Evangelical Islamophobia as American as Apple Pie

Among the most startling aspects of 2010 election campaign was the right wing manipulation of the fear of Islam. Oklahoma’s measure 755, forbidding “the use of international and Shariah law in state courts,” was adopted by a large majority; in North Carolina Renee Ellmers won a seat in the House with a campaign that focused on distant New York City, calling the proposed Park51 community center “a victory mosque”; and in Florida, Tea Party candidate Alan West won in a campaign that included frequent “history lessons,” teaching, among other things, that “Islam is a totalitarian theocratic political ideology. It is not a religion.”

But not all voters were swayed by this kind of hate-speech. Ron McNeil lost the Republican primary for Florida’s District 2 House seat. Unlike some other politicos McNeil didn’t wait until the weeks before the election to make Islam a campaign issue. Back in August he sought to make New York’s Park51 community center a Florida issue. “I’m totally against it. If I had my way, it would pretty much be over my dead body. That religion is against everything America stands for. If we have to let them build it, make them build it nine stories underground, so we can walk above it as citizens and Christians.” [For a survey of these and other Islam-related election results see Jen Phillips’ Muslimophobia: Election Roundup.]

Those nativist voices characterizing Islam as ‘un-American’ are likley to be considered another chapter in the story of American xenophobia. Not true, says Thomas Kidd, an American religious historian at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. In his timely and perceptive book, American Christians and Islam, Kidd insists that there is something unique about American antipathy to Islam that differs substantially from earlier American Protestant campaigns against Catholics, Jews and other religious minorities. Arguing that “the recent American Christian hostility towards Islam derives from a long historical tradition,” Kidd points out that even before the American Revolution Anglo-Americans were predisposed to hostility towards Muslims.

Two elements were chiefly responsible for the hostility: the widespread notion that all Muslims had to be brought to Christianity and the rampant speculations about the End Time that saw Islam as the Antichrist. Humphrey Prideaux’s 1697 book The True Nature of Imposture Fully Displayed in the Life Of Mahomet was printed and preached about many times in the American colonies. As Kidd sees it, an imagined Islam became the foil which American Christian legitimacy and ‘authenticity’ challenged.

In the mid-nineteenth century the American Protestant call to ‘Evangelize the World’—a call linked to emerging American Imperial power aspirations—met its greatest challenge in the Muslim world. In a 1906 meeting in Cairo twenty-nine American and European missionary groups met to plan “the Evangelization of the Moslem world in this generation.” A follow-up conference in Lucknow in 1911 called for the Christianization of the Muslims of India.

More recently, the 9/11 attacks, according to Kidd, “Re-energized those familiar themes of Muslim conversions and Islam’s place in the end times, two themes common in American Christian rhetoric, even before the American Revolution.” And while he doesn’t dismiss the powerful effect of the 9/11 attacks on American public opinion, Kidd takes the long view, tracing the continuity of these anti-Muslim attitudes from the Colonial period to the neo-colonial present. Referring to Jonathan Edwards and other influential thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Kidd notes that, while the aspersions against Islam have recently generated outrage among liberals, “There was a time in America, however, when such ideas about Islam would not have generated any outrage, for they reflected commonly held interpretations.”

Islam-bashing in the run-up to the elections and the increasing number of attacks on American mosques needs to be understood against this broad historical background. But, as noted earlier, the fear-mongering during the election cycle was not uniformly successful. House of Representatives member, Keith Ellison, for example, kept his Minnesota seat despite the anti-Muslim invectives he endured. And not only did he win, Rep. Ellison, a convert to Islam many years earlier, got 68% of the vote. Tea Party Nation founder, Judson Phillips, sent a mass email a few days before the November 2nd elections calling Ellison “One of the most radical members of congress. He has a zero rating from the American Conservative Union. He is the only Muslim member of congress.” Not only is Phillips not at all embarrassed to attack Ellison’s religious beliefs, he appears to be proud of it: “A majority of Tea Party members, I suspect are not fans of Islam. I, personally, have a real problem with Islam. With Islam you have a religion that says kill the Jews, kill the infidels.”

Kidd lets us know up front that his “training is in American religious history, not the global history of Islam.” When discussing the many “outrageously negative” views of Islam that he has encountered in his research, Kidd writes that “my own view is that with more than a billion Muslims living in the world, it is very difficulty to say what ‘Muslims’ in general are like.” Sadly, Professor Kidd is not overly optimistic about the future of Evangelical-Muslim relations and indeed the book ends on this somber note: “The history of American Christian thought about Islam, sadly, has demonstrated little courtesy and understanding.” The most we can hope for, in his opinion, is mutual courtesy.

slgoldm@learnlink.emory.edu'

Shalom Goldman is Professor Of Religion at Duke University. His most recent book is Zeal for Zion: Christians, Jews, and the Idea of the Promised Land (UNC Press, January, 2010).