Forever Foreign: Islamophobia throughout American History

Published: October 3, 2019 • Updated: October 17, 2020

For more on this topic, see Unpacking the Effects of Islamophobia


The election of Donald Trump has triggered an intense debate regarding the nature of American identity. Does being American simply mean having American citizenship? Does it entail commitment to a certain set of beliefs, such as the rule of law, freedom of expression, and democratic principles? Or does being American have ethnic, racial, and religious qualifications? This debate is hardly new, however; since the founding of our country, politicians, public intellectuals, and pundits alike have debated the essence of American identity. Often, Muslims have served as the quintessential community, both in support of a more inclusive national identity and as evidence that certain people are incapable of ever being truly American.

Academic debate regarding the nature of American identity is similarly intense. Famed political scientist, Samuel Huntington1 argued that being American was rooted in European heritage and that national unity was under threat from Latin American migrants who remained Catholic and refused to assimilate. Others argue that national identity need not be based on a specific heritage but derives from a commitment to constitutional values, referred to as civic nationalism. Scholars from both camps have relied upon different sets of historical evidence to support their claims, with few attempts at developing a more nuanced understanding of how American identity has developed since the War for Independence.

The place of Muslims in America has long been utilized in the debate on American identity. Supporters of Jeffersonian religious tolerance have used Muslims as the most extreme example of non-Christians who can inhabit America, whereas others have exhibited a skepticism shared by Locke and de Tocqueville that Muslims are capable of national loyalty because of their commitment to Shari'ah.

Can Muslims truly be American? This paper examines historical depictions of Muslims to show that even the staunchest supporters of religious tolerance understood Muslims to be something “other” than typical Americans. However, throughout American history, a stronger belief in civic nationalism has taken root among certain segments of society, expanding the definition of American identity to include all who share the constitutional commitments to democracy and freedom, regardless of creed, race, or national origin.

American primordialism: Americans as White, Protestant Anglo-Saxons

A racial and cultural understanding of American identity existed long before the election of Donald Trump and has not been isolated to fringe conservative movements but has permeated even the highest institutions of knowledge in the country. In his final book, written just before his death in 2008, Samuel Huntington expounded upon his understanding of American identity and warned readers of the impending identity crisis that could have severe political ramifications for the country. According to Huntington, American identity is rooted in much more than a shared appreciation for political institutions and values. It is rooted in a historical experience of European settlement, held together by Protestant values, and transmitted through the English language. The content of American identity, according to Huntington, goes beyond political thought and incorporates religion, race, language, and culture. 2 

Huntington’s argument is rooted in his reading of American history. Settlers from Great Britain arrived in the New World, bringing with them the English language, English common law, and what Huntington refers to as “dissenting Protestantism.” For approximately the first 100 years after the birth of the United States, the population was relatively homogenous. As immigrants arrived from Southern and Eastern Europe, the culture was repurposed from a “Protestant” one to a “Christian” one; however, Huntington argues that Catholic immigrants essentially “Protestantized” and assimilated into an American culture that teemed with Protestant influence. This assertion is particularly important as it demonstrates Huntington’s assumptions regarding how American identity expanded. Even though Americans lost their common British ancestry and large numbers of Catholics migrated in the late 19th century, immigrants adapted to the Anglo-Protestant culture rather than change it. Over time, Catholics became more like Protestants; thus, Italians and Irish were accepted as white.3

Had his exposition of America’s identity ended with this idea, Huntington might have avoided the controversy that his final work generated. Instead, the argument transitioned into a nativist diatribe by its conclusion, with Huntington claiming that non-assimilating Hispanic and Muslim migrants pose an existential threat to American identity and its political institutions. Though lambasted by intellectuals,4 Huntington’s ideas found traction among a large swath of the population, making the acceptance of Muslims into American society challenging.

The Muslim community is one of the most diverse groups in this country, representing a range of racial, ethnic, and national identities. In 2017, approximately 3.45 million Muslims lived in the United States, with 20% deriving from South Asia and another 14% from the Middle East.5 Though characterized as a religious minority, the racial diversity of the Muslim community acts as another barrier to full citizenship. This combination of racial and religious “otherness” situates Muslims in a unique space on the “field of racial positions.”6

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While some scholars have proposed that a racial (and for the purposes of this paper, it may be assumed cultural as well) hierarchy exists in the United States, Kim 7 argues that a “field of racial positions” exists, which better explains not just the relationship between blacks and whites but allows the incorporation of Asians in explanations of ethnicity in America. This “field” is situated on two axes: on one axis is an inferiority/superiority spectrum of perceived racial worth, and on the other axis is a foreign/insider spectrum to measure the level of perceived acceptance in the American community. Kim’s theory of racial triangulation posits that whites are perceived as fully superior and insider, whereas blacks are equally insiders in American society but seen as drastically inferior to whites. According to Kim, Asians can be placed between whites and blacks on the inferiority/superiority spectrum but are perceived as entirely outsiders in American society. Kim argues that this placement of Asians on the American field of racial positions is intentional; white elites try to pit Asians and blacks against each other, while still maintaining that neither group can be considered quintessentially American like whites.

This theoretical framework provides a useful means through which to study the place of Muslim Americans and helps to reveal how American nativism constructs groups that are not Anglo-Protestant. In Kim’s field of racial positions, Muslims could occupy a large range along the inferiority/superiority complex depending on an individual’s national origins. Africans would mostly likely be closer to the “inferiority” side of the spectrum, whereas Bosnians and Tatars may well be perceived closer to whites. However, because of historic perceptions about the nature of Islam and its alleged opposition to Christianity, Muslims will always be perceived as wholly foreign.

Not all American thinkers have adopted this racialized understanding of American identity however. Proponents of tolerance and inclusion were among the first settlers8 and important Founding Fathers, most notably Thomas Jefferson, ensured that religious freedom was enshrined in the documents meant to establish their new nation.

Tolerance, inclusivity, and American Muslims

By the time of the American War for Independence, the original Thirteen Colonies comprised a disparate group of European settlers, with New England representing those who fled religious persecution in Europe and the southern states more accurately described as colonies directly tied to England. These colonies cooperated in combating the perceived tyranny of the British monarchy and, when independence was achieved, the political elites were tasked with uniting these disparate colonies into a confederation that allowed for a unified vision of the future. This vision ultimately rested on affirming the individual rights of all and other political values that were seemingly universal.

The language of the founding documents illustrates the universalist vision the founders had for the new nation. The Declaration of Independence refers to a divine Creator and to the laws of nature, but there is no indication of particular denominational influence. The foundational justification for secession, “that all men are created equal… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” is a universal principle applied to all mankind.9 The Constitution contains even fewer metaphysical elements, making no reference to a Creator but instead starting with a preamble inspired by the social-contract-thinking that was popular at that time. Both documents were inherently inclusive in nature and compared to other democracies that have recognized national religions,10 the United States Constitution is still relatively progressive in that sense.

Muslims were often used as the quintessential test for religious inclusion, especially in the early days of the republic. George Washington once said he would be willing to invite a Muslim to his estate at Mount Vernon.11 Elites were not the only ones interested in proving their willingness to be inclusive; citizens of Chesterfield County, Virginia, petitioned their state legislature in 1785, stating, “It is men’s labour in our Manufactories, their services by sea and land that aggrandize our Country and not their creeds… Let Jews, Mehometans, and Christians of every denomination find their advantage in living under your laws.”12

Thomas Jefferson is perhaps the most famous proponent of religious inclusivity in America. Jefferson was much more familiar with Muslims and their faith than other founding fathers, and he has recently been acknowledged for his tolerance of Islam. He owned a copy of the Qur’an, taught himself Arabic, and advocated for the new nation to be welcoming to people of all faiths.13 During his time in the Virginia state legislature, Jefferson rejected an amendment to a religious freedom bill that would have inserted “Jesus Christ” in the language, claiming to seek the protection of “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”14 During his term as president, Jefferson would also host the first Ramadan Iftar at the White House, inviting Muslim dignitaries to join him in breaking the fast for that evening.

Thomas Jefferson was neither unique nor novel in his daring advocacy for religious inclusion. John Locke wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) that not only should all Protestant sects be allowed to live peacefully, but that “neither pagan, nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”15 Locke’s comments would go on to inspire numerous future Enlightenment thinkers, cementing the ideal of religious tolerance in the political elites of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Though much has been said about the inclusion of Muslims, it is important to note that most of these statements refer to fictive Muslims rather than an actual Muslim population living in America. While Jefferson showed his willingness to engage with Muslims when hosting his White House Iftar, others spoke theoretically when they mentioned their willingness to welcome Muslims. The propensity to use Muslims as the extreme example of their religious tolerance also demonstrates the distance they perceived to exist between Christianity and Islam. In essence, they were so committed to religious freedom, they would go so far as to accept Muslims among them. Using Muslims in such a way reveals the difficulties that truly existed in accepting religious minorities as fully American. Much like rhetoric used today to speak of Muslims and Shari'ah, American thinkers have been subject to a host of misconceptions about Islam that have inhibited their ability to see Muslims as something other than foreign.

Enduring stereotypes: Islam as foreign, Muslims as dubious

A historical analysis of American thought and writings about Islam demonstrates the perceived foreign nature of the religion. As mentioned previously, the embrace of Muslims as a display of the extent to which religious freedom existed in America also demonstrated the degree of distance people perceived to exist between Christianity and Islam. While some championed the principle of religious freedom and its ability to traverse that distance, others considered that distance and perceived Muslims to be fully alien and incompatible with America and its democratic ideals.

Sometimes this skepticism came from the very thinkers who espoused a great degree of religious tolerance. Just as Locke argued for the inclusion of the “Mahometan,” he simultaneously qualified his support for tolerance by exempting those Muslims that “yield blind obedience to the mufti in Constantinople; who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman emperor, and frames the famed oracles of that religion according to his pleasure.”16 This comment reveals that Locke was ultimately suspicious of Muslims and considered it likely that they would not be entirely loyal to the state in which they lived, but instead loyal to the religious Ottoman authorities, or to their very own desires. This suspicion is reminiscent of similar concerns about John F. Kennedy’s loyalty to the Catholic Pope over the United States when he was running for President in the mid-20th century. However, it reflects a sense of Protestant superiority that prioritizes individualism and democratic consensus and looks down upon more hierarchical structures of authority.

This question of loyalty has been a recurring element of anti-Muslim sentiment in America. While praising America for its commitment to religious freedom in spite of its deeply religious character, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted that only Christianity could produce such a society. On the other hand, he predicted that Islam “will never long predominate in a cultivated and democratic age” because the Qur’an contains “not only religious doctrines, but political maxims, civil and criminal laws, and theories of science.”17

Other critiques have been more scathing and specifically directed against the theological contents of the religion itself. Humphrey Prideaux wrote The True Nature of Imposture Fully Display’d in the Life of Mahomet, which accused the Islamic prophet of being a fraud and made commonplace many of the stereotypes that had previously existed throughout Europe. By the end of the 18th century, two American publishers released new editions. One of the editions used the character of Mahomet to reemphasize the values that inspired the American Revolution—resistance to tyranny and opposition to centralized government. The new edition even drew parallels between the authoritarian nature of Mahomet and the Federalist tendencies of John Adams.18

This comparison serves as an example of the ways in which national debates have often taken on religious elements. Despite commitments to religious freedom and pluralism, the religious underpinnings of national politics and identity cast suspicion on religious minorities that do not share in Protestant theology. Because religious freedom and the Establishment clause protect minorities from discrimination regarding theological differences, nativists instead cast other religions as foreign and incompatible with American law and values. For example, in the mid-19th century, the American Party campaigned on anti-Catholic sentiment, referring to immigrants from Italy and Ireland as foreign foot soldiers of the Pope coming to America to establish the rule of the Church.19 Higham argues that opposition to minorities is exacerbated during times of crisis and social change, with anti-Catholic fervor being strongest around the time of the Civil War.

This may help to explain how Muslims came to national attention during the 1990s. Not only was the Muslim world going through traumatic experiences, such as the genocide in Bosnia and conflict throughout the Middle East, but the United States was grappling with the fall of Communism and its new role as the sole hegemonic power in international affairs. Domestically, Americans were adjusting to a new cultural schema following the Civil Rights Movement that gave greater opportunity to blacks while limiting the power whites had previously exerted over them.

Many may assume that anti-Muslim sentiment grew exponentially after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, but public opinion research found that negative feelings towards Muslims were often coupled with a distaste for other cultural out-groups as well. In one study, anti-Muslim sentiments correlated with negative feelings towards feminists and welfare recipients, groups often targeted by conservative media.20 Another study confirmed those results by determining that negative feelings towards Muslims are shared by those who also feel negatively about other minorities who do not fit the Anglo-Protestant image of America.21

However, a concurrent trend has emerged since the election of President Obama to counter the exclusionary vision of American identity. This movement seeks to embody the inclusive spirit of the founding documents and move beyond a history of racism and prejudice to embrace the diversity of this country.

Moving forward with an American civic nationalism

At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, President Barack Obama reiterated, as he had done throughout his eight years as president, his vision of an inclusive American identity. “What makes us American, what makes us patriots, is what’s in here. That’s what matters. That’s why we can take the food and music and holidays and styles of other countries, and blend it into something uniquely our own,” Obama said to his fellow Democrats.22 In a way, President Obama embodied the vision he sought to promote. The first African American President was also the son of a Kenyan Muslim father and a white mother from Wichita, Kansas. In a 2006 interview, Obama described his family as a “mini-United Nations”23 and he projected this image as a multiracial, multicultural beneficiary of the American Dream frequently on the campaign trail. It also influenced his understanding of what it meant to be an American.

President Obama’s view of American identity is illustrative of a civic American nationalism in which individuals are defined as “American” by their commitment to democratic values and love of country. The Washington Post writer Greg Jaffe describes Obama’s conception of American nationalism and identity excellently: “Obama’s conception is more inwardly focused. It’s a patriotism that embraces the darker moments in American history and celebrates the ability of the unsung and the outsiders to challenge the country’s elite.”24

This movement believes membership in the American national community is open to all, and diversity is a source of strength to the nation according to this interpretation. As President Obama concluded in his 2016 Democratic Convention speech; “I see Americans of every party, every background, every faith who believe that we are stronger together—black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American; young and old; gay, straight, men, women, folks with disabilities, all pledging allegiance, under the same proud flag, to this big, bold country that we love.”25 

This understanding of citizenship is commonly referred to as civic nationalism. A civic nation is one in which membership in the national community is not based on belonging to a particular ethnic group or sharing a common language or culture. Instead, membership is open to all individuals who seek to uphold the particular political institutions and values of that state. The state is charged with ensuring that all cultures are included and guaranteeing that one cultural group does not encroach upon the rights of others.26

Jurgen Habermas developed a theory of “constitutional patriotism” that complements the idea of civic nationalism. With the horrors of World War II and the role nationalism played in originating that conflict, Habermas advocated for a culture of inclusion where immigrants could move freely without being forced to assimilate to other cultures that held a monopoly on power. Immigrants need only assimilate to the political culture that is embodied in the constitution of that nation, which would ultimately extend equality over all citizens.27

Advocates for an American civic nationalism persistently struggle against the nativist alternatives that have gained ground within the last few years. Whereas the election of Trump seemed to be a resurgence of a long-lived nativist tradition in America that values the Anglo-Protestant vision of American identity, the 2018 elections signaled that the contest over what defined American identity is stronger than ever. It is possible that contestation of American identity will wane as demographic shifts continue to shrink the proportion of whites in this country. It could also be that nativist resistance will increase as the threat of becoming a minority materializes. If the midterm elections are any indication, the racial diversity, religious uniqueness, and foreign origins of the Muslim community may well be embraced in the future and seen as beneficial, not disruptive, to the evolution of American identity.


1 Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to American National Identity (New York ; London: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Alan Wolfe, “Native Son: Samuel Huntington Defends the Homeland,” January 28, 2009, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2004-05-01/native-son-samuel-huntington-defends-homeland; Michiko Kakutani, “BOOKS OF THE TIMES; An Identity Crisis for Norman Rockwell America,” The New York Times, May 28, 2004, sec. Books, https://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/28/books/books-of-the-times-an-identity-crisis-for-norman-rockwell-america.html.

5 “Demographic Portrait of Muslim Americans,” July 26, 2017, http://www.pewforum.org/2017/07/26/demographic-portrait-of-muslim-americans/.

6 Claire Jean Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics & Society 27, no. 1 (1999): 105–38.

7 Ibid.

8 Roger Williams was a staunch supporter of religious tolerance, to the extent that he was excommunicated and exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In a famous work entitled The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (published in 1644), Williams declares “It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Son, the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships be granted to all men in all nations and countries.”

9 “Declaration of Independence,” National Archives, 1776, https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript.

10 Many eastern European countries, such as Poland for example, acknowledge a denomination of Christianity as the official state religion while securing the freedom of religion for others.

11 Jonathan Curiel, Islam in America (London: I.B.Tauris, 2015).

12 Peter Gottschalk and Gabriel Greenberg, “Common Heritage, Uncommon Fear: Islamophobia in the United States and British India, 1687-1947,” in Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance, ed. Carl Ernest (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 205.

13 Curiel, Islam in America.

14 Gottschalk and Greenberg, “Common Heritage, Uncommon Fear: Islamophobia in the United States and British India, 1687-1947.”

15 John Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003).

16 Gottschalk and Greenberg, “Common Heritage, Uncommon Fear: Islamophobia in the United States and British India, 1687-1947,” 29.

17 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America. Volumes I & II, 1840, vol. 2, p. 23.

18 Gottschalk and Greenberg, “Common Heritage, Uncommon Fear: Islamophobia in the United States and British India, 1687-1947.”

19 John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

20 Kerem Ozan Kalkan, Geoffrey C. Layman, and Eric M. Uslaner, “‘Bands of Others’? Attitudes toward Muslims in Contemporary American Society,” The Journal of Politics 71, no. 3 (2009): 847–62, https://doi.org/10.1017/s0022381609090756.

21 John Sides and Kimberly Gross, “Stereotypes of Muslims and Support for the War on Terror,” The Journal of Politics 75, no. 3 (July 2013): 583–98, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0022381613000388.

22 Ron Fournier, “How Obama Redefined American Exceptionalism,” The Atlantic, July 28, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/obamas-new-american-exceptionalism/493415/.

23 Oprah Winfrey, “Keeping Hope Alive,” Oprah.com, 2006, http://www.oprah.com/world/keeping-hope-alive.

24 Greg Jaffe, “Obama’s New Patriotism,” The Washington Post (blog), 2015, http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/national/2015/06/03/obama-and-american-exceptionalism/.

25 Fournier, “How Obama Redefined American Exceptionalism.”

26 Anna Stilz, “Civic Nationalism and Language Policy,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 37, no. 3 (2009): 257–292, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1088-4963.2009.01160.x.

27 Jürgen Habermas, The Inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1998).


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