Civil Rights Concerns in the Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Area in the Aftermath of the September 11, 2001, Tragedies

Chapter 1


On April 24 and 25, 2002, the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia Advisory Committees to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held a joint community forum focusing on civil rights concerns in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The two-day public forum at the Mason District Government Center in Annandale, Virginia, included presentations by representatives of affected population groups, specifically Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs; federal, state, and local government agencies; legal and advocacy organizations; and community groups. This report summarizes the presentations made by panelists during the forum and includes brief observations by the Advisory Committees based on the testimony and limited additional research.

Background and Purpose of the Forum

The attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, by terrorists from Middle Eastern countries led to a dramatic surge in hate violence and discrimination against people in the United States perceived to be of Arab or Muslim background, most of whom are either U.S. citizens or legal residents.[1] Within hours of the hijackings, even as prominent Arab American and Muslim American organizations were issuing statements condemning the terrorist attacks, the backlash began.[2] There were two hate-related murders, of an Indian Sikh and a Pakistani Muslim, on September 15, and another murder of an Asian Indian on October 4. Over the following weeks and months, civil rights advocacy organizations, media, and local and federal law enforcement agencies around the country received reports of attempted murder, physical assaults, death threats, and hate speech against individuals, as well as vandalism, arson, shootings, and threats against homes, businesses, and places of worship. There were also persistent reports of discrimination, especially in air travel and in the workplace. The victims of these incidents included a wide array of people—Arabs and Muslims but also South Asians, including Sikhs, and even other individuals such as Latinos mistakenly perceived to be members of these groups.[3]

The day after the hijackings, on September 12, 2001, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights issued a statement conveying its deepest sympathies to the victims of the heinous terrorist attacks and warning that Americans should not compound the tragedy through expressions of religious or ethnic intolerance.[4] This was followed by a statement in which the Commission noted the troubling rise in reported bias incidents and urged tolerance, saying:

As our nation pursues the criminals who committed these acts, we must not allow our desire to find those responsible lead us to irresponsible and un‑American behavior. We must not compromise any person’s civil rights or civil liberties. No one should be a target simply because they are, or appear to be, a member of a particular ethnic or religious community.[5]

The Commission established a toll-free telephone hot line to receive calls from individuals who believed they had been victims of civil rights abuses as part of the post-September 11 backlash. After hundreds of complaints were received the first week, the Commission established a second hot line to accommodate the volume of calls.[6] Information received over the hot lines has helped the Commission to identify affected communities and gauge the frequency, nature, and geographic distribution of discrimination incidents and hate crimes.[7]

At the same time, concern was also growing among civil liberties advocates over implications of the new national policies and laws enacted or proposed as part of the federal government’s nationwide response to terrorism. On October 12, 2001, the Commission held a public briefing on U.S. immigration policies, practices, and laws in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.[8] Representatives of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) as well as community organizations and legal experts discussed racial profiling in air travel, bias in immigration procedures, and the government’s detention of thousands of Middle Eastern men in the aftermath of September 11.

Immediately after the September attacks, the Commission urged its State Advisory Committees (SACs) to take a proactive role in bringing community and government leaders together to tackle civil rights issues raised by September 11 and its aftermath. The SACs responded with forums, briefings, and meetings with local community groups and leaders, which have taken place in 20 states and territories across the country.[9] As part of this effort, the Commission’s Eastern Regional Office formed an Inter-SAC Committee drawn from the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia Advisory Committees in order to bring a joint perspective to issues in the national capital area, which spans the three jurisdictions. Members and staff believed that a collaborative effort, rather than parallel efforts by the three individual SACs, could achieve a more comprehensive and in-depth examination of issues in the metropolitan area.

In working on post-September 11 civil rights concerns, the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area was considered of particular importance for several reasons. First, the Virginia and Maryland suburbs of Washington are home to large populations of people of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin. Indeed, the metropolitan Washington area is one of the top five urban areas with the largest populations of Arab Americans and is also among the top five areas for Asian Indian Americans, the most numerous of the South Asian groups in this country. Virginia and Maryland are both among the top 10 states in the nation in the size of their Muslim populations; Muslims in the local area include not only people of immigrant backgrounds but also many African American Muslims. All these groups have a vibrant organizational presence in Washington and its suburbs, with mosques, community centers, Islamic schools, and other ethnic and religious organizations.

Second, Northern Virginia was the site of the terrorist attack on the Pentagon, and the national capital area is thus one of the parts of the country most directly affected by the events of September 11.

Third, the nation’s capital offers unique resources for understanding post-September 11 civil rights and civil liberties issues of relevance to the entire country. While the forum was concerned first and foremost with the local situation, the Committee was aware that given trends across the United States, addressing local issues in isolation would not make sense; thus the decision was made to look also at the larger, national context of civil rights and civil liberties concerns after September 11. The metropolitan Washington, D.C., area is home to key federal agencies and to an array of national organizations, including civil rights, legal, and advocacy groups that are playing a role in the public debate on these issues. Panelists from these agencies and organizations put current issues in their historical context and related events in the local area to nationwide trends.

In identifying the populations most affected by post-September 11 civil rights concerns, the Committee decided to concentrate on four overlapping communities: Arabs, South Asians, Muslims, and Sikhs, groups that bore the brunt of hate violence and discrimination connected to the attacks. In addition, the Committee identified Muslim women as a population with special concerns; among other reasons, the distinctive headscarves worn by some made them particularly visible targets for the backlash.

The Committee formed in late fall 2001 consisted of the chairpersons of the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia Advisory Committees and three additional members of each committee. During the planning stage, the Committee concluded that in order to understand and address the civil rights and civil liberties concerns of the affected communities, it was necessary to develop a better understanding of Islam and of Muslim communities in the United States. Additionally, it was believed that an understanding of post-September 11 civil liberties issues would be enhanced by a historical review of how the United States has addressed civil liberties during national crises in the past, as well as an overview of the civil liberties ramifications of the USA Patriot Act[10] and its implementation.

In light of these considerations, the Inter-SAC Committee organized five panels on the following topics:

  1. Understanding Islam in America in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. Specialists on Islam and on interfaith relations discussed the tenets of Islam and the current state of the faith, touching on Islamic ideas of justice, peace, warfare, and democracy. They sought to increase the public’s awareness of Muslim communities in the United States, addressing specific stereotypes, misunderstandings, and policy issues that have affected relations between Muslims and people of other faiths.

  2. National crises, civil rights protections, and civil liberties: A historical review. Two specialists in the area of civil liberties and law enforcement reviewed the impact of past national crises on civil rights and civil liberties protections in order to provide historical perspective on the relationship between civil liberties and national security in the aftermath of September 11.

  3. Implementing the USA Patriot Act of 2001: Civil rights impact. This panel, which included representatives of law firms and civil liberties groups as well as two federal officials, examined the civil rights implications of laws, policies, and practices enacted or proposed by federal and local government agencies in the wake of the terrorist attacks, especially the potential impact of the USA Patriot Act. Special attention was given to the questioning and detention of Arab and Muslim men by federal authorities; immigration practices and procedures; air travel security procedures; new missions and policies of federal agencies; and oversight of federal agency activities.

  4. Fears and concerns of affected, at-risk communities. Panelists from organizations representing Muslim, Sikh, Arab, and South Asian communities in the United States, as well as Muslim women, discussed the experiences of these communities in the aftermath of September 11, focusing both on hate crimes and discrimination and on civil liberties concerns as a result of federal policies and actions.

  5. Local government responses and best practices. The panel examined the efforts of state and local government agencies in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area to stem the surge in bias incidents and protect the rights and well-being of affected communities in their jurisdictions. The panel included representatives of local government agencies in Maryland and Virginia, a community relations specialist from the U.S. Department of Justice, and staff members of two Islamic educational organizations. They gave special attention to examples of best practices by public and private bodies in counteracting hate violence, religious bigotry, ethnic and racial discrimination, and denial of civil rights after September 11.

Organization of This Report

This introduction will be followed by seven chapters:

The timeframe covered by the report extends from September 11, 2001, through April 25, 2002. In a few cases, however, the report has been updated with relevant information that has become available since the forum.

In the reports from the panels, each panelist’s presentation is briefly summarized, based on his or her initial statement as well as subsequent dialogue and answers to questions from Committee members and the audience. The summaries basically present each speaker’s main points in the order they were made, although in some cases the order has been adjusted to facilitate topical organization. During the affected agency review process, presenters verified each summary for accuracy and some provided updates. In those cases where agencies were mentioned but not represented at the forum, the Inter-SAC Committee sought review of appropriate sections of the report from designated agency representatives.[11]

[1] Hate violence and discrimination against Arab Americans are not new, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights has a history of concern about these issues. In September 1999, the Michigan Advisory Committee held a public forum on civil rights issues facing the large Arab American community in that state, leading to publication of a report based on the situation in Michigan but of nationwide relevance. Issues included profiling of Arab Americans at airports, denial of due process in deportation hearings, and discrimination in employment, religious, and educational spheres. See Michigan Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Civil Rights Issues Facing Arab Americans in Michigan, May 2001. Unless otherwise noted, statements and reports of the Commission and its Advisory Committees are available on the Commission’s Web site at <>.

[2] See Arab American Institute, “Arab American Statement on Terror Attacks,” Sept. 11, 2001, and “Joint Arab-American, Muslim-American Statement,” Sept. 12, 2001, <> (Oct. 27, 2002).

[3] The surge in hate crimes and discrimination against these groups in 2001 has been documented by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and by the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee as well as other advocacy groups. See the summary of Panel Four.

[4] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Statement of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,” press release, Sept. 12, 2001. 

[5] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Announces Complaint Line to Protect Rights of Arab, Islamic Communities; Urges Tolerance in the Face of Tragedy,” press release, Sept. 14, 2001.

[6] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Launches Second Complaint Hotline to Accommodate Great Response: Charges of Vandalism to Personal Property and Harassment by Neighbors, Employers Dominate Calls,” press release, Sept. 19, 2001.

[7] By September 2002, the Commission had responded to approximately 597 telephone complaints and 50 written complaints related to September 11. Approximately 258 complaints were referred to federal agencies, principally the Department of Justice and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Most complaints involved employment discrimination, harassment by neighbors and the general public, harassment in school, harassment by police and immigration officers, airline discrimination, and property damage. See U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Anniversary Update on Commission Activities Related to September 11,” September 2002.

[8] U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Briefing on Boundaries of Justice: Immigration Policies Post-September 11,” Oct. 12, 2001.

[9] For a detailed description of these SAC activities, see U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, “Anniversary Update on Commission Activities Related to September 11.” Of particular note, the Commission convened its July 2002 meeting in Detroit to learn firsthand from its Midwestern State Advisory Committees about the post-September 11 civil rights problems facing Arab Americans and Muslims in their states.

[10] Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001, Pub. L. No. 107-56, 115 Stat. 272 (2001) (hereinafter USA PATRIOT Act).

[11] In the case of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Inter-SAC Committee asked Paul Martin, of the department’s Office of the Inspector General, who participated in the forum, to inform the Eastern Regional Office if there were additional offices at the department that should receive and review the report. No information of this nature was forwarded to the Eastern Regional Office.