54 Pages Posted: 11 Dec 2014 Last revised: 21 Apr 2015
Date Written: December 10, 2014
Muslim-American identity today is deeply conflated with Arab-American identity. This conflation perpetuates stereotypes within legal scholarship, government agencies, and civil rights interventions seeking to combat the marginalization of Muslim Americans – victims of post-9/11 profiling and new, local policing surveillance programs (e.g., NYPD “Suspicious Activity” policing of Muslim-American identity, activity and religious institutions). This article examines the legal seeds of this conflation, and the consequent erasure of Black Muslim identity that still prevails today.
America’s first Muslims were slaves. Social scientists estimate that 15 to 30 percent of the Africans enslaved in the Antebellum South practiced Islam. Research indicates that the Muslim slave population could have been as high as 1.2 million. Despite their considerable presence in the Antebellum South, the history of Muslim slaves has been largely neglected within legal scholarship.
This Article argues that the omission of Muslim slaves from legal scholarship is a consequence of the legal segregation of Black and Muslim identity during the Antebellum Era. Two factors brought about this segregation. First, the law remade Africans into Black slaves, and state slave codes criminalized their religious activity and stripped slaves of their religious identities. Second, the state adopted a political conception of Muslim identity that converted it from a religious into a racial identity in the narrow profile of “Arabs” and “Turks” – a non-white class that racially restrictive naturalization laws barred from accessing citizenship. Muslim slaves lived at the intersection of these two irreconcilable racial configurations.
An intersectional approach enables investigation of the omitted history of Muslim slaves. In addition, intersectional examination facilitates analysis of modern narratives marginalized by the continued application of the antebellum binary that segregated Black and Muslim identity. Although Black Americans comprise the biggest plurality of Muslims in the US today, the modern re-deployment of this antebellum binary continues to separate Black and Muslim identity. As a result, limiting recognition of Black and Muslim identity as compatible, and following the September 11th terrorist attacks, undermining the focus on Black American Muslims as a specific community victimized by compounded racial and religious profiling, vilification and violence.
Keywords: Civil rights, race, religion, Islam, Critical Race Studies, Slavery
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