Targeting Faith, Criminalizing Race: The Intersection of Islamophobia and Racism in the US Government’s Surveillance of Black Muslims

“Muslim has been marked religiously as non-Christian, and therefore nonwhite, but that it is marked as anti-Christian, and therefore the American conception of the opposite of white-religiously black.”  (Mauleon 2018)

Targeting and surveillance of minority groups by the US government is nothing new, especially when such institutions are thought to pose a security danger to the country. Black Muslims and religious organizations are among these groups, and the government has monitored them since the early 20th century. This blog examines the methods and justifications behind the American government’s targeted monitoring of black Muslims from religious organizations in the 1920s-1960s. I will show that Government surveillance of Muslim Americans in the twentieth century was primarily based on biased perceptions of their religious and racial identities rather than on actual national security threats. In fact, the purpose of Muslim American surveillance was not based on said threats but rather manufactured by the government to maintain social and political power. 

Black Muslims have a long and rich history in America, with an estimated 2.25–3 million (10–20 percent) of enslaved Africans brought to the Americas being Muslims, mostly from West and Central Africa, where Islam had already gained ground through commerce and cross-cultural connections (Keyes 2005). Despite their slave masters’ repeated prohibitions on following their religion, many Muslim slaves were able to maintain their faith and cultural traditions through covert worship and other practices (Keyes 2005). The emergence of new Black Muslim communities in the United States in the 1920s was influenced by the Garveyism movement, which provided a framework for African Americans to reject white-dominated institutions and embrace their cultural heritage, as well as the influx of immigrant Muslims from the Middle East and South Asia, which introduced new Islamic ideas and practices (Rolinson 2012). These factors, along with the social and economic challenges faced by Black communities, led to the emergence of a new generation of Black Muslim organizations that combined Islamic principles with African American cultural and political values (Rolinson 2012).

If you click on this image, it will take you to a blog that highlights the importance of Marcus Garvey’s leadership during a turbulent time for Black Americans. It explores Garvey’s achievements and legacy, underscoring the significance of recognizing and celebrating Black leaders who have shaped US history. The blog offers historical insights that are relevant to current struggles for racial justice and equality.

The monitoring of activities carried out by black Muslims and religious organizations can be traced back to the beginning of the 20th century. The government identified Islam and Muslims as dangers to the country’s stability and security in the twentieth century, particularly in the context of the civil rights movement and the nation’s shifting political and cultural climate. Edward E. Curtis IV explains in his chapter on “The Black Muslim Scare of the Twentieth Century” that to fully comprehend why the FBI became alarmed by Islam in America during the 1930s, it is crucial to document the emergence of Islam among Black Americans. This development occurred during a period marked by intense nativism and white supremacy in the 1920s when African Americans started collaborating with foreign Muslims from the Caribbean, Middle East, South Asia, and Africa to establish various Muslim American groups. These Black Muslim organizations that I will discuss were a product of this time. Understanding their growth and influence can help explain the FBI’s fabricated concerns about Islam in America during the early 20th century. (Curtis 2013)

The FBI prioritizes maintaining social order and control, viewing political dissent and action as potential national security risks, according to Greenberg (2012). This worldview has led to the monitoring of groups such as Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which was perceived as a threat to national security and resulted in Garvey’s detention and expulsion from the US in 1927. The growth of Islam among Black Americans was also viewed with suspicion by the federal government, as it feared the unity of people of color in America and abroad (Curtis 2013). The government’s response to the rise of Islam among Black Americans was one of surveillance and repression, rather than addressing the root causes of inequality and prejudice. This approach highlights concerns about the role of monitoring and repression in maintaining social control and demonstrates a lack of trust and understanding between the government and Black Americans (Curtis 2013; Greenberg 2012).

In the 1930s and 1940s, the FBI began serious systematic surveillance of Muslim Americans by keeping an eye on and infiltrating the Moorish Science Temple of America (MSTA). Noble Drew Ali started a religious group in 1913. Their teachings strongly emphasize moral living, communal service, and self-improvement. Since they hold the view that African Americans are descended from the Moors, they work to reclaim their identity and culture via political involvement, religious practice, and education. They encourage fiscal empowerment, self-reliance, and individual accountability.

Here is a photo of MSTA members in 1928 to provide a visual representation of the historical context being discussed in the blog,. This helps us humanize the movement and make it feel more real and relatable

And this promotion of empowerment for African Americans was a threat to the social standard in America. (Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga 2022) Despite the MSTA’s public pledge of allegiance, the FBI continually targeted them for monitoring throughout World War II, indicating that they may have been viewed as potentially disloyal or a threat to national security. In one instance, “the FBI raided an MSTA temple in Anderson, Indiana, seizing its possessions and shutting down its operations…The FBI later concluded that the branch in fact, posed no threat and harbored no pro-Japanese sympathies… MSTA never served as a front for foreign entities and never received funding from international enemies of the United States”. (Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga 2022) The FBI’s specific concerns regarding racial alignment with Japan and avoiding military registration indicate the racial tensions and biases present at the time, especially regarding African Americans. During World War II, the MSTA and other black nationalist organizations were targeted, which is a reflection of the larger political environment of fear and distrust towards groups seen as distinctive or possibly subversive. The FBI’s efforts against the MSTA reveal a lack of respect for and familiarity with Black communities and a propensity to employ surveillance and repression techniques without solid proof.

The FBI similarly targeted The Nation of Islam (NOI), a political and religious Black Muslim group working for racial equality and Black empowerment in the US. Initially known as the Allah Temple of Islam, the NOI was formed in 1930 by W. D. Fard Muhammad, a man of color whose origins are still up for debate. The Moorish Science Temple inspired the NOI. (Curtis 2013) Not until the conclusion of World War II, would the scope of locating and eliminating the threat posed by Black Muslims to the United States increase. The FBI’s secret project, code-named RACON, which encompassed complete monitoring of all Black dissidents, was launched when Edgar J. Hoover took over as director of the agency in 1924.

This video talks about the mindset of the American government in the 1930s. Knowing that Edgar J. Hoover, the former director of the FBI, was illegally surveilling innocent Americans is significant because it sheds light on the history of government abuse of power in the name of national security. It highlights the potential for individuals in positions of authority to abuse their power and violate the rights of citizens. It also underscores the importance of protecting civil liberties and ensuring that the government’s actions are transparent and accountable.

The FBI connected Black Islam to foreign influences, especially Marxist, anti-imperialist organizations, and pro-Japanese feelings, all seen as hostile to the United States. “Hoover and the FBI created mechanisms and meanings that framed Islam as a danger to the US nation-state. It did not matter for Hoover’s RACON whether black Muslims were explicitly pro-American or not. Islam was a sign for the FBI on the eve of World War II of pro-Japanese sympathy.”(Curtis 2013) Ideological and political considerations more likely drove the FBI’s portrayal of Islam as a threat to the nation-state than facts or real-world concerns. This calls into question the morality and validity of government monitoring as well as the possibility of power abuse in the name of national security.

Link

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Within these FBI records on the NOI, you can see the use of language like “cult” and the emphasis on the importance of continuing to surveil these organizations. The significance of the FBI’s use of language like “cult” and the continued surveillance of organizations like the Nation of Islam (NOI) is that it reflects the government’s efforts to delegitimize and suppress these groups through the use of language and surveillance, proving that Islamophobia was manufactured.

The American surveillance system gained power in the 1960s by incorporating Islamophobia into the FBI’s surveillance tactics, with violence, terror, and propaganda becoming government discipline. The government portrayed Islam as a threat to internal peace and civil rights, and initiated a smear campaign against the Nation of Islam (NOI), Black Nationalist groups, and New Left organizations, employing the “Counter Intelligence Program” (COINTELPRO) to disrupt their activities. The legacy of these methods, including wiretapping and data gathering, continues to influence the public’s views on law enforcement and civil liberties, highlighting the need to balance national security and civil rights. (Curtis 2013; Theoharis 1990)

Examples include the government denying First Amendment protections to Muslim prisoners by redefining Islam as a “cult” that operated as a political organization, which allowed them to avoid legal protections for religious expression. Also, J. Edgar Hoover authorized technical surveillance of Elijah Muhammad in 1956, and the FBI used informants placed within the NOI to gather information. With the information gathered, the FBI conducted a disinformation campaign against the organization. (Curtis 2013) The FBI’s actions now appear to be an inappropriate reaction.  Even the FBI acknowledged in 1960 that Muslims were not posing a big security danger, yet in spite of this, substantial government resources were devoted to eliminating them in the 1960s. (Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga 2022) In the end, the state’s oppressive methods were not driven by the threat of an uprising of political violence. The FBI launched a counterintelligence offensive against the NOI as a result of the NOI’s symbolic danger, the strength of the opposition, and the NOI’s criticism of US society and the US military.

Prior to his separation from the Nation of Islam (NOI) in 1964 over theological disagreements, Malcolm X was a well-known civil rights activist and NOI member. During a speech at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City on February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was shot and killed. There is evidence to imply that the FBI may have also been engaged in his killing through its Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), which sought to destabilize and eliminate Black political movements, even though the killers’ links to the NOI were eventually made public. Malcolm X was a well-known advocate for civil rights and a key player in the fight for black freedom, making his death crucial.

The FBI relentlessly surveilled the members and leaders of Muslim organizations for decades despite admissions that they did not engage in any violence and the absence of any evidence to support criminal prosecutions. This surveillance was based on the FBI’s baseless assessments of the organizations’ “potential” threats or unproven connections to foreign enemies. This practice of unauthorized and pointless monitoring and examination of whole communities based on their racial, ethnic, and/or religious identities. As we have seen, the government often manufactured the purpose of Muslim American surveillance to maintain social and political power. It is important to recognize this history of government surveillance of minority groups and to continue challenging the use of biased perceptions and manufactured threats to justify such surveillance. By doing so, we can work towards a more just and equitable society where all individuals are able to practice their religion and live free from discriminatory surveillance practices.

Bibliography 

Curtis, Edward. 2013. “The Black Muslim Scare of the Twentieth Century the History of State Islamophobia and Its Post-9/11 Variations.” In ISLAMOPHOBIA in AMERICA the Anatomy of Intolerance, 75–106. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Emmanuel Mauleon, “Black Twice: Policing Black Muslim Identities,” UCLA Law Review 65, no. 5 (June 2018): 1326-1392

Federal Bureau of Investigation v. Fazaga, 595 U.S. ___ (2022)

Greenberg, Ivan. 2012. Surveillance in America. Lexington Books. 

Mauleon, Emmanuel. “Black Twice: Policing Black Muslim Identities.” UCLA Law Review 65, no. 5 (June 2018): 1326-1392.

Keyes, Allison. 2005. “A History of Black Muslims in America.” NPR.org, August 23, 2005. https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4811402.

Rolinson, Mary G. 2012. Grassroots Garveyism: The Universal Negro Improvement Association in the Rural South, 1920-1927. Univ of North Carolina Press.

Theoharis, Athan G. 1990. “The FBI and the Politics of Surveillance, 1908-1985.” Criminal Justice Review 15 (2): 221–30. https://doi.org/10.1177/073401689001500206.

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