I hope to organize a panel on the relationships between anti-immigrant sentiment and nativism in the American past and today's anti-Islamicism. Feel free to contact me if your research interests could contribute to the discussion. Here is my individual paper proposal:
“Islamophobia, American Nativism, and the Horizons of Religious Freedom”
In a recent poll conducted April 2017, 41 percent of Americans agreed that “Islam encourages violence more than other faiths.” 44 percent believed “There is a natural conflict between Islam and democracy.” I believe that history offers a crucial perspective on today’s greatest social concerns, including Islamophobia and the current immigration crisis in the U.S. I also believe that knowing our past can properly orient us towards the future.
Over the course of my research on nineteenth-century America, I came to realize that today’s anti-Islamicism fits strikingly well into a pattern of anti-immigrant sentiment in the U.S., which we call nativism. Historically, the social fear of immigrants has not demonstrated a clear beginning and end as much as it has surged periodically in waves. Before Americans targeted Asians and Latinos, Communists and Muslims, native-born Americans worried about the undue influence of German and Irish immigrants, and particularly the Catholics in their midst. We have not encountered immigration pressures as intense and pervasive as they were in the 1840s, when first-generation immigrants represented up to 14.5% of the total population of the United States. The early U.S. thus became a testing ground for what happens when a nation committed to universal democratic principles encounters an unexpected host of immigrants with unpopular beliefs.
My paper draws parallels between anti-Islamicism and anti-Catholicism. There is hardly a difference in the charges currently being levied against Islam now versus Roman Catholicism in the past. I conclude with some predictions on how I think the democratic process forged during the antebellum era is likely to yield similar results for Muslim Americans as it did for Catholics in the past.