The American media have been pushing Islamophobia since as early as 1863

The assumptions that Muslims are crazed fanatics is a narrative that has been pervasive in the Euro-American Christian mind for centuries.

The assumptions that Muslims are crazed fanatics is a narrative that has been pervasive in the Euro-American Christian mind for centuries.

The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago was a moment in history when many of today’s best-known brands made their debut, such as Juicy Fruit, Shredded Wheat, and “Aunt Jemima” pancake mix. The six-month long event, which began on May 1st, was also designated as the Fourth Columbian Centennial Exposition Fair. Christopher Columbia’s 1492 “discovery” of The New World was also celebrated.

Chicago was turned into a “White City” with neoclassical stonework flooding Hyde Park. The then Chicago Mayor, Carter Harrison said that not even Athens during the height of the Greek Empire could compare to Chicago during the World’s Fair.[1]  Speakers such as Frederick Douglass spoke against the racist agenda of the Fair, including the racist imagery of Aunt Jemima. Midway Plaisance, “The Bazar of Nations” was filled with ‘exotic buildings’ from far away lands, including China, Egypt, Turkey, and India.

One of these buildings included an Ottoman style mosque, which was lit by chandeliers and adorned with Persian rugs. The Call to Prayer was performed five times a day, as Muslims from all over the world who gathered in Chicago would gather for prayer.[2] Around the mosque, large ‘Oriental markets’ could be found, with merchants from all over the Muslim world selling shawls, food, and books. Islam was truly centre stage for all the world to witness.

Although the fair officially began on May 1st, 1863, The First Parliament of Religions would not begin until September 10th, bringing people of all faiths to the World’s Fair in Chicago. There was controversy before the Parliament started due to the fact the Mormon delegation was banned over the delegation’s controversial stance on polygamy. Non-Christian involvement in the parliament was scarce, but not absent. Although the committee organizing the parliament extended invitations to Sayyed Ameer Ali, an Indian jurist and writer, and Sayyed Ali Belghrami, an Indian translator and linguist, both declined.

The only Muslim to speak on Islam at the parliament was Muslim American. Muhammad Alexander Russell Webb, a white American Christian convert and former diplomat. Webb would take the stage on September 20th and 21st. His first speech, entitled “The Spirit of Islam” was a call for the West to learn more about Islam, because he, like many of his white non-Muslim countryman, once misunderstood Islam. He called for a need for open-mindedness and freedom to examine religious truth without persecution. Islam, like Christianity, deserved a “fair hearing” in the hearts and minds of Westerners.

Webb, during his “Spirit of Islam” speech, did not shy away from the very topic that led the Mormon delegation’s controversy, polygamy. Webb stated that polygamy was not “part and parcel of the Islamic system.”[3] Many Americans believed that polygamy was the standard of marriage within Islamic society and an obligation upon every Muslim.[4] Although Webb claims that polygamy is not part of Islam, he also stated that where it can be found, it (much like Islam itself) was misunderstood and not a sin. The Chicago Tribune printed a cartoon of a Webb look-a-like wearing an “Arabian style robe” being beaten by an elderly woman with the caption, “Mohammad Webb’s defense of polygamy not well received at the Congress of Religions.” Which is true, the crowd hissed and jeered him to the point he had to change the topic. Chicago based newspaper, The Inter Ocean claimed that Webb, “deserved the rebuke he received,” for speaking on such a sensitive matter.

Webb’s second speech, “The Influence of Islam on Social Conditions” was better received that his first, but also overshadowed. Newspapers had their story – Webb’s denial of polygamy, which by Islamic legal standards was incorrect, was pushed aside and his one nice word about polygamy become the headlines. His call for open-mindedness was ignored. The San Francisco Argonaut was a lone journal that did not lambast Webb, calling polygamy in Islam nothing more than, “comfort for old women and widows.”[5]   This would not be the last time Islam entered the headlines of  American newspapers, in fact the American press’s fascination and fear of Islam can be traced to the days Black Muslim slaves were shipped like cargo to the Americas. After Webb’s speeches however, Islam was no longer a religion for “the others”, it was becoming an American religion.

November 17th, 1897 in the Hawaiian newspaper, The Pacific, a story ran about a string of robberies in Honolulu. There is also an advertisement: “Nature’s Digestive Agent” and “Hood’s Sarsaparilla.” One the same page as the news of the robbery and drug advertisements, an article “The Bible and Islam” begins. The author beings by admitting that many of the readers of The Pacific do not read The Bible and only learn about religion through the secular press. The Pacific claims that “Mohammad” adopted the practice of polygamy from David and Solomon, de facto claiming that polygamy has roots in the Judeo-Christian theology.

The common narrative of polygamy being a system that is for the sexual desire of men is absent from this article. The author claims that Muhammad’s wives “sassed” him, called him “an old fool” all the while throwing furniture at The Prophet of Islam. The veiling of Muslim women was the result of Muhammad catching his wives flirting with men at picnics. The article ends with the author assuring that Islam is far away form Hawaii and the residents have no need to fear of a Muslim invasion.

The Pacific looked at religious newspapers as a poor way to learn about religion, especially Islam, Christian newspapers did not give Islam a fair chance. The Presbyterian of the South is one of the newspapers The Pacific warned against. January 31st 1912, “Islam and Christianity” was published by the Atlanta based newspaper. The author puts Christianity and Islam at odds, saying Christianity was at battle for the human heart with Islam.[6] Claiming that Islam was the religion of the devil, the author also states that Islam was created with “devilish ingenuity”  and “fanatic cunning.”

The requirements for a Christian are simply, for the author, “a pure heart”, while Islam has “opposing requirements” which are tangible and mechanical. The five daily prayers, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca, and ritual cleansing were all zealous fanatical rituals by Muslims. The “slave and sultan” within Islam were equally as evil and equally damned to hell for not accepting the light and truth of Jesus Christ. The only way to defeat Islam in the mind of the author is to turn Africa into a Christian continent because “Africa will be the final battleground between the false prophet and Christ.”[7] Christians also, in the authors eyes, needs to send out more missionaries to combat the “fearless fanatics” that Muslim communities send out to spread the “koran.” After the long list of insults, Anton Hulst of the Presbyterian Seminary of Kentucky calls for Christians to donate a million dollars and eight hundred missionaries.

This article strokes the fear of Southern Christians only to ask for money and missionaries to further the work of the church for commercial and spiritual goals. 1912 also saw the Southern Herald of Mississippi publish “The Amazing Spread of Islamism,” which claims that “Mohammedanism” is “pulsing with fanatic zeal.” The Southern Herald also claims that Africa will be a battle for converts between Christianity and Islam, the “Dark Continent” hangs in the balance. [8]  The “blind fanatics” of Islam who will not give up one “jot or tittle” of doctrine have spread to Malaysia and India. What is interesting about this article is that the author claims that European colonial governments tend to support the “blind fanatics” rather than hinder them.

The Southern Herald seemed more concerned with halting extremism than Islam in general, but the Sunday Star of Washington DC parroted this very real fear of extremism. Across the front page of the Evening Star on November 15th 1914, the heading “All Europe Fears Possible Unfurling of Sacred Green Flag of Prophet.” This piece reads more as a historical blog post than a newspaper article. The article revolves around the “green flag of the Prophet” and the fate of the Ottoman Empire.

The reason why green is such an important color in Islam and the color of the “flag of Islam” according to the article, is because The Prophet Muhammad wore a green turban.  To further the explanation, the author goes on to say that The Prophet chose green because it was the “universal color of nature.” [9] The article goes on to inform the reader, of the Holy City of Mecca and Medina and how the “mysterious green flag” is hidden from Muslims who enter the city for Hajj. The only people to see this flag are the Supreme Imams of Mecca.

The author of the Sunday Star article questions the relationship between the Sacred Imam of Medina and Mecca and the Ottoman Sultan, believing that the then Sultan Mehmed V would ask the Imam of the Two Holy Cities to pass a law demanding Muslims worldwide defend the Ottoman Empire in times of war.  Although it is possible it could have happened, the author fails to realize on the limits of authority, equating the Imam of Mecca and Medina, to the Pope. The “hordes of Asia, Africa, and Asia barbarian Moslems” did not rise at the request of either the Ottoman Sultan of Imam of Mecca. Muslims around the globe did not hurl themselves into a “fanatical frenzy” at Christians across the globe.  In fact, one of the outcomes of World War I, in which this article was published months into the war, was the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Why are newspaper articles about Islam in the early 1900s and late 1800s important? For a few reasons, the first being, misinformation about Islam is not new. Fake news or overzealous opinions about Muslims and Islam did not start on September 11th 2001.  Newspapers, which were not only being consumed in America but across the globe were flooded with misinformation and fear tactics, as they are today.  Newspapers of yesterday give us today a glimpse of the political realities of times that have passed. When we dig into these papers, we realize not much as changed; which is the second reason why these newspapers are important. Nothing written truly comes as a surprise, a pastor calling Islam the religion of the devil for example is still a talking point for preachers who hate Muslims.

The assumptions that Muslims are crazed fanatics or soon to be crazed fanatics is a narrative that has been pervasive in the Euro-American Christian mind for centuries. The fear of a society based on the identity of “others” drives people towards fear and hate, which manifests in politics and literature. What can Muslims do besides continue to live life as we have been doing, like Muslims have been doing for hundreds of years being accused of imaginary crimes? The best advice comes from the Qur’an, “for you is your religion and for me is mine.” Understanding that, yes religious and political differences are going to be common, just as they were in the times of Jesus and Muhammad. The same spirit that brought Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and many other religious traditions together at the World’s Fair in 1893 in Chicago was a sincere attempt to foster understanding and fellowship.  If we tap into our religious traditions not only to find truth, but to find commonalties with those we differ from, this understanding and fellowship can foster, despite what the press decides to print.

[1] Umar F. Abd-Allah, A Muslim in Victorian America: The Life and Times of Alexander Russell Webb, (New York, Oxford University Press, 2006), 214.

[2] Abd-Allah, The Life and Times of Alexander Russell Webb, 216.

[3] Abd-Allah, The Life and Times of Alexander Russell Webb, 239.

[4] Abd-Allah, The Life and Times of Alexander Russell Webb, 239.

[5] Abd-Allah, The Life and Times of Alexander Russell Webb, 241.

[6] The Presbyterian of the South, January 31st 1921.  

[7] The Presbyterian of the South, January 31st 1912.  

[8] The Southern Herald, February 16th 1912.

[9] The Sunday Star, November 13th 1914.

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