The first Muslims who came to the United States were likely African slaves. Later, in the middle of the 19th century, Muslims emigrated from the territories that would become Syria and Lebanon and settled in places like Ohio and Michigan. They arrived around the same time as many Jews from Eastern Europe, and just a few decades after many Catholics came from Ireland.
And yet, discussions about Muslims in the United States are not the same as most discussions of Catholics or Jews or other religious minorities. It has been a little more than a week since the attacks in Paris, claimed by the Islamic State; it has been two days since attacks in Mali, in which hostages were reportedly asked to recite the Shahada, Islam’s testament of faith, in order to be let go. This kind of extreme violence seems to serve as the unspoken backstory for public comments by politicians and articles in the media. Muslims—whether they’ve been in the U.S. for generations or for just a few years; whether they’re white or South Asian or of Arab descent; whether they’re practicing or lapsed or somewhere in between—are often considered as a mass, and mostly in relation to terrorism.
This elision has tangible consequences. Donald Trump suggests that all Muslims in the U.S. should be registered, apparently in all seriousness. Congress moves to halt assistance and resettlement for refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq. Communities from Houston to Tampa to Omaha report threats and defacement of mosques. Students experience Islamophobia on their campuses. Passengers refuse to get on flights with people who look Muslim. Ben Carson likens violent extremists to “rabid dogs.”