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Speaker Edward Curtis: Today’s American Islamaphobia has roots a century deep

It all started with 9/11. Except it didn’t.

Visiting lecturer Edward Curtis IV, who serves on the religious studies faculty at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, spoke at the University of Denver Jan. 25 as part of the Marsico visiting scholar program. In a lecture titled “The Black Roots of American Islamophobia,” Curtis challenged the common belief that America’s unease with the Islamic faith started with the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Curtis asked the audience of some 50 students, faculty and staff to look at the country’s historical relationship with the religion. The United States is actually in a third phase of discomfort and distrust when it comes to Islam, he said.

In fact, up until around World War I, Islamic immigrants were welcomed, Curtis said. It was only after the war, when the religion attracted African-Americans looking for refuge from Jim Crow laws and racism, that the white majority began to take notice.

Curtis, author of the acclaimed Muslims in America: A Short History, said as Islam’s ranks swelled and those in power struggled to stay in control, some in the Islamic community — many of them African-American — began to express hope that a Japanese invasion would lift the oppression of minorities. Soon, the federal government sought to suppress the rising leaders of such movements.

A second phase of distrust developed after World War II, as the civil rights movement grew and opposition to the Vietnam War swelled. Leaders such as Malcolm X and even boxer Muhammad Ali were viewed with suspicion and tracked by the FBI. Federal attorneys went as far as fighting court cases to treat groups such as the Nation of Islam as a cult.

While earlier phases of distrust focused on race, the nation’s racial tensions have eased, Curtis said. The focus drifted from African-American groups and simmered through the 1990s as scholars and policymakers studied developments in the world of Islam overseas.

The powder keg was ignited with the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  Suddenly mainstream American distrust of Islam was in full force again, with scrutiny now focused on the Middle East and Afghanistan and with many Americans increasingly willing to give up individual rights in pursuit of the extremist Islamist, Curtis said.

To many, this focus on Islam seems like something new, Curtis said. But history has shown the country always has struggled to come to grips with the religion, often with results that in hindsight prove to be unsavory.

The challenge in this new era of distrust is to build a dialogue that separates religion and legitimate political activism from terrorism, Curtis said.

“Is there a way in the war against terrorism to carve out more public space for public dissent for Muslim and non-Muslim groups?” Curtis asked. “One way or another, we have got to find a way to differentiate between political dissent and terrorism.”

Andrea Stanton, DU assistant professor of religious studies, said Curtis’ lecture was a great opportunity for DU students to hear from and meet a scholar of great renown, especially during an election year when the issues of religious minorities are sure to be part of the political discussion.





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