In hearing a lot of complaints about president-elect Trump’s Islamophobia, it’s been surprising to learn how uneducated the average person is about the history of Islamophobia in America. The current blinkered attitude towards Muslims worldwide is not a product of happenstance. To quote a former American President:
In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.
~Franklin D. Roosevelt
While that contextually sounds a bit surreptitious, if for a moment we would turn our heads (albeit briefly) away from the headlines, news columns and their oft jingoistic rhetoric and finally also the self-serving punditry coming from various news outlets, we might find that a certain level of planning and coordinated execution has gone into every major shift in thought, policy, legislation and ideology. Consequently, the policies of the Trump Administration, in particular, their Islamophobic bent, as unbelievable as they may at times seem are no different.
Islamophobia didn’t enter into the social consciousness of America ex nihilio (out of nothing). In recent times there was the Anti Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) that began the practice of policing Muslim subjects and communities. (One part of this legislation led to the disparate investigation of Muslim American political and social activity, while another led to the deportation of Muslims with links – real or fictive – to terrorist activity.) However many would be surprised to learn that until 1944, American courts used Muslim identity as grounds to deny citizenship. Even Christians perceived to be Muslims or feared to be “of mixed Muslim ancestry” were denied. This warrants a quote from the watershed publication Orientalism by Edward Said:
“The sense of Islam as a threatening Other – with Muslims depicted as fanatical, violent, lustful, irrational – develops during the colonial period in what I called Orientalism. The study of the Other has a lot to do with the control and dominance of Europe and the West generally in the Islamic world. And it has persisted because it’s based very, very deeply in religious roots, where Islam is seen as a kind of competitor of Christianity.”
From 1790 until 1952 whiteness was a legal prerequisite for naturalized American citizenship. And Islam was viewed as irreconcilable with whiteness. In a 1913 decision called Ex Parte Mohreiz, the court denied a Lebanese Christian immigrant citizenship because they associated his “dark walnut skin” with “Mohammedanism”. And in 1942, a Muslim immigrant from Yemen was denied citizenship because writing about “Arabs” the court noted: “it cannot be expected that as a class they would readily intermarry with our population and be assimilated into our civilization.”
It’s not difficult to, given the history the United States’ treatment towards minority groups, imagine that Islamophobia is in part rooted in the policing of whiteness -i.e the the internalization and normalization of a system of beliefs which not only categorizes people on the basis of skin color but also assigns values, characteristics to these aforementioned groups/categories always reinforcing the superiority of a single group. In regards to whiteness, it should be mentioned quoting from that
.. constructions of whiteness have changed over time, shifting to accommodate the demands of social change. Before the mid-19th century, the existence of more than one white race was commonly accepted, in popular culture and scholarship. Many people in the United States were seen as white — and could vote (if they were adult white men) — but were nonetheless classified as inferior (or superior) white races. […] The mass immigration that followed the Irish famine of the 1840s inflamed nativist, anti-Catholic bigotry that flourished through the end of the century. Then new waves of poor Eastern and Southern European immigrants arrived, inspiring new racial classifications: the “Northern Italian” race, the “Southern Italian” race, the “Eastern European Hebrew” race, and so on. Their heads were measured and I.Q.s assessed to quantify (and, later, to deny) racial difference. They were all white, members of white races. But, like the Irish before them, the Italians and Jews and Greeks were classified as inferior white races.
– Neil Irvin Painter, Sunday Review of the NY Times, “What is Whiteness”
Subsequently, it warrants mentioning that the largest mass lynching in the United States took place March 14, 1891 where eleven Italians in New Orleans, Louisiana, were lynched for their alleged role in the murder of police chief David Hennessy. Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said of the lynching that it was “a rather good thing.” A response in March 16, 1891 The New York Times referred to the victims of the lynchings as “… sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” An editorial the next day argued that: “Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans. “
John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, later went on to be governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he said of Italians that they were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”
– When Italians Were The Other
It’s rather undeniable that the policing of whiteness, again an inherited system of beliefs and ideologies has played a role in American policy towards how we have as a society viewed and treated entire groups of people. The anti-immigrant, Islamophobia has been an entrench way of doing things in the United States. Wrapped up in the rhetoric of Making America great again, is a history that is not oft mentioned in either the classroom and general social dialogue.
The point of bringing this up is not to excoriate anyone or any group but to begin to shift our mind away from divisive rhetoric and focus on ‘the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow’. Blacks and Whites fought and died together to abolish slavery and people of all races and denominations stood with Dr. Martin Luther King. It would be a shame to forget despite the egregiousness of our treatment of minorities in the past, we have at key moments in our history come together despite the entrenched exploitative systems.
It’s necessary to examine our attitudes towards Muslim and discern the extent to which those thoughts and attitudes are based in facts and how much bias has been perpetuated by the system of which we are a part.