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What South Asian activists learned in the wake of 9/11, and how they're using it now

In 2001, activists responded to hate against the South Asian community after 9/11. Now, they're tackling a spike in attacks against the AAPI community.
Photo illustration of firsts on a black background with signs that read "Stop Asian Hate"
Organizations that fought against South Asian prejudice following 9/11 are now responding to a rise in anti-Asian hate.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

For South Asian activists, the increase in violence towards Asian Americans isn't unfamiliar. Many see parallels to the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when hate crimes against Muslims, Sikhs and other South Asians spiked.

While organizing amid the coronavirus pandemic has brought its own unique challenges, organizations that were formed shortly before or immediately after 9/11 have been able to respond to the increase in violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

"We use the word or phrase 'hate,' but hate is not just one type of act," said Satjeet Kaur, the executive director of the Sikh Coalition, a national organization that focuses on civil rights advocacy for Sikhs. "Hate comes in many different forms. It comes in many different layers and severity. It's so important for us to be positioned to be thinking about the full spectrum of hate, and it's not just a one-size-fits-all solution to everything."

After 9/11: A "really critical moment"

While some organizations, like South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), which focuses on education and empowerment, were founded before 9/11, it was the response to those attacks that kicked their operations into high gear. Other organizations, like the Sikh Coalition, followed in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks and according to their website, the coalition was formed on the night of Sept. 11, 2001.

Kaur told TODAY that in the early days of the Sikh Coalition, they focused on providing representation and helping those who had experienced hate crimes navigate a "pretty complex" legal system, as well as working to resolve cases of discrimination. "When we were founded, it was very much as a firefighting organization," said Kaur. "The prediction was made as soon as 9/11 happened that there would be a backlash against the Sikh community, as well as many other communities, and that was very much the case, so a lot of our work in the beginning was about firefighting."

SAALT, a national civil rights advocacy organization, was established in 2000 and examined the xenophobia and racialized Islamophobia that South Asians faced. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA), which had been founded in 1999, used the "really critical moment" to connect with others and address the backlash against South Asians.

"They had to really respond to the political moment, understanding how to deal with the kind of anti-immigrant, xenophobic backlash that was happening in the days, months and years after the attacks of September 11," Sabiha Basrai, a co-coordinator at ASATA, told TODAY.

"We should be at a place where we could say 'Things have really simmered (since 9/11), but the truth is, it's not a post-9/11 backlash, it's an environment of hate, and I think now, more and more communities are becoming acutely aware of that," Kaur said. "There's actually been more dialogue around these topics, and so my hope is that this helps catalyze more solutions that stem from a place of solidarity and are inclusive of the many different communities that experience hate."

If we ask our parents, their parents, they've all experienced episodes of hate like this that's very targeted at their communities, and so more needs to be done collectively to actually start addressing that spectrum of hate.

Satjeet Kaur, executive director of the Sikh Coalition

From 2001 to 2021: "Investing in each other's survival"

While 9/11 led to the creation of many organizations and expanded others, later incidents of violence against the South Asian community in the United States created an environment where organizations joined together and widened their missions.

"Some of our responses have been the same, because the problems have been the same," said Simran Noor, the board chair of SAALT. "We saw in 2012 a mass shooting at a gurdwara (Sikh temple) in Wisconsin, and we saw ... a mass shooting in Indianapolis that targeted Sikh people (in 2021)."

Noor told TODAY that while SAALT has worked to "show up in spaces where folks are traumatized ... to hold grief and fear and pain," they have "evolved in their approach" to violence and hate.

Basrai said that another recent moment was the 2017 travel ban, where former president Donald Trump issued an executive order that lowered the number of refugees who were admitted to the U.S. that year and suspended entry of travelers from predominantly Muslim countries, including Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

"When I think back on moments that were very politicizing for our South Asian communities, which caused a lot of pain and grief and institutional repression, 9/11 was one of the moments, and the election of Donald Trump was one of those moments," said Basrai. "... We knew the Muslim Ban was coming, we didn't know exactly what that was going to say or how it was going to be implemented, but we knew we were going to be stronger in taking care of each other if we were in touch and helping support one another organizationally."

Basrai said that organizations at the time reflected on "the post 9/11 era" and "huddled up again, calling each other, asking 'Are you OK? What do your members need?'" to make sure that everyone's needs were met. This solidarity has helped organizations stay active and raise awareness of the challenges their communities face.

Kaur said that over the past 20 years, organizations have been able to respond in a more "significant" way and advocate for themselves instead of just reacting to immediate emergencies.

"When we do have these multiracial coalitions that work and really are investing in each other's survival, it allows so much more to be possible," Basrai said. "... When we're up against something very specific, like a Muslim ban or a new wave of anti-Asian violence, we can then be stronger and move forward our goals."

In 2021: "Not just about hate crimes"

Basrai said that the solidarity that organizations have developed over the last two decades has made them uniquely able to respond to the nationwide spike in hate crimes in 2020 and 2021.

"We don't have to do as much betting, like 'Who is this person? Do they share our politics? Are they aligned in this way? Do we feel like we can trust each other?' We've done that work for years, so we can really show up for each other," Basrai said. "... That legacy of work from the last 20 years has had a big impact on how active the movement is right now."

While South Asians have been impacted by the current rise in hate crimes and incidents, both Basrai and Kaur agreed that people who are from East Asia or have East Asian heritage are more affected. However, because of the solidarity between the different groups, the organizations are focused on supporting each other.

Kaur said that South Asian organizations have been able to "build frameworks" and "think about longevity," which helps them build even stronger footholds in their communities and empower others. Noor said that people have also been more willing to have difficult conversations, which helps organizations make an even bigger impact.

"Are our communities more visible? Yes. Have the material conditions changed for the most vulnerable within our communities? No," she said. "Are there more people within our communities talking about caste and anti-Blackness? Yes. Is there more resistance to all of that? Yes."

The activists also said that there is also more support from outside the AAPI community right now, as compared to in the aftermath of 9/11 or even following attacks like the 2012 Wisconsin shooting.

"I think that the conversation around South Asians and South Asian identity was very different 20 years ago than it is today," Noor said. "Representation gets us to a place, which is important, but it doesn't get us far enough."

"I do think there's much more awareness," said Sruti Suryanarayanan, research and communications associate at SAALT. "But I don't know that that's translated into real change in terms of people's life outcomes, which I'd say is more reason for us to challenge collective public violence and the systems that that violence is allowed to exist within. I think that's where our future hopes for liberation (are)."

While the organizations are responding to the current violence, they also have hopes for the future. Basrai said that she wants to see organizations push themselves to become more intersectional and "show up where we're not right now," and Noor said that SAALT is pushing for structural changes to things like the immigration and carceral systems.

"If we ask our parents, their parents, they've all experienced episodes of hate like this that's very targeted at their communities, and so more needs to be done collectively to actually start addressing that spectrum of hate," Kaur said. "It's not just about hate crimes, but also addressing hate speech. ... We have to address all of it, because otherwise we're going to continuously have these massive episodes."