The Racialization of Religion Began Long Before Today’s Islamophobia

Source: Huffington Post

One of the most prevalent talking points in the 2016 election cycle is the role of religion, and the in-grouping and outgrouping that political figures are using to describe America.

While Donald Trump’s comments about banning Muslims from entering the country have drawn the most criticism, the racializing of Islam has been in full effect for well over a decade. This racialization has also dovetailed with American ideological polarization, making Islam — and the role of Muslim-Americans — a combustible topic of discussion.

What activists now call Islamophobia reflects a trend of outgrouping and Othering religions and cultures that are deemed incompatible with amorphously defined American values. As noted scholar Khyati Joshi has written about extensively, racializing religions such as Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism has also created an environment where Christian privilege is frequently assumed and subsequently imposed upon the public sphere.

But the racialization of minority religions began long before Islamophobia. In fact, prior to the 1980s (which saw the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. backed-mujahadeen in Afghanistan, the first Palestinian intifada, and Islamic clerics’ death threats against author Salman Rushdie over the Satanic Verses), Islam was relatively benign within the scale of America’s religious and social discourse.

Compared to the pervasive anti-Semitism in American social discourse throughout the 20th century, Islam wasn’t vilified as much as it was marginalized and exoticized — primarily in the minds of Hollywood producers who viewed Muslims as harem-holding turbaned sheikhs or belly dancers. Ironically, Islam was seen as a positive force against the “darkness” of the Axis powers, highlighted by Frank Capra’s reference to the Quran in the famous World War II propaganda film, Why We Fight.

Instead, the racialization of religion in the American imagination — and the creation of a permanent Other that continues to this day — was the way Hinduism and “Hindoos” were represented. For starters, “Hindoos” was a term to describe anyone from India, meaning that many of those labeled as such in America weren’t necessarily Hindu. The majority of “Hindoos” were in fact Sikh, though smaller numbers of Hindus and Muslims were part of the racialized, vilified, and attacked Indian community in the Pacific Northwest during the late 19th and early 20th century. Most of the victims of the infamous anti-Hindoo riots of 1907 in Washington state were Sikhs, though at the time, many Sikhs in America also self-identified as Hindus/Hindoos.

Even while Americans couldn’t tell the difference among “Hindoos,” Hinduism found itself in the crosshairs of American journalists, academics, cultural producers, and social activists whose interest were based upon fascination, disgust, the need to save, or a combination of all of the above. But ideologically, both liberals and conservatives believed that Hindus (and “Hindoos”) were incompatible with America.


The 1923 U.S. Supreme Court case United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thindeffectively racialized religion and ethnicity by denying Thind the same racial privileges as a white person. Thind (a Sikh who preached a unique blend of spirituality that drew from Hinduism, Sikhism, and Christianity to American audiences), in arguing for his U.S. citizenship, claimed his status as a “high caste Hindu of full Indian blood” qualified him for naturalization as a “free white person.” The Court disagreed and nullified his naturalization, which also led to the citizenship revocation of A.K. Mozumdar, an Indian-born Hindu associated with the International New Thought Alliance.

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