I left America after 9/11 due to hate. It is now an epidemic.

Bilal Mahmood
6 min readMar 15, 2024

“We’re leaving America.”

I’ll never forget those words from my father in the spring of 2003. The Iraq War had just begun, and being Muslim in America suddenly no longer felt the same.

My parents, who immigrated from Pakistan in the early 1980s, had always felt welcome in the San Francisco Bay Area. But in the years following 9/11, their place of hope adopted a culture of fear.

Fox News made them feel unwelcome as “the other.” The Patriot Act made them feel like second-class citizens. And Islamophobic incidents they observed terrified them.

So when my parents told me at age 15 that they planned to move back to their homeland, the feeling I had was not anger or confusion. It was relief.

Eventually, the hate subsided, the rhetoric changed, and the war in Iraq lost its support. My family returned to the Bay Area, years later, with a renewed sense of safety and community and a feeling that this could never happen again.

Now, 20 years later, we are being proven wrong.

International conflict in Israel and Gaza has reignited old wounds. Since October 7th, nearly 1,200 Israelis have been killed and more than 100 hostages remain in Gaza. More than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, over 1.9 million are now displaced, and 570,000 experiencing starvation.

The siege on Gaza must end immediately. All hostages must be returned. Full stop.

We may differ on how to end this crisis internationally, but we must all acknowledge how the trauma induced by this war has spread fear and division in America as well.

In San Francisco, in the weeks after October 7 a 7th grade Muslim girl from Francisco Middle School was punched in the back of her head, chest, and ribs, falling to the ground with a concussion while her assailants yelled “You fucking Muslims”. That same week, a rideshare driver struck their passenger in the face with their fist after asking if the passenger was Jewish, and was recently prosecuted as a federal hate crime.

As someone who has gone through one epidemic of hate, I can say that our communities — Muslims, Arabs, Jews, People of Color, Millennials, Progressives — candidly feel like history is repeating itself. A history of discrimination and hatred.

And the data confirms this.

Nationally between October 7 and December 2, there were 2,171 complaints of anti-Muslim bias in the United States. Commensurate, 2,031 antisemitic incidents were reported in the same period.

According to the FBI’s hate crime database, Islamophobic incidents have risen so precipitously at only two other points in recent history — 2001 where they rose from 29 to 499 after 9/11, and 2016 where they rose from 156 to 310 after Trump’s election. Notably during the same time, antisemitic hate crimes also rose from 690 to 958, and have always been the second highest form of reported hate crimes unfortunately.

Taking a broader view, this rise in hate crimes has followed a pattern in other communities as well. In 2020, anti-Black crimes rose from 2,182 to 3,499, following protests over the murder of George Floyd. In the following year, anti-Asian hate crimes rose from 334 to 753 amid the racist rhetoric from President Trump implicating Chinese Americans for COVID.

There is a trend, it would appear, of single incidents inciting mass hatred.

Further, growing hatred against one community, it would seem, spills over into hatred against other communities. And this pattern is only getting worse. Since 2014, hate crimes in the United States have risen from 5,843 to 11,643 annually.

Hate has become an epidemic.

And addressing an epidemic requires eliminating every strain of a virus. Otherwise, it will mutate and persist. If we are to address Islamophobic hate, we must also address anti-Semitism, anti-Asian hate, and anti-Trans hate.

It starts with leadership. Conflict, international and domestic, will persist, and so the onus is on our leaders — both elected and private — to unify us in meaningful collaboration with affected groups. It’s no surprise that the lowest period of reported hate crimes in modern US history was from 2009 to 2015, during President Obama’s tenure focused on hope. An exponential rise in hate crimes came after 2016 with President Trump, who focused on division and fear. What we hear from the top echoes to the bottom.

So what did President Obama do that we can model today?

He did the work. The work of building. The work of understanding. The work of love.

In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, President Obama hosted an interfaith service to remind us to understand our shared humanity and inspire us to work together. Psychologists note that connecting groups together helps to reduce prejudice and hate, especially during times of conflict.

Obama also directly engaged with marginalized communities. After the 2016 Orlando Nightclub Shootings, he met with the families of the victims, as well as the broader LGBTQ+ community. Rhetoric matters, and making communities feel seen and heard is essential to stopping hate.

Taking this back, the challenges in helping find solutions to the war in Gaza become only more pronounced when we are unable to come together here in the US. Fostering communication between the Jewish and Arab and Muslim communities specifically is an important step. We have seen little of this interfaith bridge building nationally, and almost none from local officials in San Francisco where I reside.

Rhetoric matters, and making communities feel seen and heard is essential to stopping hate. And as a Muslim seeing this next wave of Islamophobia and antisemitism, it’s clear to me that this is the type of leadership we need right now.

Inspired by this, I often think back to 20 years ago to the morning after 9/11. I came into the locker room for high school football practice. I was on on edge, not knowing what to expect.

But one of my black teammates came up and spoke to me for the first time:

“If anyone bothers you, you let me know. We’re a team, and I have your back.”

I don’t recall ever speaking again. I no longer remember his name. Or his face. But I remember how his words and his leadership made me feel.


Bilal Mahmood is a former policy analyst in the Obama Administration who currently lives and rents in the Tenderloin. He is also a delegate-elect to the San Francisco Democratic Party, and candidate for San Francisco Supervisor.

All statements are made in a personal capacity, and do not represent any official position of the Democratic Party.



Bilal Mahmood

Civil Servant & Entrepreneur Fighting for a Green New Deal | Housing | Universal Basic Income | Public Schools