Ronald Reagan meets with Afghan Freedom Fighters

(Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)

“Everything changed after 9/11.” This political mantra has become part of our national life. It is invoked to explain war-making in foreign lands, the creation of government departments such as Homeland Security, and the expansion of federal surveillance powers, both at home and abroad. In the past decade, it has also drawn special attention to the presence of Muslims in the United States. Scholars, analysts, and policy-makers have emphasized the unique nature of the threat posed either by or to Muslim Americans in the post-9/11 era. On the one hand, the administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have identified the radicalization of Muslim Americans as one of the greatest security problems faced by the United States today. On the other hand, civil libertarians, immigration activists, and progressives have decried the violations of Muslims’ civil rights in the course of prosecuting the war on terrorism. Both of these rhetorical strategies mean to call attention to the post-9/11 Muslim American. And yet, both rhetorics are also a form of forgetting, a severing of Muslim Americans from their deep roots in U.S. history.

A key theme resounds in Muslim American history: the belief that Muslim American dissent is a threat to national security. Dissent does not equal terrorism (more about that shortly), but the fear that Muslim American dissent begets violence was a concern long before 9/11. There are important similarities between pre-9/11 and post-9/11 state surveillance of Muslim Americans. For much of the twentieth century, it was not Muslim immigrants, but rather indigenous African American Muslims who were, from the point of view of federal authorities, the public and potentially dangerous face of American Islam. The parallels between earlier and later periods of state surveillance are striking. We seem to be living in a new age of consensus in which, like the late 1940s and 1950s, a vital center has identified Islamic radicalism, and by extension Muslim American dissent, as an existential problem, a dangerous expression of extremism.

It hasn’t always been this way. One common mistake is to assume that prejudice toward Muslims is unchanging and static. To be sure, fears of Muslim aggressors in North America are as old as the Puritans and other Europeans who brought such phobias with them from the Occident. And certain common features of Islamophobia—ideas about Islam and Muslims as violent, misogynistic, and backward—have remained potent throughout U.S. history. But our national discourse on Islam in the past two centuries has been far more dynamic and rich than this. In the pre-Civil War period, for example, the administration of President John Quincy Adams identified enslaved Muslim Americans as foreigners who were friendly to American interests. His secretary of state, Henry Clay, mistook these West Africans for Moors, or North Africans, and argued that by freeing and repatriating them, the young nation might be able to improve relations with the Barbary states against whom the United States fought its first foreign war. With Clay’s approval, Abdul Rahman Ibrahima, an enslaved Muslim, was feted up and down the East Coast by some of the United States’ most important citizens, including David Walker, the Tappan brothers, Francis Scott Key, and Edward Everett.

The Origins of American Islamophobia

So what happened? How did domestic Muslims go from being rather friendly—if not misunderstood—foreigners to dangerous dissenters? At what point did domestic Muslims become a major threat to the American nation-state? The origins of government-supported Islamophobia emerged explicitly in the post-World War I period. The U.S. acted on its fears of physical and ideological pollution through immigration laws, like the 1924 National Origins Act, as well as through the suppression of organizations like Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association. Fueling national suspicion of African American Muslims was the fear that immigrants of color were bringing political diseases like Bolshevism and anti-colonialism with them, and that such disease would spread among black people. There was much at stake, since enormous federal, state, and local resources were maintaining Jim Crow segregation. Terrifying predictions of America’s people of color uniting with colonized people abroad ensued, and the federal government put Islam among black Americans at the front of its surveillance agenda.

Nonetheless, the formation of American Islam as a simultaneously religious and political response to colonialism and racism only accelerated in the 1930s. In 1930, W. D. Fard, a person of color whose background remains contested, founded the Nation of Islam (NOI). Other black-led Sunni organizations followed suit, founding groups in Cleveland, Brooklyn, and along the East Coast; many of them eventually convened in Philadelphia in 1943 to form the United Islamic Society of America. The FBI viewed the transnational ties and diasporic consciousness of these black Muslim Americans as truly dangerous. This perception only worsened when thousands of African Americans, Muslim or not, put their hopes in the messianic prophecy that the Empire of Japan would liberate them from the cage of American racism through a military invasion. During the late 1930s and early 1940s, black Muslims, black Jews, advocates of black emigration to Africa, and black advocates for pan-Asian solidarity declared their public support for Japan, a fellow “colored” nation. A Japanese national, Major Satokata Takahashi, formed a “Development of Our Own” group to galvanize such feelings in Detroit, Chicago, and St. Louis. Several African American leaders appropriated Takahashi’s ideas. As the fear of a Japanese invasion spread in the early 1940s, the U.S. government arrested African American leaders suspected of stoking such feelings. Among the twenty-five leaders charged with sedition was Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam. Muhammad was acquitted of the sedition charge but was jailed for refusing to register for the military draft.

Radicals and Counter-Intelligence

After World War II, federal agencies experimented with different approaches to neutralizing the political power of African American Islam, culminating in extensive counter-intelligence operations against the Nation of Islam and other Muslim groups. One strategy was the denial of First Amendment protections to Muslim prisoners. The Justice Department argued that since the NOI was not an authentic religious movement—but rather a “cult” that operated as political organization—its followers in prison did not have the right to meet or conduct religious services.By redefining Islam as a “cult” the government could avoid the messiness of legal protections for religious expression. As was often the case, the word “cult” was used to label a religion that lots of people disliked or feared.

Making out the Nation of Islam to be a cult was an easy argument to make, if not in federal court then at least in the media. The FBI’s campaign against the NOI also included commissioning and releasing to the public sociological scholarship that depicted black Muslims as false ethnics. In the early 1960s the Bureau commissioned a full-length monograph on the NOI; it argued that the African American identification with Islam represented a psychologically dysfunctional association of black Americans with a foreign culture. Mainstream media echoed these claims, covering black Muslims as deluded fakes. 

Despite such disinformation, the Nation of Islam achieved success as perhaps the most prominent black nationalist organization in the late 1950s and early 1960s. NOI also emerged, at least for a period, as the preeminent challenge to the liberal promise of the civil rights movement. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr., singled out the NOI for special attention in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963. The NOI and African American Islam more generally also became a symbol of black American resistance to U.S. foreign policy in the developing world, especially in Vietnam. NOI created what Penny Von Eschen called “a space—for the most part unthinkable in the Cold War era—for an anti-American critique of the Cold War.”Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X lauded the rise of independent Muslim-majority nations, and sought to become allies of third-world Muslim leaders. After Malcolm X separated from the Nation, he became even more politically radical.But there was no more effective symbol of both domestic and international political resistance to U.S. power than Muhammad Ali. Ali, a hero to many people of color and leftists around the world, was seen as a fifth column—the enemy inside the walls—by the U.S. government, which sought to blunt his rising popularity by convicting him in 1967 of draft evasion. It was by then a familiar way of dealing with troublesome black Muslims.

In the second half of the 1960s, at the height of U.S. troop commitment in Vietnam and with the rise of Black Power groups like the Panthers, the federal government adopted even more aggressive techniques to either destroy or at least transform the Nation of Islam. Its weapon of choice was the Counter-Intelligence Program, better known as COINTELPRO. Though the FBI had long run surveillance on the Nation, COINTELPRO represented an escalation of government interference, a high water mark of pre-9/11 fears about the Muslim threat to the United States. Counter-intelligence operations included the placement of agents inside an organization, often within the leadership structure; the spreading of dissension; and the planting of false information. Cutting its teeth on the New Left, white hate groups, and the Communist Party in the early 1960s, COINTELPRO expanded its operations in 1967 to include “Black Nationalist-Hate Groups.” This category of COINTELPRO included 360 separate operations, becoming the second largest area of all domestic counter-intelligence operations. The NOI was perhaps the most popular target of all the Black Nationalist groups.  In 1968, the FBI’s field office may have begun a campaign to install W. D. Mohammed as Elijah Muhammad’s successor, writing in one declassified memorandum that Wallace was “the only son of Elijah Muhammad who would have the necessary qualities to guide the NOI in such a manner as would eliminate racist teachings.”  Whether the FBI’s paper support for W. D. Mohammed translated into operational support inside the NOI is not yet known. But we do know that under his leadership, the NOI became a downright patriotic organization with flags waving in the mosques.

Parallels with the Post 9/11 Era

The public face of Muslim America has changed since the 1960s. It is no longer represented by bow-tied black men hawking copies of Muhammad Speaks or the beautiful, semi-naked body of Muhammad Ali. Despite the fact that the largest single ethnic-racial group of Muslims in the United States is still people of African descent, the stereotypical Muslim is now brown rather than black.

What changed? What explains the shift? It wasn’t the Nation of Islam. While the original Nation became a Sunni organization under the leadership of Imam W.D. Mohammed and changed its name several times, Minister Louis Farrakhan recreated a version of the Nation of Islam in 1978 that followed Elijah Muhammad’s teachings. He was able to attract thousands of followers. A million men showed up in 1995* at a march he led in Washington, D.C., proving that the Nation of Islam still had great appeal. It wasn’t the Nation that changed. It was the government: the FBI no longer saw the NOI as a major threat.

Today, the transnational Muslim American terrorist has become the primary focus of domestic counter-intelligence. This was largely a result of 9/11, though the FBI and other agencies were already at work trying to blunt the threat of Islamic terrorism before then. Their concern grew amidst the larger phenomenon of Islamism, or political Islam, which flowered in the 1970s as a religious and political response to repressive governments in Asia and Africa and to U.S. foreign policy. In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution in 1979, foreign policy analysts, think tanks, and politicians interpreted Ayatollah Khomeini’s consolidation of power to be a new trend: the emergence of Muslim militant groups and governments bent on opposing the United States and its allies for religious reasons.

In one sense, these analysts were right to fear an increasing threat to U.S. power emanating from groups that based their political platform on Islamic ideas and symbols. In this era of global religious revival, many Muslim political parties and activist groups organized around Islamic themes and institutions, often because they lived in politically repressive countries where the government did not allow for freedom of assembly, association, or speech in other venues. Religious organizations and religious sites were among the last places where people could congregate and by default provided a space for political protest.

The administrations of both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan saw opportunities to advance U.S. interests by allying with some of these Muslim resistance groups and their Muslim American supporters. In 1979, President Carter met with twelve leaders of various Muslim American groups met to discuss how they might bring about a peaceful resolution to the Iranian hostage crisis. President Reagan and the U.S. Congress, as is well known, hailed the Islamist resistance to the Soviet Union, providing support via the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan.  What is less known is that the Reagan administration also allowed interested Muslim Americans to contribute to the efforts of the Afghan mujahidin via what was called the Jihad Fund of the Muslim Students Association.

These alliances were alarming developments for those who saw Islam as in and of itself a form of terrorism. According to the 1980s bestseller, Terrorism: How the West Can Win, edited by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the “world of Islam” invented terrorism in the middle ages, and even in the modern world, remained “medieval” in its outlook. In addition, the book claimed, Islam was, at its very heart, anti-democratic and intolerant of diversity.After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union formally came to an end in 1991, stereotypes of “the Muslim as enemy” became even more prominent among U.S. foreign policy makers. Throughout the 1990s, Harvard professor and former National Security Council official Samuel P. Huntington popularized his “clash of civilizations” thesis, which argued that Islamic and other non-Western civilizations were fundamentally irreconcilable with Western civilization, and that conflict in the post-Cold War era would occur along religious and cultural lines. He claimed “the fundamental problem for the West is not Islamic fundamentalism. It is Islam, a different civilization whose people are convinced of the superiority of their culture and are obsessed with the inferiority of their power.”

U.S. Presidents in the twenty-first century could not afford to be this simplistic and openly biased. The governments of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama adopted a different rhetoric toward Islam than that of Huntington. They attempted to incorporate and co-opt Islam in the name of U.S. interests. “Islam is peace,” declared George W. Bush on September 17, 2001. “Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country,” he said.Similarly, Barack Obama proclaimed in his 2009 address in Cairo that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” Rather than reject Islam outright, both presidents attempted to legitimize forms of Islam that were either apolitical or seemingly pro-American.

At the same time, both Bush and Obama used classic COINTELPRO techniques from the 1960s to discipline Muslim American political activity. The Bush administration determined internally that it could wiretap its own citizens without judicial or legislative oversight. It detained material witnesses who were not granted the right of habeus corpus and rounded up 1,200 people in the frightening days after 9/11. Muslim American charities that provided non-military aid to organizations designated as terrorist groups, such as the Palestinian party Hamas, were raided and shut down. The U.S. also barred foreign Muslim scholars, such as Tariq Ramadan, from attending professional meetings or speaking on American soil.

President Obama’s administration has largely continued the Bush era policies. Guantanamo Bay has remained open; the American mosque has remained a primary target of domestic counter-intelligence; and deportation of foreign nationals has actually increased. Obama personally ordered the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, two U.S. citizens who produced speeches and web materials in support of al-Qaeda. Many civil libertarians saw their targeted killings as violations of constitutional guarantees of due process and trial by jury. More recently, the White House gave its support to the National Defense Authorization Act, which allows the executive branch to detain foreigners, and perhaps Americans, accused of “substantially supporting” terrorism indefinitely without trial. Domestically, the Obama administration has outlined its “Strategic Implementation Plan for Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in United States.” One of the primary sites for implementation is the American public school, where teachers and students are to be trained to identity potential terrorists—people who, according to National Security Council official Quintan Wiktorowicz, use the word “infidel,” defend Osama bin Laden, or watch extremist videos.

But rather than debating whether or not this or any other technique is particularly effective in combatting terrorism, my final question is this: is there a way in the midst of the war on terrorism to carve out more public space for Muslim American dissent? The government’s new consensus on terrorism has helped to convey the message that if you support controversial Muslim political parties or groups in Palestine, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, etc., you should expect that you will be put under surveillance. If you say that you support al-Qaeda, you should expect the government will find a way to silence you—by whatever means practical. For many Americans, that may be an acceptable and even laudable restriction on free speech. But where does it end?

There must be a distinction made between political dissent and terrorism. Dissent of various kinds can too easily be mistaken as the threat of violence or as violence itself. It’s happened before, when the government kept African American Islam under close surveillance. Today, if we open our national dialogue to include a greater variety of Muslim American and other dissenting views, I would predict that once again, many Americans would be offended by what they hear from their fellow citizens. Perhaps some Muslim missionaries will dream, as they did in the 1980s and 1990s, of converting all Americans to Islam. Perhaps others will defend Iran’s nuclear program. But you can also be sure that the first people to challenge these views will be other Muslim Americans.

That kind of openness is exactly what we need. Defining dissent as unacceptable speech constrains Muslim American civic engagement and limits the political imagination of Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Instead, we should bring this and other forms of religious and political dissent into the public square. Such discussions must address the subject of Islam and Muslims in U.S. politics. Tens of millions of Americans, perhaps more than a hundred million Americans, hold strong opinions about Shariah, the Quran, and the Prophet Muhammad, worrying that Islamic religion fuels terrorism. Millions of other Americans, both Muslim and non-Muslim, explain Muslim terrorism not as the inevitable outcome of Islamic religion but instead as an understandable, if destructive, reaction to U.S. foreign policy. One of my admittedly modest ideas for furthering this discussion is to ask academics, policymakers, and community members to look again at the American past. Framing post-9/11 Muslim American life as an incomparable moment impoverishes our national conversations by depriving us the benefit of historical narrative, one that will allow us to seek new ways of thinking about our present.

Muslims are not foreigners in U.S. history. Revisiting our colonial ancestors and fellow Americans from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries onward provides a space in which Muslim American dissent and contemporary fears about Islam might be safely explored, more deeply understood, and radically reimagined, even if we come to little agreement. As the past informs us, for Muslim Americans, everything did not change after 9/11. What did change deserves our scrutiny, and ultimately, our participation to insure dissenters—Muslim and non-Muslim alike—are welcome in American life.

Edward E. Curtis IV is Millennium Chair of the Liberal Arts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. He is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History. This article was adapted from a lecture he gave on January 18, 2012, at Washington University in St. Louis for the John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics.

*Correction: The article originally stated the march was in 1997. It has been changed to reflect the fact that the march took place in 1995.