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

These anxieties and fears received their airing in a 1959 television news broadcast anchored by a young Mike Wallace, entitled “The Hate That Hate Produced” — arguably the first major example of Islamophobia in the mainstream U.S. media. The program introduced the Nation of Islam, its leader Elijah Muhammad and spokesperson Malcolm X to the American public in the most sensationalized way possible, hoping to scare whites into supporting more moderate African Americans in the civil rights movement.

At the beginning of the broadcast, Wallace issued disclaimers distinguishing the Nation of Islam from “orthodox” Muslims; but throughout the program, he loosely used “Muslim” interchangeably or in combination with “Negro” to emphasize the threat posed by Islam in the African-American community:

Negro American Muslims are the most powerful of the black supremacist group. They claim a membership of a quarter of a million Negroes. … Their doctrine is being taught in 50 cities across the nation. Let no one underestimate the Muslims [emphasis added]. They have their own parochial schools like this one in Chicago, where Muslim children are taught to hate the white man. Even the clothes they wear are anti-white man, anti-American, like these two Negro children going to school. Wherever they go, the Muslims withdraw from the life of the community. They have their own stores, supermarkets, barber shops, restaurants. Here you see a progressive, modern, air-conditioned Muslim department store on Chicago’s South Side …

“Let no one underestimate the Muslims.” Here was Islamophobia front and center, used as a proxy for white fears of black self-determination and economic independence: Forget the furor over mosques; let’s talk about the threat posed by modern, air-conditioned Muslim department stores!

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.