Islamophobia Did Not Start at Ground Zero

Long before Sept. 11, African-American Muslims were the targets of anti-Muslim fears.

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More than 50 years later, the specter of "Negro American Muslims" -- or even the mere suggestion of them -- still causes anxiety and panic among some in white America. Witness the recent incident when anti-mosque demonstrators gathered at the site of the proposed Park51 Community Center and attacked a black man they mistakenly thought was Muslim, simply because he wore a skullcap. Or the black Broward County, Fla., judge up for re-election who found himself having to fend off accusations that he was a secret Muslim, simply because his first name was Elijah -- the name of a Hebrew prophet in the Old Testament that was, more important for purposes of Islamophobia, also the first name of Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad.

For his part, President Obama has disavowed the rumors in every way possible, short of wearing a crucifix around his neck. But this "Obama as Muslim" (and the more extreme "Obama as Malcolm X's love child") is not so much a concern about whether he prays to Allah as it is a proxy for political dissatisfaction being used disproportionately by whites.

No matter how ridiculous these cases of mistaken religious identity may be, they reveal how Islamophobes have historically targeted, and may continue to target, African Americans as proxies for Muslims regardless of their religious persuasion. Any effective strategy to combat the spread of Islamophobia, then, will have to take into account the historic relationship between anti-Muslim bigotry and anti-black racism. Hopefully this will be one of the contributions the Coalition of African American Muslims makes to this struggle.

Zaheer Ali is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, where he is focusing his research on 20th-century African-American history and religion. His dissertation is on the history of the Nation of Islam in Harlem, N.Y., during the time of Malcolm X's ministry. You can follow him on Twitter.

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