September 15, 2001: The Post-9/11 Hate Murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi


WHAT HAPPENED?


As I'm sure I need not remind you, on September 11, 2001, the Twin Towers in New York City collapsed as a result of the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda. In the wake of the attacks, we saw American citizens band together, we saw increased security in airports and other public gathering spaces, and many other changes in our country... Including increased Islamophobia.


On September 15, 2001, a Sikh-American gas station owner from Mesa, Arizona was murdered. Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed in a terrible hate crime as "retaliation" for the 9/11 attacks. His killer, 42-year-old Frank Silva Roque, had told friends he was "going out to shoot some towel-heads" on the day of the murder. He was convicted of first-degree murder.

BACKGROUND AND SHOOTING


Balbir was born in Punjab, India and had moved to the United States in 1989. He was a member of the Sikh religion since birth. Originally, he lived and worked in Los Angeles as a computer engineer and analyst at HP. He saved his money, enough to purchase a gas station and several affiliated franchises, and moved to Phoenix, Arizona to start his new career.


In the wake of the attacks, family members aid Balbir was distraught. He had called his brother, and mentioned that he planned to donate blood to help the victims.


One of Balbir's brothers, Rana, said that the family was fairly well-known in the community, but after the 9/11 attacks, attitudes shifted drastically. He said after images of Osama Bin Laden were on everyone's TV, "people only saw a turban and a beard. People yell to us using F-word and asking to 'Go back to your country," he remembered in the days following the attacks.


Both of his brothers said that neighbors had warned them to be careful in the wake of the attacks, asking if they could take their turbans off to protect themselves. "This is part of my religion, I can't take off my turban," Rana said.


On the morning of September 15, 2001, Balbir made a donation to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Then, he went to work at his gas station, working in the garden out front, when a man drove by in his pickup truck and shot and killed him.


He was mistaken for a Muslim man based on his beard and turban... But of course, even if he was Muslim, he personally had nothing to do with the attacks. Roque shot him 5 times from his truck. He continued driving and shooting, but didn't kill anyone else. He shot at a Lebanese-American clerk at another gas station and missed, and he drove to his former home which had been purchased by an Afghan family and fired inside, but did not kill anyone.


He went to a local bar after, telling friends and anyone who would listen that "they're investigating the murder of a turban-head down the street". (In various articles it said he "mistook" Balbir for being an Arab Muslim, but I don't think he "mistook" him for anything. I'm certain he wasn't out to shoot Arab Muslims, but anyone who looked like they could be.)


"He gave free candies to children, free drinks. And some people, they don't have enough money, he said, 'pay me tomorrow'," Balbir's other brother, Harjit Sodhi, said of Balbir's kind heart.

ARREST, TRIAL, AND CONVICTION


Roque was arrested the next day. The police hadn't even heard about the other shooting incidents until after they had arrested him. He continued spouting off his beliefs of being a true American patriot "all the way" during his arrest.


His trial began on August 18, 2003, nearly 2 years after the murder. His defense attorneys went with the insanity route, claiming he had a diminished IQ and thus believed that Arabs were Satanic and must be killed. Nice. Two of his coworkers testified that Roque was not a very open-minded guy and openly hated immigrants and Arabs.


His defense attorney continued trying to gain some sympathy for him, saying he was mentally ill and his mother had been hospitalized twice for schizophrenia. The jury didn't buy the insanity plea, and on September 30, 2003, he was found guilty of first degree murder.


9 days later, he was sentenced to death for his crimes. However, in August 2006, his death sentence was commuted to a life sentence, citing his low IQ and history of mental illness as mitigating factors.

POST-9/11 ISLAMOPHOBIA


Unfortunately, Balbir was not the only person murdered for the way he looked in the days, weeks, and even years after the attacks on 9/11. There was a surge of attacks, some fatal, some not, on anyone who was "Middle Eastern-looking" as people tried to retaliate.


On the same day Balbir was killed, Mark Anthony Stroman walked into a convenience store in Dallas, Texas. Waqar Hasan, a Muslim Pakistani immigrant who had just moved to Dallas that year, was fatally shot in the head while he grilled hamburgers.


On September 21, the same man walked into a gas station in Dallas when he encountered a former Bangladeshi air force pilot who was working there as a cashier. He shot him, and though he survived, he was partially blinded in his right eye.


On October 4, still a free man, he went into another gas station in Mesquite, Texas and shot and killed Vasudev Patel, a Hindu Indian immigrant. Stroman was captured the following day, and admitted that he was targeting people who looked of "Muslim descent" and said he did what every American wanted to do. He was executed on July 20, 2011.


In many cities across the U.S., there were reports of vandalism against mosques and other institutions, including arson. Anti-Muslin hate crimes increased by 1,600% after the attacks. The hate crime rate began to level off within 8 weeks of the attack.


But even though the hate crimes leveled off within the months following 9/11, the anti-Islam, or Islamophobic, viewpoints of American citizens is still alive and well today, nearly 20 years after the attacks.


People of Muslim faith, without a shadow of a doubt, condemn terrorism. In fact, a 19-year-old college student created a website called MuslimsCondemn.com, an online database with statements from every organization you can think of to prove Muslims condemn the actions of extreme terrorists. They've launched campaigns, memorials, and prayer vigils to speak up and stand up against extremism.


"They've spoken out over and over and over again," Todd Green, Associate Professor of Religion at Luther College, said. "If we're still asking these questions, the trouble doesn't lie with Muslims at all. It lies with something deeper in the non-Muslim majority population. That is the normalization of Islamophobia." He says that the refusal to understand that Muslim does not = extremists incorrectly presumes that Islam causes terrorism, and it distracts from violence caused by other religious groups.


Heraa Hashmi, the creator of the aforementioned website, said that when she is asked why Muslims don't condemn violence, that "it was unfair to hold her to that standard, to ask her to apologize for the actions of a few, to paint an entire religion of 1.6 billion people with the same brush." But even after she's compiled hundreds of pages of examples of Muslims condemning violence, she worries that there will still be an unfair dichotomy of peace-loving "good Muslims" versus the America-hating "bad Muslims.)


And even though the immediate spike of anti-Islam hate crimes leveled off after the attacks, overall, Islamophobia isn't getting better. In fact, in recent years, it is getting much worse. In the 2016 election, Donald Trump said, "I think Islam hates us", Ben Carson said Muslims shouldn't be allowed to be president, and Ted Cruz talked about patrolling Muslim neighborhoods.


Just to put some numbers to the information, in 2000, there were 0 anti-Islamic arson hate crimes and 33 total hate crimes against Muslim people. 33 is not great, no. But in 2001, there were 18 arson hate crimes, and 546 total hate crimes against Muslim people. 2001 was by and large the worst year for anti-Islamic hate crimes. But in the 5 years before 9/11, the average of anti-Islam hate crimes was about 31. In the 5 years after, the average was 171. In 2011, 10 years after 9/11, the total offenses was 175. In 2015, total offenses were up to 301. We have never dropped back down even close to pre-9/11 levels of anti-Islam hate crimes.


In 2016, the Pew Research Center released a report that focused exclusively on aggravated or simple assaults motivated by anti-Muslim bias. In 2001, the year of 9/11, there were 93. In 2015, there were 91. Even though total hate crimes were still down in comparison to 2001, assaults against people of Islamic faith was only 2 away from 9/11. That is because 71% of the total crimes were against people. (Most crimes against religious groups involved vandalism in 2015, so to have over 70% be against people in insane.)


In 2015, 49% of American adults believed that some Muslims in the U.S. are anti-American, 11% believing that "most" or "almost all" are anti-American. 46% of Americans believed Islam was more likely than any other religious group to encourage violence.


Even if it doesn't make it into statistics, Muslim people (or "Muslim-looking" people) still face discrimination every day in the United States. "Flying while Muslim" is a common phrase that describes the problems that Muslim airplane passengers have faced while on airplanes, during layovers, in airports and security lines since 9/11.


Overall, in some ways, we have come a long way since Balbir was murdered 19 years ago today. And in other ways, it is still extremely dangerous and scary to be someone of Muslim faith in the United States. Even without the violence, we have biases against people in turbans or who "look" Middle Eastern. Anecdotally, people have been terrified being on planes with people wearing turbans who speak a different language. Americans have a lot of internal negative biases against Middle Eastern people, most of it stemming from 9/11.


But we cannot hold an entire religion accountable for the actions of a few. And we cannot continue to hold individual worshippers of that religion for the 1.6 billion who worship alongside them. Islam is the 3rd largest religion in the United States, with an estimated 3.45 million Muslims in the country. By and large, they are a peaceful group who would not be held accountable for the actions of others.


Far-right terrorism has "significantly outpaced" terrorism from any other type of perpetrators. Right-wing attacks account for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the U.S. since 1994. In 2019, Right-wing extremists perpetrated 2/3rds of the attacks in the U.S., and 90% of attacks during the first half of 2020. Quoth the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "while religious terrorism is concerning, the United States does not face the same level of threat today from religious extremists".


So basically, unless you're going to start holding everyone wearing a Make America Great Again hat accountable for aligning with the belief system that has committed the vast majority of American terrorism, I'm going to have to ask you to leave Muslim Americans alone.


Rest in peace, Balbir Singh Sodhi. And to all of the other Muslim Americans who have been killed for their religion since 9/11. You are not responsible for 9/11 and never will be.

REFERENCES:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Balbir_Singh_Sodhi

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aftermath_of_the_September_11_attacks#Backlash_and_hate_crimes

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Anthony_Stroman

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/j222v05n01_03

https://www.ncronline.org/news/people/seventeen-years-after-911-muslims-are-still-presumed-guilty

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamophobia#Anti-Islamic_hate_crimes_data_in_the_United_States

https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/21/anti-muslim-assaults-reach-911-era-levels-fbi-data-show/

https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2015/tables-and-data-declarations/5tabledatadecpdf

https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states


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