and practices of a community that was held unfairly complicit in every act of terror hence. American Muslim leaders have in the past decade issued statement after statement, denunciation after denunciation in the hope of finally convincing their fellow Americans of their aversion to terrorism, and their helplessness before them. Until today it seems, none of these have been enough; sometimes lost and at others ignored before the propaganda of the religious right intent on painting them as traitors and their faith as inherently violent.
Rafia Zakaria is Associate Editor of altmuslim.com and an attorney who teaches constitutional history and political philosophy. The photo accompanying this article is that of Twitter user @naqeeb leading chants at Ground Zero on Sunday night. His shirt says, “I’m Muslim – don’t panic!”