The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

After two decades of the war on terror, do Muslim lives matter?

U.S.-led military campaigns have taken a grim toll on Muslims everywhere

A child watches military vehicles drive past his village southeast of Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Aug. 6, 2009. (Emilio Morenatti/AP)

The news flashed across dozens of wall-mounted screens as I stepped off the jet bridge into the airport terminal: U.S. commandos had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. The 10th anniversary of the events of Sept. 11, 2001, was only a few months away, I had just landed in Italy to deliver lectures on U.S. national security law and policy, and it seemed as though a milestone of sorts had been reached with the events that unfolded while I was midair.

Today, a decade hence in the “Global War on Terror,” it is another memory altogether, not the raid on Abbottabad, that stands out from that trip.

Following one of my lectures in a packed university auditorium in Brescia, I was approached by a young, hijab-wearing Muslim woman. By her name, appearance and accented English, I read her as Italian of Arab extraction, possibly the daughter of immigrants to Italy or an immigrant herself. Unlike the other students who queued to speak with me, she had a concise question: “Why is the United States waging war on Islam?”

Reflexively, I resisted her premise. What we were seeing and living was not a war on Islam and Muslims per se, I ventured. There were complex historical forces at play, driving various actors in multiple conflicts, I added, and the people and groups that the United States had designated as “terrorists” did not represent all Muslims. But, based on the hard realities of our time, this woman had concluded that there must be a U.S.-led war on Islam. And she was far from alone in that belief. The perception she articulated is still common among Muslims worldwide, in the Global South as well as the North.

As the world attempts to draw up a balance sheet on 20 years of a “Global War on Terror,” the young woman’s question looms in my mind, with a contemporary twist: Do Muslim lives matter?

The question can be forgiven given the grim toll that U.S.-led military campaigns have taken on Muslims almost everywhere. In Afghanistan, where America’s longest war has now reached its predictable denouement, and in neighboring areas of Pakistan, over 71,000 civilians have perished. In Iraq, since the U.S. invasion, over 200,000 civilians have died of direct war-related violence. In Syria, U.S. operations have killed hundreds among the staggering 227,000 civilian casualties there since the war began in that country. Drone strikes and other U.S. military operations in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen have claimed over a thousand civilian lives.

These numbers are probably underestimates owing to the difficulty of gathering comprehensive data in the war zones that the United States has ignited or sustained. The use of what are known as signature strikes raises the body count that U.S. drones leave in their wake, while the tabulation of any “military-age males” killed in those strikes as combatants just as systematically deflates the number of officially acknowledged civilian deaths. And the scale of the slaughter is only compounded by the hundreds of thousands maimed and the many millions displaced, their homes and societies destroyed or disfigured.

In all this, the law is a means to an end, not a true constraint. Since 9/11, the government has consistently used the law to enable, operationalize and justify the violence it has deployed against Muslims both home and overseas. The government invoked international law to support its 2003 invasion of Iraq, purporting to enforce prohibitions on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that were never found and on Saddam Hussein’s equally fictional aid to terrorists. Government lawyers also ginned up legal rationales to argue that the Constitution does not constrain U.S. conduct beyond our borders, legitimizing the extrajudicial execution of Muslim U.S. citizens overseas and the indefinite incarceration without fair process of Muslim noncitizens at Guantánamo and Bagram, as well as their torture at those places and throughout a network of CIA or proxy-run “black sites.” Congress created military commissions that possess jurisdiction only over noncitizens and, in practice, are used exclusively to try Muslims.

Regular U.S. federal courts have applied and upheld sweeping laws punishing material support for foreign groups that have been used almost exclusively in prosecutions of U.S. Muslims (there are no equivalent laws criminalizing material support for domestic white supremacist groups — nor should there be). The government has defended its widespread surveillance of American Muslims, which was emulated by local law enforcement agencies such as the NYPD, and implemented Muslim registration, Muslim-majority penitentiaries, secret immigration screening programs, the notorious Muslim Ban and even denaturalization initiatives. The erection and development of this alternative legal infrastructure has served to amplify and formalize the devaluing of Muslim life.

Yet, as the country marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the main narrative in U.S. media and public discourse again skews toward mourning and celebrating the American lives — civilian and military — that were lost on that terrible Tuesday morning and in the two decades since. President Biden’s recent remarks on ending the war in Afghanistan counted only American personnel lost and injured and invoked the need “to save American lives.” Largely erased in the cascade of commemoration is the far larger contingent of the war on terror’s Muslim victims. It is crucial at this historical juncture to center the past two decades’ toll on Muslim lives.

To continue to argue the supposed purity of American intentions — as U.S. officials and pundits often have — over the clear impact of U.S. government actions affecting Muslims at home and abroad would be worse than adding insult to injury. That sort of self-elevation dismisses Muslim humanity and obscures both the position of the United States as a key purveyor of political violence as well as its share of responsibility for the state of affairs in many Muslim-majority countries today. My own attempt at a nuanced response to the Italian’s woman’s question a decade ago also failed in a sense, missing the forest for the trees. If we expect others to take seriously the proclamations about the equality and dignity of all people that are commonplace in the United States, then the legacy of 9/11 ought to be recounted primarily through the stories of Muslims the world over who have largely paid the price of American power and prosperity in the 21st century.

Without a broader acknowledgment of the shared reality of millions of Muslims — and concrete steps to repair and transform that reality — we help ensure its persistence and spread. The unrelenting demonization of Muslims in contemporary American culture and politics, along with the deployment of extreme and ostensibly exceptional policies and practices impacting them, have paved the way for other governments to follow suit. The Rohingya Muslims, long the victims of government repression, more recently faced a genocidal campaign waged by Myanmar’s military rulers in the name of counterterrorism. When the U.S. government declared that the use of internment camps and forced sterilization on Uyghur and other Muslim populations in the Chinese region of Xinjiang amounted to genocide and crimes against humanity, Beijing defended the practices as part of its own war on terror.

Islamophobia, as a prevalent ideology, has played an enabling role in these horrors; it has conveniently oiled the workings of a variety of oppressive systems. But it is not the root cause for the existence of these systems nor is it the primary force driving them. The U.S. occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq provided leverage in the United States’ rivalries with Iran, Russia and China. Control of Iraq’s considerable oil reserves also helped sate the expansive extractive appetite of the United States, while prolonged wars feed the coffers of the U.S. military-industrial complex and its spinoffs. Similarly, the Chinese campaign against its Muslim populations takes advantage of a global Islamophobic climate to brutally entrench Chinese Communist Party control over the oil-rich regions where Muslims reside.

To countless Muslims and people everywhere, the message of the past 20 years is clear: The rights of Muslims are expendable, their blood cheap. Any genuine reckoning with the legacy of 9/11 must begin there.