The rise of Donald Trump has forced Muslims, once again, onto a national stage in a way that threatens their place in America. But as troubling as Trump’s rhetoric may be, it is only part of a larger theme to which we’ve sadly grown accustomed.
Wisconsin businessman Paul Nehlen, who is challenging Speaker of the House Paul Ryan for the Republican nomination for the state’s 1st Congressional District, channels countless Republicans, who have come before him by aggressively opposing Muslims.
In an interview with Chicago radio’s 560 AM “The Answer”, Nehlen asks, “Why do we have Muslims in the country?”
When questioned by program host Dan Proft as to whether or not Nehlen suggests “that we deport all of the Muslims in this country,” Nehlen said, “We [should] have a discussion about it, that’s for sure.” Proft also asked Nehlen if he’s supportive of a measure suggested by former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, which would have Muslim Americans vetted in order to find out if they believe in Sharia Law, which Proft described as being a “thought crime” policy. Nehlen confirmed that he supports the measure, though he claimed there were limits to this kind of program because Muslims have the ability to lie by way of “taqqiya”.
This blatant misrepresentation of “taqqiya” aside, the implications of these words are far-reaching, especially as anti-Muslim hate crimes are on the rise.
In Nehlen’s home state, the president and founder of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Association reported in March that Islamophobia is common in classrooms, and it “has become so commonplace that people feel comfortable talking about Muslims in ways they would never talk about any other ethnic, religious, or racial group.”
The shared experiences of religious minorities in the United States have long included overcoming pervasive discrimination, systematic marginalization, and violence perpetuated by the state and hyper-nationalists, including lawmakers.
Since at least the beginning of the “War on Terrorism,” the question of belonging—whether Muslims have a right to exist—is one that’s been debated by legislators and pundits. It has become so normalized, to question this right to occupy spaces in America, that there is no longer a need for these lawmakers and commentators to rationalize their rhetoric. This language is embedded in the very consciousness of America, and the consequences are felt by Muslims in not only the United States but across the globe.
The question posed by Nehlen, as to why Muslims are in the United States to begin with, strikes at the heart of the matter—that anti-Muslim bigots fervently believe that Muslims do not belong among the rest of society, and so they should be watched, purged, or bombed out of existence. This is where both of the major political parties in the U.S. unite most often. Both vigorously support programs, which expand surveillance and destroy Muslim life.
Historically, animus against Muslims in the U.S. has existed since they first lived in the United the country.
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “the first clearly documented arrival, in this case forceable, of Muslims in America occurred in the 17th century with the bringing of slaves from Africa.” These slaves were forced to abandon their culture, language, name and religion, in this case Islam. In Islam in America, Jane I. Smith, Professor of Islamic Studies and Co-Director of the MacDonald Center for Christian-Muslim Relations, writes that the two most identifiable periods of Muslim migration to the U.S. occurred between 1875 and 1912.
Migrants were from “rural areas of what was then called Greater Syria under the Ottoman Empire, currently comprising Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon.” Journalist Mohammad Alexander Russell Webb, one of the first notable Euro-American converts to Islam, would go on to establish a short-lived mosque in Manhattan in 1893. The two oldest mosques still standing in the U.S. are the small Ross, North Dakota mosque, built in 1929, and the Mother Mosque of America, which was established in 1934.
In “Muslims in the United States: Settlers and Visitors,” published in 1981, author M. Arif Ghayur argues the lack of recognition concerning this history of Muslims in America is due, in part, to a majority of Muslims having arrived in the U.S. after “the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965.” They did not become recognized as part of “the ethnic mosaic of America” until the 1970s.
Ghayur’s research identifies Muslim migrants as mostly laborers, farmers, and petty shop keepers. It also estimates that thousands of European and Near Eastern Muslims migrated to the U.S. after World War II, a majority of whom maintained their Muslim identities.
Between World War II and 1965 negative portrayals of Muslims were already established across Hollywood, but at the same time there was also “a resurgence of Muslim identity” due in part to the “presence of Muslim businessmen and diplomats,” which led many Muslims to establish mosques and Islamic centers across the United States.
There is arguably a similar resurgence of Muslim identity in America now, thanks in part to defiant Muslim community members and vocal Muslims in both print and media who refuse to discard their selfhood, despite the troubling climate.
Nehlen may not unseat Ryan, especially since polls have the Speaker of the House leading by 66 points, but the sting of his attacks will remain an unsettling reminder of both present and historic conditions for American Muslims.