The Roots of Racialized Religion

In January of 2017 President Trump issued Executive Order 13769 titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” popularly referred to as the “Muslim Ban.” This executive order banned nationals from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen from entering the United States for ninety days and banned Syrian nationals indefinitely. All seven of these countries have majority Muslim populations. One need not look farther than the title, which labels these countries’ citizens as terrorists, to understand the anti-Muslim nature of this executive order. Global non-Muslim discourses on Islam have long described the faith monolithically, grouping people who exist across thousands of miles as one, favoring their religious identity, and assigning them the label of “terrorist.” These discourses are prevalent today all over the globe but are rooted in centuries of academic scholarship and imperial relations. By interrogating the roots of today’s xenophobia, we can better understand the breadth of its effect, work to dismantle its foundation in the world and in our own minds, and come to understand people and things for what they are rather than what we’ve come to believe them to be.

The roots of our contemporary anti-Muslim attitudes can be traced to a variety of locations, but are most visible during the Age of Discovery with the conflation of the unnatural categories of race or ethnicity with religion. As white Christian European colonizers raced to India, they deployed new language of civilizational and religious hierarchy to classify the religious actors they would come to rule. Buddhism was considered, like Christianity, “universal,” while Judaism and Islam were “national,” “ethnic,” or “Semitic” religions.

The scholarship of Abraham Kuenen and Ernest Renan understood Islam, due to its supposedly non-universal nature, as inherently lesser than Christianity, as “virulent,” and as “a sham” (Masuzawa, 196). Kuenen believed Islam to be “made by an Arab and for Arabs,” and attributed its trans-continental popularity to its shared Abrahamic roots with Christianity. Unlike Christianity, however, Kuenen claimed that the Prophet Muhammad had failed at “sifting of the national from the universal,” a process that had allowed Christianity the top spot on the civilizational hierarchy. Kuenen’s labeling of Islam as a “national” religion “adopted for Arabs” is crucial in understanding how the Muslim monolith was formed.

Like Kuenen, Ernest Renan fused Islam into Semitic category. He understood “Arabs, and other Semites as a race” and “thus introduced ‘racial categories into theological discussion” (Anidjar, 30). These assertions were made, much like Kuenen’s, in relation to the superior universal Christianity, and created a “peculiarly religious race” that Renan believed to be “an inferior configuration of human nature” (Anidjar, 31). This amalgamation of the categories of race and religion, although conducted by academic “experts,” was in no means scientific or accurate. The theories of Kuenen and Renan are rife with bigoted language and only serve to subjugate non-white non-Christian others. These theories might appear as merely theories, but the imagined religious hierarchy that they established provided “an important religious legitimation for the rise of racial anti-Semitism in the 1880s,” and laid the foundation for the anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim attitudes that exist today.

By establishing all Muslims as racially distinct, religiously inferior, and at a lower civilizational level in contrast to white Europeans, scholars like Kuenen and Renan created the bigoted cosmology that allows for an executive order that bans all Muslim refugees. We must remember that both these scholars exist within the context of imperialism. Imperial relations and governance were as influential, if not more, in fusing conceptions of Islam with conceptions of race, and creating the Muslim monolith that exists today.

In The Idea of the Muslim World Cemil Aydin describes how to the idea of a cohesive Muslim global community was born. The racialization of Muslims was an essential component to this process and occurred “between the 1820s and 1880s” (Aydin, 38). This period was one of empire. The British, French, and Russians ruled over millions of Muslims across their territories while The Ottoman Empire, the leading Muslim world power at the time, controlled Christian citizens in modern day Eastern Europe. Before race and religion dominated cosmological understandings of identity and difference, these trans-religious imperial identities reigned supreme. As the theories of race and religion of Renan, Kuenen, and others were emerging, Christian imperial subjects under Ottoman rule were pushing for independence while “more Muslim societies fell under Christian rule” (Aydin, 40). These imperial shifts coupled with Ottoman reform efforts that aimed at fostering Muslim unity advanced a distinct and marginalized status for Muslims across the world.

In British-ruled India, Muslims (who made up 40% of the world Muslim population) were governed by sharia rather than civil law with regards to “personal and family law,” and in the Russian, French, and Dutch empires Muslims were legally defined as distinct from other citizens. Muslims under British imperial rule elsewhere had their loyalty questioned, and across the world “full equality was almost impossible for Muslims to achieve (Aydin, 63). Our modern stereotypical conceptions of Muslims were emerging under these circumstances. British-ruled India contained the world’s largest Muslim population at the time, yet despite this Islam was considered “inherently foreign” to the subcontinent (Morgenstein Fuerst, 2017). Even slightly before the period that Aydin describes, the question of Muslim loyalty was beginning to surface. Muslims were considered “easily agitated, aggressive, and inherently disloyal” to British imperial rule by political actors (Morgenstein Fuerst, 2017). Just as western empire stretched across the globe, so did these new conceptual frameworks that were built off of race and religion.

Tisa Wenger outlines the selective application of religious freedom in American empire in her book Religious Freedom the Contested History of an American Ideal. In the second chapter Wenger discusses the American occupation of the Philippines after the Spanish-American war at the turn on the nineteenth century. Catholic imperial subjects faced “very different” treatment and policy than the Muslim Moros who occupied the Southern Portion of the archipelago. The Moros were considered “fanatical” and at an inferior civilizational level than their fellow Filipinos and Mormon Americans whose polygamous customs were similar. These civilizational standards were “simultaneously racial and religious,” exhibiting the global reach of the aforementioned racial categorization of Muslims (Wenger, 89).

Black Muslims within the United States faced similar circumstances. For black Americans religion served as an important tool “to define and redefine themselves” within “the work of racial construction in early twentieth century America” (Weisenfeld, 281). Appeals to religious freedom were often seen as an avenue for greater recognition and rights from the American government, yet with the categories of religion and race fused, these attempts were often unsuccessful. For the emerging religious movements, appeals to religious freedom provided an “avenue for self-defense” albeit “a limited” one (Wenger, 223). Black American Muslims faced similar stereotypes as Indians and Filipinos despite existing in vastly different times and spaces. Non-Muslim African Americans “emphasized the familiar trope of the ‘fanatical Muslim’” while police response to protests by the Nation of Islam were violent and fueled by racial-religious hatred.

The racialization of Muslims and the creation of a monolithic understanding of Islam, like many violent ideologies, is rooted in the hundred-year-old discursive framework of white male scholars. The process also exists, however, within a broader cosmological shift from an imperially guided sense of identity to a racial and religious one. These categories emerged and fused most prominently during the age of empire, yet they exist prominently today as is clear with President Trump’s executive order that began this discussion. By understanding the roots of our conceptual frameworks, we can better interrogate the unfounded bigotry that has affected so many in the past and many more today.


Anidjar, Gil. Semites Race, Religion, Literature. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008.

Aydin, Cemil. The Idea of the Muslim World: A Global Intellectual History. Harvard University Press, 2019.

Gotanda, Neil. “The Racialization of Islam in American Law.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 637 (2011): 184-95.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. “Islam, a Semitic religion,” ch. 6 in The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 179-206.

Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R. 2014. “Locating Religion in South Asia: Islamicate Definitions and Categories.” Comparative Islamic Studies 10 (2): 217–41. doi:10.1558/cis.30937.

Morgenstein Fuerst, Ilyse R. Indian Muslim Minorities and the 1857 Rebellion: Religion, Rebels and Jihad. IB Tauris, 2017.

Wilson, John F. “Modernity,” Encyclopedia of Religion. Ed. Lindsay Jones. 2nd ed. Vol. 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 6108-6112. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Weisenfeld, Judith. New World a-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration. New York: New York University Press, 2019.

Wenger, Tisa Joy. Religious Freedom: The Contested History of an American Ideal. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

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