Twenty Years Later, It Is Still Time to Dismantle the War on Terror

Three days after the twin towers fell, then-President George W. Bush called for Americans to “unite.” What followed was the decades-long United States military-led campaign — the “war on terror” — which has resulted in the death of over 2 million Muslims; the expansion of a network of over 800 global U.S. military bases; and the creation of codified Islamophobia, the violence of which knows no bounds. The rhetoric framing and otherizing of Muslims as people inherently prone to terrorism has been embedded in the design of post-9/11 policies “overtly and covertly, domestic and external,” Maha Hilal recounts in her new book, Innocent Until Proven Muslim.

From the get-go, the Bush administration swiftly deployed a version of public morality upholding dichotomous ideological values between the West and Islam — painting any response by the U.S. as “acceptable and even necessary.” As reported in the book, the five dimensions of the war on terror are: militarism and warfare, draconian immigration policy, surveillance, federal terrorism prosecutions, and detention and torture.

The root of the war on terror — institutionalized Islamophobia laced with white supremacy — has allowed the U.S. government to carry out state-sanctioned violence without an ounce of accountability. Two decades later, Muslims abroad and in the U.S. are facing the repercussions of a plethora of xenophobic programs like the National Security Entry-Exit Registration system, the use of Guantánamo Bay prison to house and torture Muslim men, and surveillance initiatives like Countering Violent Extremism. Muslims in the U.S. are forced to reconcile with their identities, whether they’re making a trip to the mosque for Jummah prayer or calling out the U.S. government for the destruction of their homelands.

Innocent Until Proven Muslim is an accumulation of Hilal’s ongoing research and efforts to organize to dismantle the war on terror by highlighting the most devastating impacts of U.S. empire. Analyzing everything from the panoptic violence of surveillance to the ongoing violations of fundamental rights, Hilal envisions a world in which Muslims no longer live under a cloud of suspicion.

Three Presidents Built, Maintained and Expanded the War on Terror

The U.S.’s narrow framing of moral culpability under the guise of national security has persisted under three successive presidencies, broadening the scope of state violence at every turn. Hilal describes the extent to which Muslim lives have been dehumanized.

Consider the pattern of performative accountability: Americans were shocked when photos from the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged, documenting extensive torture of Muslim prisoners who were punched, slapped, kicked, doused with hot water, forced into stress positions for hours, threatened with dogs, etc. In response, former President Bush stated, “The prison does not represent the America that I know,” evading any critique of the government while intentionally disregarding the livelihood of the Iraqis who were tortured.

Hilal writes, “The extent to which this has been allowed is a testament to the power of narrative to create real-world systems and the resilience that same narrative power displays to evade responsibility for the human cost of the systems it supports.”

During Barack Obama’s administration, a U.S. soldier massacred 16 villagers in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The immediate administrative focus, as Obama put it, was the “sacrifices that our men and women have made in Afghanistan” — sacrifices for whom? These examples illustrate how both Bush and Obama were experts at erasing the victimization of Muslims to justify the war on terror by any means. An entire infrastructure of systematic Islamophobia was designed in the early days after 9/11, and these attitudes toward counterterrorism have since been codified in law and policy. The true reach of the war on terror is difficult to imagine.

Openly glorifying in brutality, former President Donald Trump has expressed pride in state violence carried out during his presidency and laid the groundwork to leverage support for extreme policies like the Muslim ban. In 2015, Trump said the U.S. needs to “watch and study the mosques.” Four days later, he indicated that he would “certainly implement” a database to track Muslims in the U.S. Two days after that, he falsely claimed that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheered in New Jersey when the World Trade Center collapsed on 9/11.

Trump’s efforts to further perpetuate harmful tropes about Muslims make their deaths seem unimportant. Hilal reminds us that, in turn, “The dominant narrative becomes more difficult to dislodge from the imagination of a public who accepts this political landscape as matter of course.”

The Government Is Spying on Muslims

Innocent Until Proven Muslim is not limited to describing the pattern of physical abuse against Muslim bodies. Woven together with Hilal’s critical analysis of the human cost of post-9/11 wars are countless examples of sinister surveillance methods used to racially and religiously profile whole communities. Take for example, the creation of The National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which required immigrant men from Muslim-majority countries over the age of 16 to register with the government. Although this program ended in 2011, 80,000 men were subject to intensive interrogations and not a single one was charged with a crime.

Considering the superficial construction of the war on terror, Hilal reminds us that the government was able to “establish a differential system of justice,” paving the way for the normalization of entrapment, informants and so-called “fishing expeditions” — used to create conditions that lead to an actionable offense. The Holy Land Five case is perhaps one of the most prominent examples of arbitrary domestic trial cases.

A charitable organization created to support displaced Palestinians across the Middle East, the Holy Land Five were accused of diverting donations to Hamas. Although no direct connection between them was found, all five men were sentenced to 15 to 65 years in prison, and many American Muslims are still grappling with the criminalization of Muslim charities.

During the Obama administration, the authority of the U.S. government to surveil its citizens was expanded both in intent and practice — Hilal explains how these programs “disrupted community bonds” and “the confidence that stems from a reasonable expectation of freedom.” Mere months before the government launched the Countering Violent Extremism Program, Obama declared in his state of the union address that, “Muslims Americans are part of our American family.” A quick look at what this program entailed, however, was the pairing of vulnerable Muslim youth — disproportionately Black — with police officers who were trained to pathologize mental health issues. The psychological impact on Muslim Americans since 9/11 is insurmountable.

To answer the question, “is the war on terror over?” Hilal closes with 11 interviews that feature Muslims from a variety of different backgrounds. The unmistakable message in these conversations is that collective liberation means justice for all and in that, abolishing oppressive institutions that continue to otherize Muslims. In the words of Zahra, a Somali chaplain whom Hilal quotes in the book:

Islam has always been a theology and political tool that liberates people, even when they’re caged, even when they’re enslaved, even when they’re imprisoned. Even when our bodies are caged, even when we are under apartheid and in the borders of Gaza, or in the prisons in Philadelphia, or in the cages at Gitmo, Islam allows us to survive the unsurvivable. And that inherently makes you a threat to an empire whose only function has been to dominate, oppress, pillage, and kill.

For many Muslims, it is difficult not to internalize and absorb anti-Muslim rhetoric in a climate that seeks to normalize it. Islamophobia in the U.S is baked into laws, institutions and policies. From being treated as a suspect community when going through airport security to global militarism that continues to yield unrestricted violence in countless Muslim-majority countries — imagining a better future requires rising up together. Zahra, along with the 10 other interviewees, speak of the importance of unifying to dismantle anti-Muslim bigotry. Although individual Muslim communities face different degrees of state-sanctioned violence, collective liberation would ultimately free us all.

The war on terror is and always will be rooted in racism. Although Trump was able to expand its executive reach, the pathway was paved by both Bush and Obama. What has differed across administrations is not the gravity of violence or the human toll, but the preference for one form of violence over another. It was Bush who created a xenophobic immigration system with the creation of ICE, it was Obama who earned his place in history as “deporter in chief,” and it was Trump who reigned terror with a series of executive orders banning Muslims from entering the country. There’s no singular definition of justice for Muslims in the U.S and abroad, but perhaps demanding accountability from the war criminals who’ve once occupied the oval office is a start.