America’s Latest ‘Outsiders’: The Struggle of Religious Minorities Throughout American History

“Islamophobia” is a troubling term for a historian, not because it does not reflect a contemporary American reality, but because it is too narrow of a concept to capture the complex history of antagonistic relations between the general American population and the Muslim minority within it.

Since the height of European colonialism in the 19th century, the relationship between Muslim-majority societies and American and Western European states has been simplistically understood in terms of religion, and polemically conceptualized through the dichotomies of “Islam and modernity” and “Islam and the West.” The long history of Muslims in the United States, by virtue of the fact that American Muslims are both Muslim and Western, belies these dichotomous constructs. The history of Muslims in America reveals Muslims’ active participation in American life as slaves, immigrants and citizens since colonial times, whereas Islamophobia, like “Islam and the West,” conceptualizes the prejudice and negative stereotypes that surrounds American Muslims primarily in terms of religion and at the expense of other important factors, such as race and politics.

When contextualizing contemporary prejudice against Muslims within the history of nativism and social discrimination in the United States, patterns emerge that suggest that fear of Islam alone does not explain the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiments in the United States today. The prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment in American politics and popular culture has less to do with what Muslims believe and practice – for the most part, the overwhelming majority of them lead regular, boring lives like other Americans, as TLC’s reality show, All-American Muslim, testifies – than with the inability of the larger American society to define its relationship with its Muslim compatriots.

No doubt the muddle of Muslims in America stems, in large part, from the attacks of 9/11 and the “war on terror,” which have indelibly associated Islam with violence. This association has been gendered and embodied through the symbol of the veil and personal stories of violence experienced by individual Muslim women. Today, whatever relations non-Muslim Americans may have with their male or female Muslim co-workers, classmates, doctors and cab drivers, the association of Islam with violence in the media and in public discourse raises questions in their minds about the nature of Islam and those who practice it. Is Islam an intolerant, sexist doctrinaire religion that condones violence and illiberality even if individual Muslims may not be violent or illiberal? The concept of Islamophobia adequately describes the contemporary fear of Islam that is stoked by the intertwining of Islam and violence, but it does not address the more important question of why most Americans resort to religious explanations for the violence of 9/11. Muslims in general, who constitute a vast and enormously diverse population spanning the globe, did not execute this attack, nor did they see it as reflective of their religion. The attacks were orchestrated by al-Qaida, an organization formed by a group of Muslims who were militarized by the U.S.-supported “jihad” against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and who, in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1990-91, turned their attention to fighting the expansion of American power and influence in the Muslim-majority world. Moreover, the attacks were an act of political terrorism because al-Qaida intentionally targeted symbols of U.S. economic, political and military power – the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the White House (which it failed to damage). Islam played a role in al-Qaida’s self-understanding and self-appointed mission, but al-Qaida’s self-understanding does not and cannot define Islam. It is, in large part, because most Americans conflate the two that American society is, generally speaking, confused about the place of Muslims within it. Rather than asking whether Islam condones violence, the question that ought to be asked is why has American society resorted to religion as an explanation for this violence, thereby stigmatizing its American Muslim population, particularly when the political motivations behind the terrorist attacks are quite apparent?

Part of the answer to this question lies in the media’s and the political elite’s reinforcement of the association of Islam with violence. But do these institutions simply reflect the larger society’s understanding of violence in terms of religion, or do they have a stake in promoting the association of Islam with violence? Here, again, the answer is complicated, and its complexity speaks loudly to the deleterious effect that religious explanations of the violence of 9/11 have had on our society.

In the case of the media, it is very likely that many members of the media themselves understand the violence of 9/11 in terms of religious ideology, but there are also economic and structural factors in the way in which news is reported that hinders more complicated explanations. Violence is deemed newsworthy and attracts an audience that turns to the media for explanations of it. Islam, or the history of al-Qaida, or the role of the United States in Afghanistan over the past three decades are all complex topics requiring resources, expertise and money to explore properly, and they are not topics that are likely to attract large audiences. Under these circumstances, the media has had little incentive to ask whether or not Islam really explains “Muslim terrorism.” Moreover, there have been too few in-depth reports on such topics, and those reports that have appeared have been so spread out over time as to have almost no significant effect on the larger public discourse regarding Islam and violence. We are, thus, left with a media that, rather than providing explanations of the political realities of our time, reflects society’s understanding of Islam and violence and has created a looping effect that fuels Islamophobia.

Many among the political elite also understand the violence of 9/11 in terms of Islam. The recent hearings conducted by Congressman Peter King on the “radicalization of American Muslims” are a case in point. Religious explanations of the violence of 9/11, however, have helped significantly expand the state’s control over its citizens. A few days after 9/11, President George W. Bush, in an address to Congress, reassured Americans that al- Qaida represents “a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.” But he, nonetheless, associated 9/11 with some aspect of Islam – which, as yet, has never been convincingly defined – that, then, demanded constant surveillance and expanded state powers that would allow the state to monitor more readily and secretly its own citizens, detaining them and persecuting them on suspicion of terrorism. By attributing exclusively religious motivations to al-Qaida’s act of political terrorism, the state, which in a democratic society is charged with the protection of its citizens, found a way in which it could increase its control over its citizens and erode their right to due process in the name of their own protection. Once the state, and, more specifically the executive branch, are given such powers, they do not relinquish them easily. The Obama administration, for example, has, for the most part, avoided religious explanations of 9/11 by eschewing the language of “war on terror” and by identifying America’s war as one that is against al-Qaida rather than “Muslim terrorists,” or “Islamic extremism.” Nonetheless, President Obama did not veto the National Defense Authorization Act, which permits the indefinite detention of American citizens. Rather, he signed it with “serious reservations,” reserving for his administration the right to interpret and implement it according to the administration’s own understanding of the proper balance between national security and citizens’ rights.

While the media has very little incentive to challenge the religious explanations of 9/11, the state has a definite interest in perpetuating them because this association provides a rationale for the expansion of the state’s authority and control over its citizens. Consequently, both reinforce through their actions, if not always by words, the association of Islam with violence that has ostracized a segment of the American population on the basis of religion.

If religion alone does not explain the violence of 9/11 and if Islamophobia only engenders social paranoia with regard to Muslims – itself the result of the religious explanations given for the tragic events of 9/11 – why do many Americans choose to explain 9/11 and the era of insecurity it has bequeathed to the nation primarily in terms of the Islamic religion? To answer this question, it is useful to turn to the historical role of religion in the development of an American national identity. In his landmark study of American nativism, Strangers in the Land, John Higham showed that nativism, “defined as intense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of foreign (i.e., ‘un-American’) connections,” flourishes in the United States at times of crisis and great social change. During such times, Americans lose confidence in their national institutions and see them as susceptible to subversion from within. The events of 9/11 – having happened after a contentious presidential election that was settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, and, at a time, when America was still grappling with its new role as the world’s sole superpower, as well as its identity as a multicultural society – occurred in just such an era, one of deteriorating faith in America’s democratic institutions of governance. Adherence to democratic institutions, such as constitutions, elections and courts, helps establish individual rights and settle disputes within society peacefully, but it does not necessarily follow that such adherence builds national unity or confidence.

Throughout the history of the republic, Americans have relied heavily on political narrative founded upon religious principles to establish their national identity. Despite the separation of church and state in this country, religion, specifically Protestant Christianity, is deeply rooted in the way America politically self-identifies and defines its enemies. This is a nation founded on the notion that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” However, the Establishment Clause and the guarantee of the free exercise of religion in the First Amendment were in many ways not only the products of the Enlightenment, but also of Protestant theological understandings formed in opposition to the established churches of European states. In the 1960s, sociologist Robert Bellah identified this cherished place of religion in American society as America’s civil religion which, much to the horror of many contemporary secular Western Europeans, demands that American politicians, irrespective of their faith, end their speeches with a divine blessing on America and for sessions of Congress to open with prayers conducted in the name of a supreme being irrespective of who delivers it, a Baptist or Methodist minister, a Catholic or Hindu priest, a Jewish rabbi or Muslim imam.

A major consequence of this close association of religion with national interest and identity in American history has been to leave religious differences open to politicization. Religious minorities, whose beliefs have been popularly seen as opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ, find themselves not only theologically but also politically suspect as doubts are raised about their national loyalties and adherence to democratic principles. In the mid-19th century, as the United States was moving closer to civil war, the nativist American party elected six governors in 1855 on a platform of national homogeneity and “American feeling” fueled largely by anti- Catholic sentiments and opposition to new Catholic immigrants. Catholicism, by virtue of its institutional hierarchies, was seen as foreign and “un-American.” It was also regarded as intolerant and opposed to individual liberty, and Catholics were depicted as the pope’s foot soldiers who were coming to the United States with the expressed purpose of reinstituting the religious and political tyranny that the Roman church had imposed upon much of Europe. “Americans should be ‘Wide Awake,'” warned a popular 19th-century song sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle, “For we are free, and wont submit/To intolerance and aggression/From papists, who from foreign lands/Come here to rule this nation/Yankee Doodle, Wide Awake/ Be silent you should never/Until you drive the popish snake/From off the soil, FOREVER.” Anti-Catholicism’s politicization of religious differences was also gendered through fictional personal narratives of nuns. Among the best sellers of the 19th century, were fictional tracts such as The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, which depicted Catholic convents as sadistic institutions where nuns, upon donning “the black veil,” were “to obey the priests in all things” including “the practice of criminal intercourse with them.”

As the 20th century approached, an epoch when industrialism and urbanism were leading to social chaos in America, Catholicism was juxtaposed to “American values.” The nativist Josiah Strong warned in his popular book, Our Country (1888), that Rome could ” ‘make America Catholic’ . . . without bringing into conflict the diametrically opposed principles of Romanism and the Republic, thus forcing all Romanists in the United States to choose between two masters, both of whom they now confess to serve.” In 1928, when Al Smith won the Democratic presidential nomination, newspapers and magazines cast him as “Rome’s Tatooed Man.”

During the social and economic upheavals in Europe between the 1880s and the 1920s, many Central and Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States, and anti-Semitism became a more prominent aspect of American public life, so much so that it became fashionable. The stereotypical image of Shylock, the miserly Jewish banker, gave way to that of the wealthy Jewish plutocrat, who was ready to take over the world and establish an aristocracy of “Israel’s sacred race.” This image spread mostly through the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The Protocols, which falsely claimed to document a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world, originated in Russia in 1905. But, Henry Ford, a committed anti-Semite, popularized it in the United States in the 1920s. Nevertheless, long before then, it had native antecedents. In his 1891 utopian novel, Caesar’s Column, Congressman Ignatius Donnelly envisioned a late-20th century in which “the Christian world is paying, in tears and blood, for the sufferings inflicted by their bigoted and ignorant ancestors upon a noble race. . . . The great money-getters of the world . . . rose from dealers in old clothes and peddlers of hats to merchants, to bankers, to princes.”

The pattern that stands out from these examples is that while religious bigotry has existed throughout American history, it comes to the forefront in national public life at times when confidence in America’s democratic institutions is waning, and it does so by questioning the belonging and loyalty of the minority religion to the American body politic. This questioning of political loyalty based on religious belief politicizes religious differences, and, thus, paints religious minorities as foreigners and pariahs who pose an internal threat to American values and society. Moreover, creating a pariah out of a religious minority serves a purpose since it builds national unity by defining a common enemy, albeit a false one, and, thereby, masks the real sources of political and social instability and discontent in society. American Muslims are but the latest recipients of this longstanding tradition; yet, their situation is not identical to those of Jews and Catholics in the 19th and early-20th centuries because Muslims in the United States today are more ethnically and racially diverse, which further complicates the way non-Muslim Americans perceive their presence in the body politic.

Because of its prominence in America’s national narrative, the politicization of religion has not been solely a means of exclusion; it has also served as a means of assimilation, at least for white non-Protestants. The First Amendment allows religious minorities to organize and locally establish themselves in this country, long before they appear on the national radar. By the time their presence is politicized as a subversive threat, they usually have developed enough roots and means in the United States to be able to defend themselves against such attacks, and they often do so by reading themselves into America’s political narrative in terms of Constitutional freedoms. We saw this occur with American Muslims during the controversy surrounding the building of a Muslim community center in Lower Manhattan, two blocks away from Ground Zero. American Muslims stepped onto the national stage asserting their right under the First Amendment and in the process defining religious liberty for the nation as a whole.

Religious minorities have also been able to gain national recognition and acceptance by interpreting their religion in line with national interest. This occurred during the Eisenhower era. As Will Herberg observed in his seminal 1955 study, Protestant-Catholic- Jew, religion was a central means of assimilation in the aftermath of World War II. Herberg, relying on the work of Marcus Hansen, a historian of immigration, argued that while children of immigrants generally eschew their distinct cultural and linguistic heritage to assimilate, their grandchildren, who feel more comfortable with their identity as Americans, are keen to “remember” what their parents “forgot,” and, having never learned the language of their grandparents, turn to their religion as that aspect of their heritage which they are able to revive most readily. This revival of religion, Herberg noted, was further fueled by “the collapse of secular securities in the historical crisis of our time.” By the onset of the Cold War, the United States had become a “triple melting pot” of Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism.

United against Communism, Americans rallied around “a common ‘American religion’ of which each of the three great religious communions is regarded as an equal legitimate expression.” “In its crudest form,” Herberg explained, “this identification of religion with national purpose generates a kind of national messianism which sees it as the vocation of America to bring the American Way of Life, compounded almost equally of democracy and free enterprise, to every corner of the globe; in more mitigated versions, it sees God as the champion of America, endorsing American purposes, and sustaining American might.” Herberg criticized this “fusion of religion with national purpose” because it silenced religious critiques with regard to the purpose of the state. Indeed, as seen by contemporary portrayals of Martin Luther King Jr. in the South and Malcolm X in the North, it deemed any religious expression that appealed to social purposes and conceptions of justice outside of the state’s political and legal apparatus as radical and dangerous.

American Muslims were not immune from these historical processes. As Herberg aptly stated at the time, to “profess oneself a Buddhist, a Muslim, or anything but Protestant, Catholic, or Jew, even when one’s Americanness is otherwise beyond question” would “imply being foreign.” And, their history demonstrates this point, as well as the dynamic nature of American antagonism toward Islam, very clearly. Apart from the Nation of Islam, major American Muslim organizations during this period also sought to assimilate their religious community into the national consensus. The Federation of Islamic Associations of the United States and Canada stated in its constitution that it sought to “point out the common grounds, beliefs, and common ends which other religions share with Islam,” and urged its member associations “in this age of international strife and unrest . . . [to] draw on the spiritual, moral, and intellectual wealth of the Moslem civilization and contribute their proper share in the establishment of world peace.” During the Reagan era, when Islam, in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, was vilified as a backward and militant religion, American Muslim organizations rallied their communities to help the U.S.- supported “jihad” against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in the name of shared values. And, the Islamic doctrine of jihad, interpreted in line with national purposes, was not the anathema it is today. Indeed, the Muslim Student Association, for example, established a Jihad Fund in 1981, and, at the White House in 1985, President Ronald Reagan celebrated the Afghani mujahedeen as the “moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.”

Ironically, while social discrimination against religious minorities is politically activated when confidence in America’s institutions is at a low ebb, religious minorities’ assertion of their rights through a defense of constitutional liberties speaks to the vitality of America’s democratic institutions and their transformative role in assimilating minorities. Whether today’s American Muslims’ responses to anti-Muslim bigotry will have the same positive results is uncertain because American Muslims are much more ethnically and racially diverse than Catholics and Jews. There is, however, a silver lining in this irony, and it is not one that, as cultural theorist Ali Behdad has suggested, requires Americans to forget the injustices of the past. Rather, the silver lining lies in the fact that forces of homogeneity and diversity have both shaped this nation.

The assimilation of racial minorities in America has had a different history from that of religious minorities. While religion has had a unifying role in the development of American national identity, race has not. The religious and ethical notion that “all men are created equal” did not apply to blacks during the formation of this republic, and institutionalized racial discrimination was legal in large portions of the country until the mid-1960s. The Naturalization Act of 1790 granted citizenship only to “aliens being free white persons.” When Congress passed the 15th Amendment to the Constitution in 1870, it extended citizenship “to aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent,” excluding Asians from citizenship, which, thus, permitted discrimination against them in immigration and naturalization laws well into the middle of the 20th century. When California’s attorney general, Earl Warren, who later became the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, testified in Congress in 1942 in relation to the Executive Order 9066, which allowed the U.S. military to incarcerate more than 100,000 Japanese Americans between 1942 and 1945, he lauded the fact that the Asian Exclusion Act had occluded Japanese immigration since 1924, but warned Congress that many Japanese American children were still sent to Japan after the Exclusion Act went into effect, and thus their loyalty was questionable: “They are indoctrinated with the idea of Japanese imperialism. They receive their religious instruction which ties up their religion with their Emperor, and they come back here imbued with the ideas and the policies of imperial Japan.”

Despite many years of institution building on the part of racial minorities in this country, these communities have had a much greater uphill battle finding a place in America’s national narrative and body politic than their white, religious counterparts. While the First Amendment established a relationship between religious minorities and the state that was beyond the reach of governmental authorities, the Constitution did not guarantee any citizenship rights to non-white races. It left decisions related to race to state and local governments. Consequently, racial minorities developed varying relations with the governing institutions of this country, depending on where and when they lived. They also could not define their place in America by fighting for their constitutional rights since it offered them no specific shield to guard against discrimination such as the protection that the First Amendment gave to religion; unlike religious freedom, racial equality was not part of America’s national narrative prior to the passage of civil rights legislation. Without constitutional protection, they were much more dependent on the government than society at large to establish their place in America. In contrast to the assimilation of white religious minorities, which occurred for the most part through acculturation, civil rights legislation effected the integration of racial minorities. Today it is hard to believe, but it was not until the passage of civil right legislation in 1964 that nonwhites were able to defend their liberties as American citizens.

The history of Islam in America is a harrowing reminder of the disjuncture between religious and racial modes of integration in American history prior to the mid-1960s. When in the 1920s, Noble Drew Ali founded the Moorish Science Temple, he deliberately chose to organize African Americans around a distinct Islamic national identity because he recognized the roles race and religion played in America’s national identity and in the economic and social assimilation of minority communities. “Whatever the reasons may be for their opposition” to the Moorish Science Temple, he wrote, “the legal right to oppose citizens, individuals and organizations alike for their religious beliefs does not exist in the United States. The door of religious freedom made by the American Constitution swings open to all, and people may enter through it and worship as they desire.” In hindsight, Ali was naive. Religion did not wash away prejudice based on phenotype. His efforts to counter the stigma of black skin by defining a distinct, black, Moorish national identity was up against America’s white, Protestant national narrative, and brought him and his followers under state surveillance. His organization and its kindred heir, the Nation of Islam, were monitored by the FBI, which labeled them as “radical” and “militant.”

The passage of civil rights laws in the 1950s and 1960s gradually afforded an opportunity for non-white Americans to read racial diversity into the narrative of America. It was at this point that seeds sown earlier by the Moorish Science Temple and the Nation of Islam were harvested. Alex Haley, who had become intimately familiar with the Nation of Islam’s ideology through Malcolm X, led the way in reading black Americans’ experiences into America’s national narrative through his immensely popular book and television miniseries, Roots. Haley’s book was released in 1976; he dedicated it “as a birthday offering to my country.” Roots built a narrative around one of his ancestors, Kunta Kinte, an enslaved West African Muslim whose descendents – after much hardship in a racist society – gained their freedom and through their diligence and ingenuity managed to enter the professional, middle class. Haley’s story gave black Americans a collective memory through which they, like white immigrants, could lay claim to the American dream.

When Warith Deen Mohammed succeeded his father, Elijah Muhammad as the head of the Nation of Islam, he reformed it along a similar trajectory. He disbanded the Nation of Islam and converted its members to Sunni Islam. He further interpreted Islam in line with American values and national interests, stating that the United States’ democracy is Islamic in all but name.

Barack Obama, who is the product of the generation that had seen Roots and had read Haley’s telling of the Autobiography of Malcolm X, eloquently expressed a sentiment similar to Warith Deen Mohammed’s in his famous 2008 speech on race to effect a new multiracial narrative of America: “I have brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, uncles and cousins, of every race and every hue, scattered across three continents, and for as long as I live, I will never forget that in no other country on Earth is my story even possible. It’s a story that hasn’t made me the most conventional candidate. But it is a story that has seared into my genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many, we are truly one.” Furthermore, Obama stated that he saw during his campaign “how hungry the American people were for this message of unity.” Indeed, in the aftermath of 9/11, when national insecurity eroded governmental commitments to civil rights, Barack Hussein Obama personified a new narrative of America that could restore faith in its democratic institutions. For many American Muslims, Obama’s election reinforced their faith in the essential fairness of American society. And, as political scientist Peter Skerry noted, while American Muslims’ civil liberties were neglected after 9/11 in the name of national security, the “mantra” of American Muslim activists was that this is how America has treated its racial minorities. “If all those groups could overcome bigotry in America, then so can we.”

History will tell the outcome of the formation of this multiracial, national narrative of America post-9/11. Today, however, there remain numerous economic and social impediments to racial equality despite the rise of this narrative. The conservative right, particularly the Christian right, has vehemently opposed Obama’s centrist presidency as “extremist” or “socialist,” and the fact that a quarter of Americans question where he was born and falsely believe that he is secretly Muslim, shows quite clearly that the road to full racial integration, though paved, is still steep.


When contemporary anti-Muslim bigotry is viewed in the larger context of the history of religious and racial prejudice in American politics, instructive patterns emerge that have gone unnoticed in the public square because most Americans have sought to understand the violence of 9/11 and the bigotry against Muslims in terms of religion. The lesson in this history is that bigotry and prejudice have played a central role in U.S. history as a means of controlling racial and religious diversity and building national unity. Today, Muslims may be targets of this pattern of democratic governance, but with tomorrow’s crisis, it may be another group. Some American Muslim organizations, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, are even keen to find this other group to shift the target away from American Muslims; they routinely make a point of publicizing and condemning acts of violence committed by fundamentalist Christians as acts of terrorism.

Building national unity at times of crisis by ascribing undesirable values to religious outgroups has been a pattern of governance in America’s democracy that has often obfuscated the political and economic sources of the crisis to the benefit of the state. Today’s explanations of 9/11 in terms of religion and our contemporary conceptualizations of anti-Muslim bigotry in terms of a social phobia of Islam continue this pattern at a significant cost to every American’s civil liberties.

Kambiz GhaneaBassiri teaches at Reed College and is the author of A History of Islam in America (Cambridge Univ. Press).

While the media has very little incentive to challenge the religious explanations of 9/11, the state has a definite interest in perpetuating them . . .this association provides a rationale for the expansion of the state’s authority and control over its citizens.

American Muslims are but the latest recipients of this longstanding tradition; yet, their situation is not identical to those of Jews and Catholics in the 19th and early- 20th centuries because [American] Muslims. . .are more ethnically and racially diverse, which further complicates the way non-Muslim Americans perceive their presence in the body politic.

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