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.
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.
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.