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Fear, distrust of Muslims predates 9/11, expert says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 19, 2012 - The terrorist attacks of 9/11 may have changed many things in American life, but as far as government surveillance of Muslim groups and efforts to undermine their influence, what has happened in the last decade is an extension of what went before.

That was the analysis of Edward E. Curtis IV, an expert on U.S.-Muslim relations who opened the spring lecture series at Washington University's John C. Danforth Center on Religion & Politics Wednesday with a talk entitled "Muslim-American Dissent and U.S. Politics Before and After 9/11."

While the attacks on the World Trade Center and other sites certainly threw a special spotlight on Muslims in the United States, Curtis said that the notion of Muslim-American dissent as a threat to national security is far from new.

"Framing it in that way impoverishes our national conversation," said Curtis, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Concentrating on two periods in 20th-century American history -- from the 1920s to World War II, and the post-war era to the 1960s -- Curtis showed how a focus on and a fear of dissent by black Muslims shifted to attention primarily on brown-skinned Muslims with Asian-American roots.

What Curtis called the Islamophobic stereotype of Muslims as violent, misogynist and backward has not always been the norm in American history, he said. As far back as the administration of John Quincy Adams, for example, Muslim Americans were seen as being in tune with American interests.

"How did domestic Muslims go from being friendly foreigners to dangerous dissenters?" he asked.

The answer begins in the period after World War I, when fear spread that immigrants of color would spread political diseases like Bolshevism in the United States. Frightening scenarios of American people of color united with those abroad helped fan prejudice and repression, Curtis said.

In the period between the world wars, an Islamic appeal for social equality struck an ecumenical note. The growth of black Muslim-American movements paralleled the increased activity by and influence of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, as a religious and political response to colonialism and racism.

Such movements, Curtis said, led to concern in Washington, with the FBI becoming increasingly active in trying to infiltrate and suppress groups seen as hostile to U.S. interests. African-American leaders, including some who spoke in messianic terms of a Japanese invasion of the West Coast that would liberate oppressed people, led to arrests of leaders including Elijah Muhammad, the leader of the Nation of Islam, on charges of sedition.

After World War II, extensive counterintelligence operations grew, as authorities feared an alliance between black Muslims and Arabs that would challenge the liberal promise of the growing civil rights movement. Resistance to U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Vietnam, stoked the tensions even further.

To combat the rise of Muslim-American influence, Curtis said federal agencies experimented with new approaches, such as denying First Amendment protections to Muslim prisoners on the grounds that what they practiced was a cult, not a religion. Americans affiliated with a foreign religion were seen as denying their identity as true Americans.

"Making out the Nation of Islam to be a cult turned out to be difficult in the federal court system," Curtis said, "but they did win in the court of public opinion."

The expanded use of so-called COINTELPRO covert activities, he added, was the pinnacle of the second phase of state repression of African-American Muslims, with 360 separate documented operations, the second-largest thrust of all domestic counter-intelligence efforts.

Today, Curtis said, the public face of Muslim-Americans has changed, with the stereotype being brown, not black. Even before 9/11, the FBI and other agencies worked against what they saw as a transnational terrorist threat. Officials linked Islam and terrorism and portrayed the religion as fundamentally irreconcilable with Western civilization.

The rhetoric of the Bush and Obama administrations has shifted somewhat, he said, in efforts to co-opt Islam for pro-American interests. But at the same time, counter-intelligence operations persisted and greatly intensified after 9/11.

In an atmosphere that Curtis described as a "paranoid society in which rebellious teenage boys are mistaken for terrorists," George W. Bush wiretapped Americans and detained material witnesses and Muslim-American charities were raided and shut down He noted that President Barack Obama has yet to close the Guantanamo detention camp in Cuba.

The challenge today, he concluded, is to create a way that Americans can express disagreement with American policy, and even support for foreign groups, and not become a target of the government. Defining dissent as unacceptable speech constrains efforts to deal productively with Muslim Americans, he said.

"We have got to find the distinction between political dissent and terrorism," Curtis said, adding:

"By talking about our shared past, we also conjure a world of shared significance."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.