Islamophobia Did Not Start at Ground Zero

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

Getty Images
Getty Images

Last week the newly formed Coalition of African American Muslims held a press conference to express support for the Park51 Community Center (the so-called Ground Zero mosque, which is neither a mosque nor at Ground Zero) and, more broadly, to condemn the spread of Islamophobia.

The group represented a wide array of prominent African-American Muslims, including Minister Louis Farrakhan, Imam Siraj Wahhaj, Imam Zaid Shakir and others, who likened the attacks on Islam and Muslims to “Jim Crow exclusionary practices and policies.”

They vowed to challenge any attempts to “relegate either ourselves or our co-religionists from other ethnic backgrounds to second-class citizenry.” Their intervention in the national discussion, and invocation of the African-American experience, highlight an important but overlooked feature of Islamophobia: its historical use as a tool in white racist attacks on people of African descent.

While most examinations of Islamophobia suggest that it is only the most recent expression of American nativism — made manifest after the 9/11 terror attacks — the history of using the fear of Islam as a tactic actually extends much further back. The first attacks on Islam in the Western Hemisphere had little to do with religion and more to do with suppressing Africans during slavery.

As early as the 1500s, European colonial powers began passing anti-Muslim legislation as a way to prevent the importation of African Muslims, who were often involved in slave rebellions in the New World. African Muslims led some of the earliest slave revolts in the Spanish colonies, played a role in the Haitian Revolution against France and led several major revolts against the Portuguese in Bahia, Brazil. From these early encounters, Islam came to signify a challenge to the authority of white slave owners and the state-sanctioned subjugation of African people.

While neither the American colonies nor the United States experienced the same kind of slave revolts seen in the rest of the New World, the presence of enslaved African Muslims in America who possessed their own religion and culture challenged white attempts to portray Africans as a people in need of the “civilizing” effects of slavery.