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How did 9/11 change South Asian Americans’ identities and politics?

Being targets of racial and religious hatred unified them behind the Democrats

- September 17, 2021

Last week, the United States paused to observe the 20th anniversary of the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Most coverage focused either on how the attacks affected those touched personally by loss — or on how the event set off two decades of U.S. intervention in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

But 9/11 also had harsh consequences for another slice of the U.S. population. The U.S. “war on terror” initiated measures targeted primarily at Muslims living in the United States, including detentions, deportations, closing down charities and mosque surveillance. Alongside that, Muslims and non-Muslim South Asian Americans and people of Arab and Middle Eastern descent were attacked in public.

Even while Muslims were the prime target of law enforcement agencies, many Americans aimed a generalized hostility against people who “looked” Muslim, foregrounding a “Brown” racial identity that included South Asians of various religious faiths, including Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Christians. In fact, the first person killed in racial backlash prompted by the 9/11 attacks, Balbir Singh Sodhi, was of the Sikh faith.

How did South Asian communities respond to this racial and religious hostility? My research found contradictory responses — some disturbing deep fractures alongside a more unified consolidation in favor of the Democratic Party.

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Getting lumped into one racialized group

To understand how the post-9/11 hostility affected South Asians’ identities and political behavior, I conducted 60 semi-structured interviews with members of South Asian communities — Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi — in Southern California and the New York/ New Jersey metropolitan area. I began these interviews in 2006 and continued through 2013.

The interviews revealed that South Asians were deeply aware of the hostility directed against them as Muslims and people of color who were assumed to be Muslim. In 2008, a 32-year-old Muslim Pakistani American in Brooklyn explained that he changed his everyday behavior, saying, “There was a genuine suspicion of Muslims. … A guy with one too many beers starts asking you too many questions and you have a feeling this isn’t going the right way. … I have stopped going to bars by myself.”

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South Asians of different religious faiths realized that having the government target Muslims further fueled hate incidents against people of color assumed to be Muslim. A 40-year-old Hindu New Yorker of Indian origin told me that he was standing in front of his favorite bar in Kansas City immediately after 9/11, when he heard “two guys who probably had a little bit more to drink. … I could hear them saying, ‘Is that an Arab?’ The other guy said, ‘I am not sure.’ ”

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How did South Asians collectively respond to being lumped together and treated with hostility? The response often broke down by religious identity.

Many Hindu Americans who spoke with me distanced themselves from Muslims. One Hindu Indian American leader told me in 2007 that while he might support Sikhs, “I don’t see any way that Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshi can meet. Religion is a big divide — it really is.” Most Pakistanis and Bangladeshis are Muslim, while Indians are majority Hindu with a sizable Muslim as well as Sikh and Christian populations. Over the past two decades, India has been affected by a wave of Hindu nationalism that demonizes Muslims, and which has also been shaping diasporic Hindu responses. Many Sikhs responded similarly, working to establish their differences from Muslims.

And yet many Sikh organizations formed after the 2001 attacks and some organizations among Hindus worked to challenge their community’s early efforts to distance themselves from Muslims. I wrote about these divisions in my 2016 book “Desis Divided,” suggesting that internal cleavages play an important role in shaping mobilizations within the community.

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Unified convergence toward the Democrats

At the same time, South Asian Americans — even those who distanced themselves from Muslims in a bid to avoid being targeted by post-9/11 racial hostility, have unified to support the Democratic Party in large numbers and have become more liberal in their policy preferences. This is significant especially because Asian Americans (including South Asians) and Muslim Americans have historically not been solidly behind Democrats. In 2001, a Zogby poll reported 42 percent of Muslim Americans voting for George W. Bush, vs. 31 percent for Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election. Similarly, in 1992, the plurality of Asian Americans voted for George H.W. Bush, suggesting that as a group with a sizable affluent population, they would continue to vote Republican.

There has been a sharp shift over the past 20 years. South Asian Americans in particular have unified behind consistent liberal and progressive stances on important policy issues. The 2020 Asian American Voter Survey reported that Indian Americans have the highest level of support among Asian Americans for greater government spending, health care for all regardless of immigration status, pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, stronger climate change policy, stricter gun control, and civil rights policy aimed at equality for Blacks.

Over these 20 years, the Republican Party has moved steadily to align itself with White racial resentment, espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric and excluding non-Christian religious minorities. Perhaps it’s no surprise that South Asians’ voting patterns have dramatically shifted to favor Democrats. For instance, in 2008 only 39 percent of Indian Americans identified as Democrat, in comparison to 54 percent in 2020.

The 2020 survey reported that 65 percent of Indian Americans said they planned to vote for Joe Biden, the highest percentage level of support, followed by Japanese Americans (61 percent) and Korean Americans (57 percent). The Indian American Attitude 2020 Survey reported even greater support: 72 percent of Indian American registered voters said they planned to vote for Joe Biden. The data available for Pakistani and Bangladeshi American suggests a greater support for Democrats: They voted 88 percent and 90 percent respectively for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

What should we make of all this? The racialized “Browning” of the South Asian identity since 9/11 seems to have pushed the group as a whole toward a more unified electoral preference. However, the internal contestations based on religion, nationality, caste and other axes also remain an important reality of South Asian American political lives.

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Sangay K. Mishra is an associate professor of political science at Drew University and author of “Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans” (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). Follow him @SangayMishra.