The United States has long-prided itself on being a cultural “melting pot” and a nation where all religions, ethnicities, and races can intermingle for the mutual benefit of all involved parties. However, despite those ever-quoted words carved at the base of the Statue of Liberty, many minority ethnic groups face a long road to equal standing among the established groups. The journey that those of the Muslim faith have undergone is an interesting example, specifically because of how the group rose and then subsequently fell in the good graces of the American public.
Islam likely came to the US by accident at first, according to Peter Manseau of the New York Times.
“In 1528, a Moroccan slave called Estevanico was shipwrecked along with a band of Spanish explorers near the future city of Galveston, Tex. The city of Azemmour, in which he was raised, had been a Muslim stronghold against European invasion until it fell during his youth” (Manseau 1).
Of course, census data in the 18th and 19th century cannot hold a candle to the information collection of today, and it’s possible that Estevanico, along with the other Muslims that reportedly immigrated to the United States, was not actually Muslims at all. Regardless, they were looked at as slaves. Of course, part of that thinking is because many of the Muslims who were brought to America came in that capacity; of the approximately 500,000 African slaves that were brought to the New World, historians estimate that 5 to 10 percent were practicing Islam (Gates Jr.), and over 50 percent were from countries with some form of a Muslim population. Muslim slaves were especially coveted for the knowledge on spice cultivation.
“Two hundred years later, plantation owners in Louisiana made it a point to add enslaved Muslims to their labor force, relying on their experience with the cultivation of indigo and rice. Scholars have noted Muslim names and Islamic religious titles in the colony’s slave inventories and death records” (Manseau 1)
Of course, slavery was abolished in 1865, but the road to Muslim acceptance was more than just the freeing of its early American practitioners. Those of Islam faith had to embed themselves in the community, and that too was a long process. For a country founded on distinctly Christian principles, the outward growth of a Muslim group would be hard to come by initially. America, to her credit, was largely tolerant in its early stages. The Alaouite dynasty of the Sultanate of Morocco was the first country to recognize the US as an independent nation, and their support fostered a long and amicable relationship between the young United States and predominantly Muslim Morocco. In addition, sheltered Americans learned more about the culture of Islam during the first Barbary War, when more than 100 American soldiers were captured and held hostage in the Algiers.
The soldiers recounted experiences with their Muslim captors in diaries and journals (Rojas 168), excerpts from which would be published in newspapers across the country. Of course, for many of the soldiers, these were not glowing reviews. In this sense, Islam had obtained its first bad rap in the States, though American diplomats stated that the nation held “no animosity towards any Muslim country” (Lambert) after the war had reached its conclusion.
After all this time, Islam was finally gaining a small but stable foothold in the cultural landscape of America. Starting around 1840, emigrants of the Ottoman Empire left their homeland in pursuit of financial gain but were fiscally stranded in the States when the economy faltered. Not dissimilar to the plight of Irish or Polish immigrants, these intrepid aliens took up a more permanent state of residence in the not-so-New World. With this influx came subsects, and groups within the community began to form. The Benevolent Society was a social service group run entirely by and for Bosnian Muslims (otherwise known as Bosniaks) and was religiously focused. Formed in Chicago in 1906, the Society still exists today, and though they may not meet in the same Bosnian coffeehouses that they did at the group’s inception. Sunday schools, study groups, and small congregations of Bosniaks were coming together as a culture. Groups like this were not exclusive to Bosnians; China, Poland, and Albania all represented themselves quite well on this side of the Atlantic. For China, which is officially non-religious and demographically more Buddhist or folk than it is Muslim, most emigrants (Chinese Muslims are referred to as Hui) wound up in the United States living in predominantly Chinese communities instead of predominantly Muslim ones. Still, the Hui were a prominent group, in part because they could claim ex-general of the Chinese army, Ma Hongkui, and his son, Ma Dunjing, as two of their own.
For all intents and purposes, there was very little that Muslim immigrants experienced that differed from that of the Irish or Polish immigration booms. They were already integrating into society with few hitches. The rate of mosque construction increased through the 20s and 30s, and the number of buildings registered at over 20 by 1952 (M’Bow 109). That rate would skyrocket in the 80s, as a study by Dr. Ihsan Bagby discovered the thirty-year period between then and now saw 87% of US mosques reach construction (Bagby 5). 74 percent of that increase happened in the decade following 2000. Islam was a religion on the rise, with believers spread throughout states, income brackets, and levels of piety, just like any of the other major American religions, so what went wrong?
It’s impossible to pin on one thing. To sort by chronology, it was likely the Nation of Islam that predisposed the white Christian majority to fear Islam first, though it should be noted that Islam and NOI are two separate schools of belief, tied together in name more than in faith. In the civil rights movement of the 60s, Nation of Islam members were notorious for their violence. One of the tenants of the religion itself is the demonization of the white man, which frightened the American majority. Nation of Islam preached a message of doom and destruction for all those outside of its protection, for a fall of capitalism and the erection of a society without a dominant white presence. The threat of upheaval, or even a shift in the status quo, could have been reasonably worrisome to an established class, and perhaps this was the first sign of trouble for a group that had been almost entirely peaceable up to this point. However, post-civil rights Muslims had few issues, at least in the scope of outstanding amounts of hate or discrimination. As America steeled itself for the new millennium, George W. Bush entered his first term as President — helped in a close race by the 80 percent he won in Muslim-American votes.
The rest of this story practically tells itself: on September 11, 2001, a terror attack committed by Muslim extremists opened up Islam to massive scrutiny and suspicion. Hate crimes directed out of anger at Muslims were as likely to affect a non-Muslim person as they were someone in Islam. A CNN article highlighted the difficulty in tracking Muslim hate crimes. “The law center also noted that the anti-Muslim hate crime count in 2015 may be even higher because a handful of anti-Sikh hate crimes (a new category for 2015) were also reported last year. Because Sikhs are sometimes mistaken for Muslims, an offender may have intended to commit a hate crime against a Muslim but instead attacked a Sikh. In this case, the crime would have been recorded as an anti-Sikh crime” (Middlebrook). The FBI reported a spike in ethnically and religiously motivated hate crimes in 2001 of roughly 1,250 cases. As wars raged on in Afghanistan and Iraq, the problems continued to swell. As had happened with Japanese-Americans in World War II, there was almost no trust between the group in question and the rest of America; all that you had to do was swap internment camps for the Patriot Act, complete with its “random selections” at airports and embarrassing civil rights violations. Bush did not receive the same support from the Muslim community next time. Obama promised to combat Islamophobia, signing 2009’s Hate Crime Prevention Act, but failed to entirely uproot the problem. Hate crimes never hit 9/11 levels during Obama’s presidency, but they experienced a tangible upswing towards the end of his second term. As Muslim terror attacks like the Charlie Hebdo shooting were pointed to as reasons to fear Islam, ISIS was using that same hysteria to fuel its recruiting. As young Muslim-American men began to feel unwanted in their homeland, the Islamic State presented a more appealing option. President Donald Trump promised to combat Islam, and the now-ubiquitous “alt-right” ran with it. The countries listed in Trump’s travel ban were suspicious choices for a man insisting it wasn’t religiously motivated. Three centuries of growth, community, and contribution had been erased in just 16 years.
What can we do going forward? Is there a way to rebuild the burned bridges of trust and cultural cornerstones that intolerance has stolen? The short answer is yes, but it will not happen overnight. It calls for concerned and conscientious citizens to acknowledge the roles that Islam has played in the foundation of our country. It calls for upstanding politicians who will defend religions they don’t practice. It calls for religious leaders to defend the legality of faith that might conflict with their own. Muslim culture has been moving and shaping our world since Estevanico crashed here nearly five centuries ago. It will be up to the country where they reside if they are to stay here, safe and secured by the same rights afforded to all American citizens, for five centuries more.