The Muslims Are Coming! The Muslims Are Coming!
American Islamophobia is as old as Plymouth Rock. But we’ve never seen anything quite like this before.
They are “terrorist savages” and “mongrels,” part of the “rubbish from the desperate and criminal populations of the Third World” who have “backfilled” America.
We are talking, of course, about Muslims.
It’s the kind of name-calling and innuendo we have grown accustomed to hearing from Donald Trump, who now seems to view America’s Muslim community as a “better, bigger version of the legendary Trojan Horse.” But the men who portend to be our leaders aren’t the only people out there who pride themselves on wearing intolerance on their sleeves.
The alleged author of the comments in the first paragraph is no politician; he’s the owner of an aerospace manufacturing company in Washington state who, according to the Seattle Times, “makes fiery emails about Muslims part of the workday.” Such attitudes among ordinary Americans are the tinder that can so easily be set alight by inflammatory accusations from Trump and his allies.
Emblematic was the accusation from Trump advisor Roger Stone on Sunday that top Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin could be a “Saudi spy” or “terrorist agent.” Stone went on to revive claims that the Clinton State Department “was permeated at the highest levels by Saudi intelligence and others who are not loyal Americans.”
“It’s not just Huma,” Stone said in an interview with Matthew Boyle, the Washington political editor at Breitbart News. “It’s her mother and her father who are, who are hardcore Islamic ideologues, her brothers.…”
But anti-Muslim xenophobia is nothing new. America’s fear of Islam is older than the republic itself. Even before Paul Revere rode through Massachusetts warning, “The British are coming!” his compatriots were effectively saying the same thing about Muslims.
In the 1600s, Cotton Mather, minister of Boston’s Old North Church, fulminated against “Mahometan Turks and Moors, and Devils” when news trickled back to the colonies that Americans were being taken hostage in northern Africa, a precursor to today’s Middle East kidnappings. Mather reassured his congregants that “we are afar off, in a Land, which never had (that I ever heard of) one Mahometan breathing in it.”
But Mather was deluded. It is believed the first Muslim arrived in the New World around 1527 with the Conquistadors; the first documented Muslim settler arrived in the Dutch province of New Netherland — we now know it as the mid-Atlantic states — around 1630. In fact, according to historian Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s A History of Islam in America, you could almost say that the United States owes its existence to Muslims, since Europeans were, in part, looking for a trading route that avoided the Muslim empires of North Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile, many of the slaves being dragged ashore in irons were Muslims, prisoners captured by rival tribes who waged jihad against those who did not adhere to their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam — not unlike today’s Islamic State extremists.
Copies of the Quran arrived with early European settlers and would soon be printed in America. Mather himself is said to have read the Muslim holy book regularly; “know thine enemy” and all that.
But Mather was far from being a lone voice of intolerance. As historian Thomas Kidd documented in his book American Christians and Islam, gentle Roger Williams, the Quaker founder of a refuge for religious minorities in what became Providence, Rhode Island, prayed that “the Pope and Mahomet” would be “flung in to the Lake that burns with Fire and Brimstone,” while Aaron Burr wrote of the “Rise of that false Prophet and great Impostor Mahomet.”
President Obama may laugh off claims that he is a Muslim, but from the earliest days, Islam has been an epithet in American politics. In his 1798 edition of The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life of Mahomet, James Lyon, the son of a congressman jailed under the Sedition Act, labeled John Adams the “new Muhammad” for his supposed religious zeal in stifling dissent; not to be outdone, John Quincy Adams compared Thomas Jefferson to “the Arabian prophet,” because he had referred to John Quincy’s father, John Adams, as a “heretic,” as Robert Allison reported in The Crescent Obscured.
The U.S. Navy, deployed today in the Persian Gulf and off Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, was actually formed to fight Muslims. In the years after independence, the Barbary Pirates were ravaging American shipping along the North African coast, prompting Thomas Jefferson to mount the first U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. In a 19th-century version of “shock and awe,” the Navy and Marines brought the Pasha of Tripoli to his knees. That’s the “shores of Tripoli” part of the Marines Corps hymn.
Francis Scott Key’s 1805 song, “When the Warrior Returns from the Battle Afar,” sung to the tune later reused in “The Star-Spangled Banner,” celebrated the U.S. defeat of the Barbary Pirates, when “the turbaned heads bowed” and the Islamic crescent flag was “obscured by the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.” Like today’s anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, early Americans feared more than just the swords of Muslim marauders. The Ottoman Caliphate had pioneered the use of vaccinations to fight smallpox, and because Muslims were involved, some colonialists considered them “the work of the Devil” (though Mather, in this case, disagreed).
That fear was no surprise, since many early Americans equated Muhammad with the Antichrist and believed the war against Islam would bring about Armageddon. Which brings us right back to the present, with both Christian and Islamic anti-vaccine zealots using that same “work of the Devil” line, while born-again preachers like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham are still tying Muslims to the End Times. And as my old friend Jack Shaheen so effectively documented in his books Reel Bad Arabs and The TV Arab, Hollywood has fed the anti-Muslim/Arab (cue the generic brown guy with a rag on his head) narrative for decades.
But the GOP primary has legitimized anti-Muslim rhetoric in ways we have never seen before.
“I think Islam hates us,” Donald Trump told CNN earlier this year. His sermons, and those of his vanquished opponents Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, have been no less incendiary than those of clergy who preached religious hatred 350 years ago.
“You rely on the promotion of fear and internet lies to fuel the flames of hate and divisiveness across our country,” the Muslim Public Affairs Council said in a February letter to Trump, challenging him to a debate. “Well, we have news for you: We will no longer be bullied. We will no longer be your punching bag.”
But they are. And it has the potential to shape America’s relationship with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims for decades to come.
On a recent Emirates airlines flight from Washington, D.C., to Dubai, one of my fellow passengers, a Kenyan-American Muslim, asked permission to use the exit space in front of me to perform his prayers. If this was a U.S. carrier, I wondered, would he have still felt comfortable about such a public profession of faith? And after five more months of harsh election rhetoric, will he and his co-religionists think twice before even going to a mosque in America?
Between now and Election Day, I’ll explore the intersection of Islam and American politics. What happens when foreign policy becomes domestic policy on Main Street USA? We’ll look at how the rhetoric of the campaign trail is impacting Muslim communities in the United States, as in my recent piece on Portland, Oregon.
In Pakistan, I found that the prospect of a Trump presidency is being met with a mixture of fear and bemusement; we’ll visit places like Indonesia and the Persian Gulf to examine how the campaign is shaping their long-term policies toward the United States. How are American Muslims and U.S. allies in the Islamic world confronting the movement that calls itself the Islamic State? What is being done to prevent the rise of “homegrown” radical extremism? And how do we create rational policy in this increasingly polarized environment?
Just as we are doomed to repeat history, we are also sometimes blessed. Across the political spectrum — from Nikki Haley and Paul Ryan to Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders — plenty of today’s political leaders have raised their voices against anti-Muslim bigotry. So, too, in American history. Thomas Jefferson tried to learn Arabic; he and John Adams owned Qurans. Jefferson’s was the very copy on which Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) took the oath of office, incensing modern-day Islamophobes. And, in the 18th-century equivalent of a Daily Show shtick, Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard sarcastically wondered aloud, “Is it worse to follow Mahomet than the Devil?”
But it’s worth remembering that much the same was being said about the pope. Anti-Catholic sentiment — particularly against the Irish and Italians — flourished from the late 1800s through the election of JFK. Xenophobia has always had a home in America. Jews, Russians, Chinese, and Japanese have all been the targets of Anglo-Saxon wrath. The assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 by the U.S.-born anarchist son of Polish immigrants led to a backlash against Poles and the Immigration Act of 1903 banning anarchists, which marked the first time the United States prohibited immigration based on political beliefs.
But ultimately each new wave of immigrants has been absorbed into the American mosaic. As Mitch McConnell put it in a recent episode of Meet the Press, “All of us came here from somewhere else.” Which brings us back to Donald Trump, who thinks that whole idea of taking in the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” is exactly the problem.
“The bottom line is that the only reason the killer was in America in the first place was because we allowed his family to come here. That is a fact, and it’s a fact we need to talk about,” Trump said after the Orlando massacre, adding, referring to Muslim immigrants, “They’re trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is.”
Given that, it’s worth remembering: Religious tolerance was a bedrock ideal that the Founding Fathers sought to enshrine in the new nation. The targets of America’s first military adventure abroad may have been practitioners of Islam, but it was their piracy, not their religion, that drove us to war. As the 1797 treaty ending the conflict with the Barbary Pirates stated, the United States had “no character of enmity against the Laws, Religion and Tranquility of Mussulmen.”
Two centuries later, that’s a claim many around the world have reason to doubt.
Photo credit: Foreign Policy Illustration
Correction, June 15, 2016: Donald Trump advisor Roger Stone was interviewed by Matthew Boyle, Washington political editor at Breitbart News. An earlier version of this article said he was interviewed by Andrew Breitbart.
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