David T. Smith (@dtsmith_sydney) is a senior lecturer at the United States Studies Centre and the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. His new book, “Religious Persecution and Political Order in the United States” came out two weeks ago, right at the beginning of the current controversies about the treatment of Muslims in the U.S., which have culminated in Donald Trump’s proposal to bar all Muslims from traveling to the U.S. I carried out an email interview with him.
HF – One of the key themes of your book is that there’s a big difference between popular prejudice towards religious minorities and government discrimination against them. Sometimes the government acts to protect minorities that are the target of widespread fear. Sometimes, however, the government helps persecute religious minorities that stirred up far less national unrest. Why does the government sometimes try to stop the persecution of religious minorities but sometimes aids and abets the persecutors?
DTS – For the state, the choice depends on who is the greater threat, the group getting persecuted or the group doing the persecuting?
When Americans suspect a religious group is undermining their country’s free, democratic political order, they demand—often violently—some radical action against that group.
Sometimes state actors will agree, seeing religious minorities as threats to political order and their own authority. The Mormons were forced to flee Missouri and Illinois by militias who feared Joseph Smith’s growing power. In the 1850s, the Republican Party equated Mormon polygamy with slavery. By the 1880s the majority of Democrats in Congress agreed with them, and together they passed measures to deny voting rights to Mormons and even seize Mormon temples.
In the 1940s, police and sheriffs in hundreds of towns allowed mobs to assault Jehovah’s Witnesses as they handed out pamphlets in the streets. The assailants weren’t hoodlums but respectable citizens, often led by members of the American Legion, who were deeply offended by the Witnesses’ refusal to salute the American flag. The beatings ended when the United States entered the war, and the federal government began jailing Jehovah’s Witnesses for refusing to perform national service.
In those cases, the people doing the persecuting were well-connected to local or national political power. The groups getting persecuted were little-understood, and perceived as not buying in to the political order that united the country.
Anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic persecution were different. In the nineteenth century, nativist opponents of Catholicism accused the church of excessive secrecy, occult rituals, and stirring up uneducated immigrant mobs. Political elites, however, saw the anti-Catholic “Know Nothings” as even worse. They were organized in secret societies that mimicked the outlandish rituals they attributed to Catholicism. On election days, they commanded unruly street gangs. Even where the Know Nothings became an electoral force, they faced such entrenched resistance from the state that they could achieve little politically.
In the early 20th century, anti-Semitism was very widespread. But while the upper classes that dominated politics practised their own forms of anti-Semitic exclusion, they were disturbed by the form it took under rabble-rousers like Father Coughlin and Gerard Winrod. Popular anti-Semitism was closely associated with right-wing anti-capitalism, which was directed as much against banks, industrialists and the federal government as it was against Jews. The FBI closely monitored domestic anti-Semites and effectively protected American Jews, even as the government shut the door to Jews fleeing persecution in Europe.
HF – How does the relationship between the U.S. state and U.S. Muslims after September 11 fit your argument?
DTS – After 9/11, state actors perceived two threats —Muslims who might be prepared to carry out terrorist attacks, and Islamophobes who might indiscriminately attack Muslims (or people who “looked” Muslim). Most of the official rhetoric that came out of the Bush Administration was protective of Muslims. State actors did not want the country to descend into mob violence against an unpopular minority. Just as importantly, United States foreign policy relied on Muslim allies abroad. International perceptions of the U.S. as anti-Islam would jeopardize these relationships, and endanger U.S. military personnel. So national and local law enforcement worked diligently to prevent attacks on Muslims in the U.S., and the feared wave of violent retribution was much smaller than expected.
Less publicly, however, national and local law enforcement was also targeting Islamic communities and institutions. The FBI subjected tens of thousands of Muslim foreign nationals to registration procedures, and in many cases preventative detention and deportation (this dragnet did not result in a single terrorist conviction). Local authorities also took heed of Attorney-General John Ashcroft’s warning that terrorists “live in our communities – plotting, planning and waiting to kill again.” The NYPD’s Demographics Unit sought out “hot spots of radicalization” in Islamic communities. This meant putting mosques under surveillance, and recruiting Muslim informants to start conversations about Jihad.
In a situation where state actors saw threats from both Muslim communities and mass Islamophobia, the state essentially asserted a monopoly over persecution. It would curtail the rights and freedoms of Muslims in America, but would not allow ordinary citizens to do the same.
HF – There’s a clear continuity between President Bush’s speech distinguishing between “peaceful” and “perverted” Islam, and President Obama’s recent speech contrasting ISIS with a Muslim majority including “millions of patriotic Muslim-Americans who reject their hateful ideology.” What is the relationship between this rhetoric and the U.S. state’s day-to-day policy towards Muslim Americans?
DTS – President Bush always insisted that the United States is not at war with Islam. He described al-Qaeda as “a fringe movement that perverts the peaceful teachings of Islam.” President Obama’s rhetoric is very similar, sometimes going as far as denying that ISIL is even Islamic.
Critics of both presidents charged them with excessive political correctness, denying an obvious link between Islam and terrorism. Hawks have argued that refusing to label terrorist groups as “Islamic” undermines efforts to fight them. But there is a different way of reading Bush and Obama’s rhetoric.
By saying that al-Qaeda or ISIL are not truly Islamic, the state effectively puts followers of those groups outside the boundaries of religious protection. The state will protect ordinary “peaceful” Muslims, but not those who preach violence that “perverts” Islam.
The U.S. has seen this before. In the 1950s, the FBI justified its surveillance and infiltration of the Nation of Islam on the grounds that it was not really Islamic. The NOI was extremely heterodox, and most Muslims would not recognize it as genuine Islam. But the FBI went further, calling it a “political cult” that wasn’t even truly religious. Barack Obama came close to this rhetoric when he referred to ISIL as a “cult of death.” That kind of language puts ISIL not just outside Islam, but outside of religion as we understand it.
HF – President Obama has proposed that people on the ‘no-fly list’ should not be allowed to buy a gun. Your book discusses the “no-fly list,” which bans people from flying for reasons that are usually undisclosed, and which has been allegedly used by the FBI to pressure religiously observant Muslims to act as informants within their religious communities. How is this proposal likely to affect the religious politics of the U.S., given angry debates over religious and civil liberties, gun rights and the state’s imperative to impose order and security?
DTS – Many Democrats and liberals are defending the use of the no-fly list, despite its consequences for civil (and maybe religious) liberties. But then again, the currently leading candidate for the Republican nomination has just proposed stopping any Muslims from entering the United States.
This comes in a year when religious liberty has often been in the news. Many conservative Christians took up the cause of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Like the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision last year, this was a case where Christians claimed that a progressive agenda placed an undue burden on their religious beliefs. In a country where Christian conservatives are increasingly a minority on issues like marriage equality and birth control, we can expect to see more of these assertions of the right to freedom of conscience.
This does not translate into sympathy for the freedom to practice Islam in America. There is a distinct strain of thought that sees the United States as a Christian nation, and interprets freedom of religion primarily as the right of the people to practice Christianity without state interference. Some Islamophobes argue that Islam should not be considered a religion at all, but a form of hostile political control. At the moment, most American state actors do not share these views.