True Lies, Executive Decision, Not Without My Daughter, The Delta Force, Rules of Engagement, The Siege. These are just some of many Islamophobic Hollywood films produced before the attacks on September 11th, 2001. In fact, Jack Shaheen documented over 900 films in his book Reel Bad Arabs, which examined how U.S. cinema demonized Arabs for about 100 years. The book was originally published in July of 2001, 2 months before September 11th (it was adapted into a documentary in 2006). Although Shaheen’s research focused on media depictions of Arabs, he does note the way “Arab” gets conflated with “Muslim,” and vice versa. In his other critiques, particularly of Arabs in mainstream American comic books, he also mentions how Iranians, Muslims, and Arabs get treated as “one and the same.”
I did not want to write about 9/11 this year because of the way it is marked, particularly how everyone is expected to share their stories about where they were, what they felt, what grade they were in, whether they were on their way to work, etc. Over the years, where we have seen the bombings of Muslim-majority countries and racist attacks on other communities of color, there is never a universal call for commemoration or a moment of silence for people of color victimized by white supremacist terror. We are not taught to mark the dates of brutal atrocities against Afghans, Iraqis, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Syrians, and other people of color. We are not told to hold annual memorials for racist murders and violence against Black people, Indigenous people, women of color, queer and trans people of color, and so on. We are not expected to know their names nor their stories. Instead, the state demands that we remember the lives lost on 9/11, not for the sake of these individuals and their families, but because the “threat of Islam” should remind the masses that the U.S. must continue its violence against Muslims and people of color everywhere in the name of “freedom” and “security.”
Last year, during the 14th anniversary of the attacks, I could not help but notice the articles about post-9/11 experiences that Muslims, Sikhs, South Asians, Arabs, Iranians, and others were sharing. I understood the use of the hashtag #AfterSeptember11 because I am aware of the heightened increase in discriminatory acts, hate crimes, vandalism, profiling, and detainment that many Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim experienced. The stories are powerful, heartbreaking, upsetting, and important, especially since Muslims are rarely, if ever, given a platform to share them in mainstream media. In the past, I have written about my experiences with racism and Islamophobia as well, but something I always realize in my reflections is that I, like many Muslims, encountered Islamophobia prior to 9/11, too.
The purpose of this piece is not to dismiss the post-9/11 stories at all, but rather emphasize an important point about how Islamophobia existed long before 9/11. Many commentaries I have read, written by both non-Muslims and Muslims alike, set September 11th as the start date of Islamophobia in the west (some even problematically label Osama bin Laden the “father of American Islamophobia”). We need to resist this narrative for its inaccuracy, but also because it reinforces violent erasure of both the past and the present — especially of Indigenous and Black peoples, including Black Muslims. Furthermore, the narrative reinforces the notion that Muslims “caused” Islamophobia.
Tracing the origins of Islamophobia is beyond my area of expertise, but we know bigotry and hostility against Muslims began as early as the advent of Islam. In 7th century Makkah, Islam challenged many traditional practices of the Quraish, the dominant tribe at the time. Like all movements against social injustice, the oppressors treated Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the early Muslims as disruptive and threatening to the status quo. The call to abolish female infanticide (Qur’an, 16:58-59), for example, represents one of many examples of how it is impossible to separate Islam from its advocacy for social justice. Resisting oppression (4:75), respecting and honoring human diversity (30:22), building alliances with other communities (49:13), and standing out firmly for justice (4:135) are all integral to Islam’s spiritual message. The early Muslims faced adversity, persecution, and dispossession at the hands of the Quraish. Many Muslims were tortured and often killed by the Quraish for converting to Islam.
In her book, Muslims in the Western Imagination, Sophia Rose Arjana proposes the question:”How did we get here?” That is, how did we get to this place and time when we see Islamophobic sentiments, practices, and policies in the west? Arjana argues that these realities are “not simply a result of September 11, 2001, Madrid 2004, or London 2005, nor a culmination of events of the past decade or the past century.” While acknowledging the increased visibility of Islam and Muslims following these incidents, as well as U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, Arjana points out:
“[T]hese concerns represent old anxieties that lie within a multiplicity of times and spaces on the pages of manuscripts and canvases of paintings, in works of great drama, poetry, and fiction, within travel diaries and government documents, and on the screens of movie theaters. To find the answer to the question posed here, we must look at numerous fields of cultural production; there, we find a vision of Islam that is both familiar and unsettling. Within it, we must seek what is common. What is common is the Muslim monster.”
For medieval Christian writers and poets, Prophet Muhammad was viewed as a “heretic,” “inspired by the devil,” and even the “Anti-Christ.” Chapati Mystery has an excellent article that provides a detailed historical overview of western depictions of the Prophet. The author writes:
“The earliest Christian polemics saw Muhammad as a corruption, and as an imposter who was taking on the crown of Christ. . . . The histories of Crusades written in the twelfth centuries – such as the Gesta Dei per Francos – cast ‘Mathomus’ as an epileptic who was inspired by the devil to corrupt Christians. The effort to portray a bumbler, foamer-at-the-mouth, a charlatan is a theme in many of these narratives.”
In later medieval writings, the article mentions Muhammad portrayed as “frequently ‘wicked,’ ‘with a desparate stomach,’ and delighted with rapes and plunder, or was seducer of women, of mongrel birth, and whose name tallied up to 666.” In the 14th century classic, the Divine Comedy, Italian poet Dante Alighieri placed Prophet Muhammad and Imam Ali in the 8th circle of Hell, condemning them to vicious torment for being “sowers of religious divisiveness.“
The article also highlights on racialized and demonizing commentary about the Prophet appearing in the first English translation of the Qur’an in 1649. In the text’s introduction, as the author points out, Muhammad is described as “the great Arabian imposter” who arrived in England “by way of France.” He is compared to an “African monster” for “people to gaze at, not to dote upon.” This likening of the Prophet to an “African monster” is significant as it reflected medieval Europe’s view of black skin symbolizing the devil, demons, and monsters. Arjana’s aforementioned book delves into the long history of Muslims being constructed as monsters, a “recurring theme” that was “first formulated in medieval Christian thought.” Examining medieval writings as early as the 5th century, she writes:
“Dark skin was understood as a theological consequence of sin. Gregory the Great claimed that Ethiopia was a sign of the fall of mankind, and other Christian writers followed suit, tying dark skin to sin and perdition. Jeremiah surmised that the Ethiopian’s skin could change like a leopard—one of many examples in which Africans were likened to animals. Muslims were often depicted with black, blue, or purple skin. Muslims reportedly worshipped Venus, a black goddess ‘dressed in a gold robe with a striking red blob for its hellish tongue.’ Islam has, from the beginning, been an identity situated in racial, ethnic, and cultural difference.”
Western Europe referred to Muslims as “Saracens,” who were “described as Muhammad’s progeny” and seen as a “monstrous race that spawned a number of creatures, including one of the more popular characters of the medieval Christian imagination — the Black Saracen.” According to Arjana, medieval paintings and depictions of the Black Saracen was an amalgamation of three entities: Saracen, Jew, and African — a “hybrid monster.” She also notes that while Saracen “initially referred only to Arabs, it was soon applied to Muslims, Ethiopians, and Jews.” Furthermore, the terms “Saracens,” “Turks” and “Moors” were used interchangeably, often conflated to describe the “Muslim enemy.”
It is important to note that “Moor” was a term many Europeans applied to Africans since ancient times, not just in post-Islamic times. Contrary to popular belief, “Moor” does not mean “Muslim;” it was a word used by Europeans to describe black-skinned people. The origin of “Moor” is from the Greek word “μαυρο” or “mavro“ which means “black, blackened, or charred.” When North African Muslims (predominately Berber), led by Tariq ibn Ziyad, invaded Visigothic Hispania in 711, Europeans used the term “Moor” to refer to Muslims in Spain and North Africa. Like the present, Muslims were made up of diverse racial and ethnic groups, and after the 8th century, according to Dana Marniche, use of “Moor” began to include many Arabs “who had invaded the Mediterranean and Africa because of their complexions which were the same dark brown or near black to absolutely black color of the Berbers.” What we see in European demonization of Africans and black skin is obvious anti-blackness, and in their conflation of diverse ethnic Muslim groups, we see racialization of Islam and Muslims, which persists today (as I wrote in my post, “Debunking the ‘Islam is Not a Race’ Argument”).
As one can imagine, demonization of Islam and Muslims was pervasive throughout the Middle Ages, especially during the Crusades. The Crusades: A Reader provides a comprehensive collection of documents and speeches from both Muslim and Western Christian sources. Prior to the First Crusade in 1096, the Byzantine emperor Alexius I needed assistance to defend against Turkish forces near Constantinople, so he wrote to Pope Urban II. The latter was so tired of Christians fighting and killing other Christians in civil wars that he saw this as the perfect opportunity for Christians to unite and channel their hatred towards the Muslims. More important than helping defend Constantinople, what appealed to Pope Urban II the most was the prize of Jerusalem in the East — if Christian armies could capture Jerusalem, he would be remembered throughout history as the man who drove out the “infidels” and “rescued” the Holy Land.
During his sermon at a church council in Clermont, France, Pope Urban II declared that taking up arms against “the vile race” (Muslims) was “commanded by Christ.” He promised direct salvation; anyone who participated or fought in the Crusades would have their sins remitted instantly and granted entrance to Heaven. In addition to spiritual rewards, there were promises of treasures and wealth in “the land of milk of honey.” According to numerous accounts of his speech, Muslims were described as “barbarians,” “infidels,” and an “accursed and foreign race” that “worships demons.” Unsurprisingly, the Pope used strong religious language to justify war and also exaggerated about the mistreatment Christians experienced under Muslim rulers. For instance, he stated: “They (Muslims) circumcise the Christians and pour the blood from their circumcision on the altars or in the baptismal fonts. . . . It is better to say nothing of their horrible treatment of the women.” The depiction of Muslims as “barbaric” and the focus on Muslim men’s “horrible treatment” of women can still be found in the language and narratives used today to launch wars against Muslims. This is not to deny real issues regarding misogyny in Muslim communities, but rather to challenge western political narratives that exploit the struggles of Muslim women to justify bombings and invasions of Muslim-majority countries. The West’s hypocrisy on sexual violence is no different than how Crusader knights would rape women (whether they be Muslim, Jewish, or Christian women) and never be held accountable while pointing fingers at Muslim men as the “real” perpetrators of sexual violence.
Casting Muslims as “infidels,” “demons,” and “evil” is something we still see today. U.S. president Barack Obama, hardly an ally to Muslims, is thought to be Muslim by nearly a third of Americans, including 43% of Republicans. Many extremist white Christians have been explicit in stating that both Muslims and Obama are “of the devil,” a belief reflecting an old, though prevalent, Western/European tradition of demonizing Muslims and Black people. In The History Channel’s miniseries, The Bible, where Jesus (peace be upon him) and his disciples are portrayed by white men, Satan was not only depicted as a dark-skinned man, but many also claimed there was a striking resemblance to Barack Obama. Criticism led to producers eventually cutting the scenes, but whether or not the resemblance to Obama was intentional, the main issue remained: the devil is depicted as a Black man. It can be argued that given the history of linking Muslims with blackness and blackness with evil, present-day demonization of Islam and images of a Black male devil represent Western anxieties of the Black Saracen mentioned in Arjana’s research. Moreover, this demonization goes beyond hatred of Obama specifically and reflects the reality of white supremacist attitudes, violence, and laws that target Black people (both Muslim and non-Muslim).
As we continue to examine history, we see more examples of military offenses against Muslim-majority regions. The Catholic reconquest of Spain — the Reconquista — was a long and violent Crusade over a period of 770 years that sought to expel Muslims from Europe. In 1492, Catholic forces led by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella were successful in defeating the last Muslim stronghold in Granada. As a result, Muslims and Jews were forced to convert or leave their homeland. As we know, 1492 was also the same year Ferdinand and Isabella sponsored Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the so-called “New World,” as it fueled their interest in expanding European Christian domination.
The brutal European colonial expansion and conquest of Indigenous peoples and lands in North and South America and the Caribbean islands led to colonizers demanding the labor of enslaved Africans. According to Muna Mire, about 10-15% of the Africans forced into slavery were Muslim (other sources estimate up to 30% of enslaved Africans were Muslim). As Mire writes in her important article, “Towards a Black Muslim Ontology of Resistance”:
The first Muslims in America were Black. They were stolen from the western coast of Africa – modern-day Gambia, Nigeria, Senegal – and brought to the New World through violence. Some ten to fifteen percent of enslaved Africans brought to America as chattel practiced Islam as their faith when they landed on American shores. From the genesis of the American project, their labor – Black Muslim labor – would build the country from the ground up. But white Christian slaveowners did not tolerate these Africans practicing the religion they were born into. Enslaved Africans were converted to Christianity, wholesale, under threat of further violence. Like marriage, gatherings of Black people larger than three or four persons, or any other self-determined social custom, non-Christian religiosity was a threat to be eliminated amongst the enslaved. Black Muslim existence as Black resistance is as old as America itself.
History of Black Muslim resistance is erased in U.S. history textbooks, Muslim-American narratives, and discourse about Islamophobia. Instead, Islamophobia is treated as a post-9/11 phenomenon that primarily targets non-black Muslims. Mire emphasizes another critical fact: “Black Muslims existed prior to the colonial systems which brought them to the Americas, and they have been fighting assimilation for centuries. For a long time, to be Black has been to be Muslim.” Yet Black Muslim resistance against European conquest, slavery, forced conversion, white supremacy, police brutality, and assimilation are shamefully missing from dominant discourse about Islamophobia and Muslims in the U.S. As I have written before, anti-blackness among non-black Muslims and other people of color is a reality that cannot be ignored. In an interview with Al-Muslimoon Magazine in February, 1965, Malcolm X commented on how Muslims in Muslim-majority countries ignored the struggles Black Americans faced:
“Much to my dismay, until now, the Muslim world has seemed to ignore the problem of the Black American, and most Muslims who come here from the Muslim world have concentrated more effort in trying to convert white Americans than Black Americans.”
While I’m not an advocate of converting non-Muslims to Islam, Malcolm’s comment are important here because it reflects anti-black attitudes among non-black Muslims. Today, we may hear South Asian, Arab, and white Muslims speak proudly of Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, and Hazrat Bilal, but still perpetuate anti-blackness in their communities. It is not uncommon to find non-black Muslims enthusiastically speaking about Islamic history and Muslim contributions to science, mathematics, and art, but resist acknowledging that many of these Muslims were also African. A color-blind “Islam does not see race” attitude continues to prevail in our communities, which works to further invisibilize Black Muslims, especially Black Muslim women. As Donna Auston stresses, this erasure “renders our communities even more vulnerable — to Islamophobia, to anti-black racism (including from within the Muslim community), and to all of the attendant perils that accompany them.”
What we have come to understand as Islamophobia today has primarily meant focus on the experiences of Arab and South Asian Muslim men. Marking September 11th, 2001 as the “starting point” of Islamophobia means erasing history of demonization, military campaigns, violence, and laws that have targeted diverse populations of Muslims around the world. The narrative also implies that the U.S. was not a hostile environment for people of color before 9/11, as it ignores genocide against Indigenous peoples, slavery of Africans, and institutionalized white supremacy. Sometimes I’ll read articles written by non-black Muslims who reinforce the mythical idea of a pre-9/11 “racial harmony.” This dangerously negates anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-imperialist, and anti-colonial struggles that Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color have fought and continue to fight.
What do we make of Israel’s violent dispossession of Palestine, Indian military occupation of Kashmir, U.S. imperialism in Muslim-majority countries, and the media’s demonization of Muslims if we believe Islamophobia did not begin until 9/11? What about the Islamophobic news coverage and bigotry that followed the Oklahoma City terrorist attack when Muslims were heavily blamed? In my personal experiences, as a Pakistani Muslim who grew up in a predominately white suburban town in the U.S., I recall my history teachers depicting Islam as a “backwards” religion. The Crusades was extremely romanticized, especially the figure of Richard the Lionheart, and our teacher made us believe Muslims started the wars and lost. In addition to brutally executing 3,000 captured Muslim prisoners, Richard the Lionheart never made it to Jerusalem, but was deemed the “hero of the Crusades.” In my high school social studies class, the teacher assigned everyone to do a presentation on terrorist organizations. All of the terrorist organizations we had to choose from were Arab and Muslim groups. When teaching the class about Islam, this same teacher showed us the anti-Muslim, anti-Iranian propaganda film, Not Without My Daughter. All of this happened before 9/11.
But Islamophobia goes beyond people saying or doing offensive and bigoted things to Muslims. Unfortunately, many liberals and western-based Muslim organizations treat Islamophobia as simply being about ignorance and individual acts of bigotry. I believe this is one of the major consequences of marking 9/11 as the origin of Islamophobia because the discourse places the blame of Islamophobia on the actions of other Muslims. In other words, the more we perpetuate the idea that Islamophobia began on 9/11, the less we understand Islamophobia within the larger context of white supremacy and historical hostility against Muslims and Islam. Not recognizing Islamophobia as institutionalized and state racism doesn’t just fail other Muslims, but also places us in opposition to building solidarity with other communities, especially Indigenous Peoples.
For instance, it is not hard to find articles filled with narratives about how non-black and non-indigenous Muslims claim the U.S. as their “homeland,” and how they are treated as “strangers in their own land.” Representatives of mainstream western-based Muslim organizations (that center on non-black Muslims) have often stated that Islamophobia is the “only form of acceptable racism left.” To disprove this absurd and, frankly, self-absorbed statement, one just needs to look at the countless examples of how racism against Black people, Indigenous peoples, Latino/as, East Asians, and other communities of color are still viewed as acceptable. Blackface in the media, films depicting “Yellow Peril” (including the recent film, No Escape), Native American sports mascots and Halloween “costumes,” assigning the dehumanizing term “illegal alien” to Latino/as and other immigrants are only a few examples of normalized and acceptable racism that exists. We still see white men, especially police officers, walk free after murdering Black and Indigenous peoples.
In response to narratives where non-black and non-indigenous Muslims refer to the U.S., Canada, and other settler states as their “own land,” we need to understand how we become complicit in perpetuating genocide and settler colonialism against Indigenous Peoples. As mentioned above, many non-black and non-indigenous Muslims in the U.S. expressed how they felt like “outsiders for the first time” in their “own country” after 9/11. Indeed, it is a frightening and dangerous reality that Muslims are treated as perpetual threats, subject to racial profiling and detainment, placed under surveillance, and face discrimination in their schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods. The purpose is not to negate any of these realities and experiences, but instead advocate that we resist narratives that assume we are the “only” community (i.e. non-black and non-indigenous Muslims) that faces racism. Instead, we should recognize that our struggles against racism and oppression are connected to the struggles of other marginalized communities. How many North American-based Muslim civil rights groups have stood in solidarity with the struggles of Indigenous people who have seen their land stolen from them for over 500 years? Why are so many “American Muslim” (and other western Muslim) groups so invested in assimilating Muslims into the very colonial systems that seek to exterminate Indigenous Peoples? In the recent and brilliant online editorial, “Critical Transnational Feminist Analysis of Settler Colonialism,” one of the editors, Shaista Patel, powerfully articulates the importance of ethically engaging with other communities and understanding how struggles are interconnected. She writes:
“For those of us who work with the question of violence against Indigenous, Black and other bodies of colour, we are required to pay attention to the fact that these violences are intimately connected across spaces and times… For some of us, the question of complicity here as people living on stolen land, requires that we look into our histories and that we pay attention to all bodies who continue to demand that we ethically engage with violences. Paying attention to such questions moves us across continents, from past into present and back into the past and so forth. It asks us to trace the contradictions of the Empire which places us as both victims of violence but also as perpetrators of violence.”
All of us are participants in maintaining the interlocking systems of oppression, but we can make more ethical, diligent, and compassionate efforts to be more conscious of our privileges, responsibilities, and complicities. Recognizing these intersections and contradictions (within and outside of ourselves) reminds us that our liberation cannot be dependent on oppressing the rights of others. In an earlier piece, “Defining Muslim Feminist Politics through Indigenous Solidarity Activism,” Patel describes how Muslim solidarity with Indigenous Peoples comes from “an understanding that some of our historical trajectories coincide.” She cites how genocide against Indigenous Peoples in the “New World” and “expulsion of the last Muslims in Spain” were taking place in the same year of 1492. Additionally, she states:
“These braided histories of foundational violence of the ‘New World’ and Spain’s repudiation of its internal Others are important to remember so that we don’t forget how our destinies in a white-supremacist global order are tied in very material ways. . . . The history and present of the U.S. as a strong white settler-colonial and imperial power needs to be taken into account when movements in support of Palestinians, Afghanis, Iraqis, and other Muslims here are mobilized.”
I cite and raise the points mentioned above because I believe they can help us understand the damage mainstream narratives about post-9/11 Islamophobia causes. We are not going to stop Islamophobia if we think the West “suddenly” and “abruptly” became Islamophobic after 9/11, as if no history of racism and anti-Muslim bigotry existed before. If we were to apply this logic to white Christians, we would be seeing institutionalized oppression against white Christians in the West as a response to all of the murders and crimes carried out by white people. Islamophobia needs to be recognized as being ingrained in state racism. Furthermore, as Patel asserts, we need to understand Islamophobia as encompassing anti-blackness, as well as white supremacy (including white Christian supremacy), heteropatriarchy, imperialism, colonialism, Orientalism, Zionism, and so on. To truly understand Islamophobia in all of its complexity and intersections, it requires us to look beyond 9/11 and closely examine history.
I’ll conclude with saying there is no denying that Islamophobia and demonization of Islam and Muslims intensified after 9/11. I am not against Muslims writing about their post 9/11 experiences either, especially when there are so many efforts to silence us. Let’s keep telling our stories; they are important and need to be heard. The point I’m emphasizing is that, when we tell our stories, we need to resist narratives that set 9/11 as the “starting point” of Islamophobia because such narratives make us complicit in reinforcing notions that the U.S. (and the West in general) was once “kind” to Muslims and people of color. It is true that some Muslims did not experience Islamophobia and racism before 9/11, but we must not establish this as a truth for all Muslims and people of color. Instead of treating anti-Muslim bigotry as a “new phenomenon,” we need to remember that it has existed for centuries. Understanding this reality and challenging the post-9/11 discourse about Islamophobia is critical not just for building alliances and solidarity with other communities, but also for building solidarity and unity within the Muslim community.