How did South Asian Americans respond to 9/11?

I discovered these original emails from September 2001

Looking at old letters and documents can help us understand how people were affected by larger historical events.

I’m a community-based historian, so when I heard that Yahoo Groups was getting deleted, I started worrying about the destruction of archives. After some scrambling, I was able to back up the list archives of over eight hundred public South Asian American mailing lists active between the 1990s and 2010s.

These mailing list archives are a snapshot of conversations during this period. When I started looking at emails sent in the days and weeks after September 11, 2001, some patterns started to appear. Here are five of the themes and conversations that I found (most names redacted to protect privacy):

1. Muslims responded in the face of fear and hate

In community after community across the United States, Muslim Americans often faced the brunt of backlash attacks. There are lots of individual stories, but this action alert is an example of the kind of immediate united response that many communities took.

From: [full name redacted]
To: Various Muslim lists
Date: September 12, 2001
Subject: ACTION ALERT: Bay Area Muslims Gather to Mourn Victims of Terrorism

Bay Area Muslim leaders decided to hold simultaneous candlelight vigils in San Jose and San Francisco. Although we want a good turnout by Muslims at these events, Muslim women who wear hijab are requested to keep a low profile in the next few days, as instances of harassment are already occurring.

If you can, bring signs that focus *only* on what happened (i.e., “Muslims Condemn Terrorism”, etc.). There is NO PLACE for political statements at this vigil — anger is at a boiling point and we need to respect that.

More later — there are many events happening in the next few days (blood drives, etc.)


Muslims Gather to Mourn Victims of Terrorism
Wednesday, September 12, 2001–8:00 pm
Ferry Building Plaza (Market and Spear)
Outside Embarcadero BART Station

Along with our fellow Americans, the Muslim community of the Bay Area unequivocally condemns the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC. Islam, like all other religions does not condone any attack against innocent civilians anywhere under any circumstances. Our hearts go out to all our fellow Americans, and our own family members and loved ones who are suffering through this horrific tragedy. This was an attack on *all* Americans — including us.

Please join your Muslim neighbors Wednesday evening for a vigil in remembrance of the victims of terrorism and prayers for peace. Please bring your own candles and wear black or other mourning attire.

American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism (Bay Area)
American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice (Palo Alto)
Council on American-Islamic Relations (Santa Clara)
Masjid-ul Waritheen (Oakland)
Islamic Networks Group (San Jose)
Muslim Community Association (Santa Clara)
South Bay Islamic Association (San Jose)
San Francisco Muslim Community Center (San Francisco)
Islamic Society of the East Bay (Fremont)
Islamic Circle of North America (Northern Cal)
Islamic Society of North America (Northern Cal)

2. Sikhs worked to define themselves, while standing with Muslims

Sikhs were also heavily targeted during the backlash, and there was debate on community lists about how to deal with being misidentified as Muslims. I was particularly moved by this email from UC San Diego students suggesting two simple talking points: begin by defining yourself, but immediately transition to Sikh-Muslim solidarity.

From: P.S. [full name redacted]
To: [many Sikh lists]
Subject: Short Prepared Speech for Sikhs to use to talk about the WTC attack
Date: Sep 13, 2001

In response to the negative light in which the media has portrayed Sikhs, we have put together the follow short prepared speech to be used to inform the public about Sikhs in relation to the recent terrorist attacks.

Please circulate as widely as possible. Also please print the follow statement, memorize as much as possible, and present this at your schools, work place, and where ever else possible.

Please realize that this is very important. Numerous Sikhs and Gurdwaras in the US have already been attacked due to ignorance. Please rise to your duty as a Sikh to stand up for your community and educate the public.

Guru Rakha.
Council Memebers of The Sikh Student Association at UC San Diego


In light of the horrible events that been taking place recently, I would like to have one minute of your time. I have been getting some strange looks over the past couple of days by people who might not be aware of what my turban and beard represent.

First of all, I belong to the peace loving Sikh religion, which originates in India. We have nothing to do with the Islamic religion or Muslims who live in the Middle East, though we do not look down upon any religion and consider all humanity equal. As far as I know, Muslims in the United States do not even wear turbans. It is not correct to think of a turban wearing Sikh to be a Muslim.

Secondly, I encourage all of you to keep an open mind and heart during these troubling times, especially towards American Muslims. Not only are American Muslims suffering as fellow Americans but they are also becoming the scapegoat in crimes that they obviously did not commit, let alone condone. It is especially important for us as fellow Americans to not let these tragic events trigger hatred and racism towards other Americans. The goal of terrorism is to tear a nation apart. Don’t let them win.

Irrespective of our backgrounds, let us not forget our common homeland and unite as true American patriots during these difficult times. God Bless America.

3. New Yorkers worried about loved ones impacted by the terrorist attack

Focusing on the post-9/11 backlash and the wars that followed can overshadow the fact that South Asians in New York and D.C. were directly impacted by the terrorist attacks. Across listserves, many of the emails from the first week touch on those directly impacted.

From: A.G. [full name redacted]
To: South Asian Public Health Association
Date: Sep 12, 2001
Subject: All one can do is just wait and pray…

Greetings folks. For many of you who have loved ones in the NYC and Washington D.C., this has been a troubling series of days. For myself, my dad worked at the World Trade Center on the 70th Floor where the first plane hit. For close to 3 hours, I was powerless to do anything. All I could do was watch the television play on. And when I saw what was happening, a numbness wrapped me into a cold tomb..

The best phone call I ever received was when my sister called and said my dad was ok. The second best? Talking to my dad directly yesterday. For others, the story may have have not have been lucky. I know of some who are still waiting for news and holding vigils.

Right now, I am listening to news in [city redacted], and they have indicated there is an overload (if there is such a term) of people wanting to give blood. So for right now, please wait to give blood.

Support those people who are waiting for word. I know I am right there waiting with you, hoping for the best.

Stay strong everybody.


From: S.M. [full name redacted]
To: [personal email forwarded to a New York list]
Date: Sep 13, 2001
Subject: Bangladeshi [redacted] missing


[redacted] is missing.

I’ve shared the same room with [redacted] bhai two summers in New York city 1991 & 1992 who is still missing from Twin Tower incidents.

He was working in Window’s of the World restaurent 107th floor.

His wife was overdue for their second baby. He worked for breakfast so that he can take her to hospital that afternoon. She is having operation this morning.

He used to treat me as his nephew although we are not blood connected. This is one of my own.

Let’s all pray for him and his family.


From: [various senders]
To: [forwarded across various Bangladeshi, Indian, Jain, and Bengali groups]
Date: Sep 19, 2001
Subject: Fwd: WTC Victim [redacted], Hospital Searching for Friends/Relatives

There is a guy admitted at Staten Island Hospital with severe burns. He is in the ICU right now. They only know his first name as [redacted] and he used to work at WTC. Nobody contacted the hospital asking for him until now. If any of you know a person with this first name and if he is missing, contact hospital immediately. Or pass this mail along to your friends and co-workers just in case they might know him. Kindly forward this to as many people as fast as possible, preferable across organizations

Please forward to your all friends asap… You can save someone life or you can even help to someone to meet their love , friend, relative back 😉

4. Everyone tried to make sense of the new normal

Through September and October 2001, the lists show South Asians trying to make sense of what was happening around them. Some did their best to move on as normal, but I found this rich conversation thread among a group of Indian Hindu community members grappling with profiling, civil rights, and xenophobia, even as many of them contemplated returning to India.

From: P.P. [full name redacted]
Date: Oct 1, 2001
Subject: More: Another case…

One of my friends ran into same problem at Detroit. He was detained for couple of hours. He did not have the extension of H1 stamped on his passport. Unfortunately, when they verified with INS his status, INS told that his visa status as being expired. He had to call his office and they faxed the copy of his H1 approval notice. Then he was released. He was detained for 3 hours.


From: V.R. [full name redacted]
Date: Oct 1, 2001
Subject: another suggestion

When taking a flight anywhere, if you have US born children be sure to carry their passports and birth certificates. If you are travelling with an infant whose passport is not yet made, and you cannot get the passport made in time, be sure to have the US birth certificate. This applies whether or not you have bought a ticket for the infant.


From: T.T. [full name redacted]
Date: Oct 2, 2001
Subject: Question: I am wondering

Obviously they must be detaining based on skin color. How would it be if it was an Indian with US citizenship? Will he also be asked to prove his legal stay in US?


From: V.R. [full name redacted]
Date: Oct 2, 2001
Subject: More: Perhaps this will prompt a flood of US citizenship applications?

This sort of profiling could mean a sharp rise in US passport applications from desis. Most desis who decide to live here keep their green cards because they delude themselves by thinking ‘we will go back after X years’ or they feel it is outrageous to pay the Indian govt $480 for 4 tourist visas every 5 years. But now if a US passport helps in not attracting suspicion, then many may go for it.


From: S. [full name redacted]
Date: Oct 2, 2001
Subject: News: Seems logical

Except that it takes about an year to get naturalized after satisfying requirements. So it is not like going and buying a flag! A bill was passed yesterday to “detain” non-citizens for upto 7 days on suspicion (of terrorism). I think life for non-citizens will become lot different (and harder) after 9/11. I can even imagine EEOC winking at subtle descrimination against non-citizens, that too people fitting “middle-eastern” or islamic profile. (It is legal to slap on “U.S. Citizenship Required” label on jobs based on real or imagined security concerns).

Unfortunately, many (stupid?)Americans mistake Indians for middle easterners. Of course, Indian muslims (and Sikhs) are toast along with other muslims. I read that U.S./European companies are even cancelling business contracts with Pakistan! This is all part of “collateral damage” I suppose! If there is any “silver lining”, it may that Hindu/Christian Indians may stand a better chance than middle easterners/muslims/Sikhs in this “discrimination market”. (This is almost starting to sound like our great Indian caste syatem! Look what has been wrought by the terrorists!)


From: V.R. [full name redacted]
Date: Oct 4, 2001
Subject: Disagree: Bumping people off flights for no reason other than ethnicity is bigotry, not profiling

Americans dont know the difference between Hindus and Moslems, and dont care. To them anyone who is non-white is the enemy. You may suggest to ‘fight such incidents legally with the airline’ but for how long? How long must we struggle for acceptance in this country and why? Why must we live in fear, waiting for the next insult, the next firebomb, to be directed at us? Blacks are still not accepted in this society despite having been here 300 years. That should tell us something.

5. Our first responders organized to protect our communities

In the wake of 9/11, South Asian American and other MASA/AMEMSA activists built new movements against racism, xenophobia, and U.S. wars in the Middle East. The archives of groups like DRUM and ASATA are a document of this work.

In this email sent on September 12, DRUM organizers announced a new hotline to report hate incidents:

From: Monami Maulik
To: [DRUM and various other New York area groups]
Date: Sep 12, 2001
Subject: South Asian ANTI-BIAS CRIMES Phone Number


Peace and Greetings.

On behalf of DRUM (Desis Rising Up & Moving), wed like to extend our solidarity and support of folks affected by yesterdays tragedy and its repercussions.

The incidents of yesterday will undoubtedly have a major impact on future world events in terms of U.S. foreign policy and retaliation. But we should not forget also the very immediate and local impacts that will be felt for a long time ahead for immigrant and communities of color in the U.S. As in the aftermath of the Gulf War, the first World Trade Center bombing, and the Oklahoma bombing, many people in our communities already have been targeted, attacked, beaten, and harassed. Working class immigrants and people of color already live under constant police and INS repression and things will undoubtedly get worse.

There have been reports already from around the Tri-state area and around the country of anti-Muslim/ anti-Arab/ anti-immigrant attacks. As you know, this generally means anyone who supposedly LOOKS Arab or Muslim- South Asians, particularly Sikhs, Arabs, and many other folks of color.

DRUM as part of the Coalition Against Police Brutality in NYC (which includes over a dozen people of color organizations) is organizing around bias attacks in the NYC area. We are meeting with organizations city-wide tomorrow evening to coordinate efforts of different communities. On a broader front, DRUM will continue to organize with other groups around the long-term effects on INS policy and detention and immigrants rights.

DRUM is setting up a number to report all incidents of hate crimes and bias attacks for South Asians in the NYC and New Jersey area. Please call in all information about incidents including any contact information for those victimized. We have begun follow-up and community outreach today through Queens and Brooklyn, particularly at Mosques in the area.


In Struggle,
Monami Maulik and Subhash Kateel
Coordinators, DRUM

And days later, an announcement for my first ASATA meeting, on Tuesday, September 18, 2001. For me, this night would be the beginning of two decades in South Asian American activism:

From: N.R. [full name redacted]
Date: Sep 17, 2001


We need to speak out against the RACIST attitude and violence experienced by so many Arabs, Muslims, South Asians and other communities! We must respond to the hate crimes in San Francisco (stabbing in South of Market of Indian on Friday, Muslim Student building in the Mission valdalized to name a few) as well as around the country.

ASATA will be meeting to discuss strategy and action plan tomorrow

When: Tuesday, Sept 18
Where: 474 Valencia St (between 15th and 16th, right by 16th and
Mission bart stop) San Francisco
Time: 7pm — 9pm

These are just a small handful from over a thousand emails from the days and weeks after 9/11. The full set includes immediate reactions from individuals, local groups canceling and rescheduling events, progressives sharing analysis of the war on Afghanistan, communities organizing vigils and blood drives, news reports from ethnic media, lists of sources for interested journalists, emails from those whose lives went on as normal, and people bickering during a stressful time. There are also absences, reflecting all those who may not have used or trusted mailing lists during this time.

I’m in the process of moving some of these documents to the South Asian American Digital Archive for safe archival, but you’re welcome to reach out if you have questions.