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The US government has been the subject of heavy criticism in the last few years over the blacklisting of certain Muslim countries under its immigration laws, among other things. However, the history of suspicion towards Muslims entering America goes much further back.

In 1522, a group of Muslim African slaves carried out the first slave revolt of the New World, attacking their captors on Christmas day. The uprising led  Charles V of Spain to ban from the Americas “slaves suspected of Islamic leanings”, attributing their revolt to their religious ideology. Before the revolt, travel into the New World colonies was already forbidden not only to non-Christians but to Christians with Muslim or Jewish ancestry. After the revolt, this rule was extended to slaves. The decree does not seem to have had a major effect, as papers could be forged and bribes easily given. Slaveowners were reluctant to obey the rule as Muslim slaves from West Africa were often more skilled and therefore more valuable than other slaves.

Officials in British America later adopted similar policies, deeming Christian baptism a requirement for entering the country, including for slaves. Moreover, all those whose parentage was not Christian were automatically considered slaves. Unsurprisingly, excluding non-Christians and suppressing “dangerous” Islamic tendencies did not keep either Spanish or British America free of slave revolts, though the governments were quick to attribute insurrections to irreligiosity or to volatile religious leanings, as in the case of the Haitian slave revolt at the beginning of the 19th century. In fact some rebellions were driven by the slaves’ Christian beliefs, as in the case of Nat Turner who had visions of Christ giving him the authority to fight against evil.

With reference to this or other examples, students applying to study History or Politics may want to think about the concept of history ‘repeating itself’ and how current social and political phenomena are shaped by the past. More broadly, they might wish to consider to what extent the USA is still a reflection of its colonial past.

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