11 August 2018
This week end some brief reflections about our USA multicultural and multi-religious society. This reflection is prompted by comments from two young postgraduate university students. One asked me: “Aren’t you afraid that fanatic Muslims will take over the United States?” Before I could respond, the other a young doctoral student replied with a chuckle, “I would be more afraid of fanatic Christians.”
My paternal ancestors were English immigrants. They were Quakers from Chester, England and arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. When they arrived, what would become the United States of American was already multi-cultural and multi-religious.
People sometimes only look at our history through Christian-tinted glasses. This is not an anti-Christian comment. Just an objective observation. We all wear different kinds of glasses or none at all.
Right from the beginning, the USA was multi-religious: Christian, Muslim. Jewish, and (not to forget) Native American religious in a variety of forms. In general, it was not always easy but we have learned to live together, support one another, and grow in our understanding of Divinity. No single religion controls God. When a religion tries to do that, society slips into idolatry and authoritarian inhumanity. Religious freedom — much talked about today — means the freedom to be and practice your own religious belief.
Not all history books are clear about this; but Muslims arrived in North America long before the founding of the United States. Not just a few, but thousands. Muslims arrived in North America as early as the 17th century, eventually composing 15 to 30 percent of the enslaved West African population of British America. Muslims from the Middle East did not begin to immigrate to the United States as free citizens until the late 19th century. Key USA “Founding Fathers” demonstrated a marked interest in Islam and its practitioners, most notably Thomas Jefferson. A few months after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state. Writing, in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke’s 1689 “Letter on Toleration,” he noted: “Neither Pagan nor Mahometan (Muslim) nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”
Later, as President Jefferson, he welcomed to the White House, in 1805, the first Muslim Ambassador to the United States. Because it was then Ramadan, the president moved the state dinner from 3:30 p.m. to be “precisely at sunset,” a recognition of the Tunisian ambassador’s religious beliefs, though not quite the first White House official celebration of Ramadan.
Yes, Islam in America is a tradition with deep roots. An estimated 20 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims. They were not “citizens” but slaves. Scholars debate the number of Muslim slaves brought to the Americas. The estimates range from 40,000 (in the USA) up to 3 million across North and South America and the Caribbean. [In the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade (1525-1866), 12.5 million Africans were “shipped” to the New World.]
Charles Ball, an enslaved African-American from Maryland, best known for his 1837 account as a fugitive slave, The Life and Adventures of Charles Ball, wrote: “I knew several who must have been, from what I have since learned, Mohamedans; though at that time, I had never heard of the religion of Mohamed. There was one man on this plantation… who prayed five times every day, always turning his face to the east, when in the performance of his devotion.” Ball’s grandfather, from a prominent African family, was enslaved and brought to Calvert County, Maryland around 1730.
I suspect very few contemporary U.S. Americans know that many Muslim slaves were educated and literate in Arabic; and that they occupied leadership roles in the jobs that slaves performed on plantations in the American South. Historians researching Muslim slaves, in antebellum America, have discovered that the presence of such slaves stratified slave society, by creating the category of the superior “Moor” over the inferior “Negro.” Nevertheless, conversion to Christianity was the most widespread method by which most African Muslims had to reconfigure their religious practices and beliefs to adapt to their new societal context. Therefore, American-born children of African Muslims did not practice Islam nor did they self-identify as Muslims. Nevertheless, when Islam was fading among communities of slaves and former slaves, millions of new Muslim immigrants began arriving in the USA in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them, tens of thousands from Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, South and Central Asia, and Eastern Europe.
The United States’ first mosque was built in Chicago, in 1893. Frankly it was an “attraction” at the World’s Columbian Exhibition. The second mosque built in the United States was located in Highland Park, Michigan. It was completed in 1921. This time it was built, not as an exotic or foreign cultural attraction, but to witness to an authentic American faith tradition —just like the nearby Christian churches and synagogues. It was built for Muslim worshipers: Muslims who were truly American citizens.
Subsequent to the 1965 “U..S. Immigration and Naturalization Act,” more than 1.1 million new Muslims arrived in the United States, before the end of the 20th century.
Unfortunately, the contemporary “Islamophobia industry,” heavily funded and heavily biased with often factually inaccurate information, is working hard to spread the falsehood that Muslim Americans are dangerous, violent, sinister, and un-American. This is racist, xenophobic propaganda, and fake news.
Today Islam is the third largest religion in the United States after Christianity and Judaism; but one must pay close attention to the percentages. Contrary to certain contemporary political rhetoric, neither a Jewish nor an Islamic takeover is imminent. According to the 2017 study by the Public Religion Research Institute, approximately 69% of Americans are Christian; Judaism is the religion of approximately 2%; and Islam represents approximately 1% of the total U.S. population.
According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 survey of U.S. Muslims, Muslim Americans have great optimism and positive feelings about being Muslim and about being American. They are proud to be Americans. They believe that hard work generally brings success. They are satisfied with the way things are going in their own lives – even if they are not satisfied with the direction of the country as a whole.
Especially noteworthy is the Pew finding that American Muslims largely share the general U.S. public’s concerns about religious extremism. In fact U.S. Muslims may be more concerned than non-Muslims about extremism in the name of Islam. They stress, there is little support for extremism within the U.S. Muslim community, and very few say violence against civilians can be justified in pursuit of religious, political, or social causes. Overall, eight-in-ten Muslims (82%) say they are concerned about extremism in the name of Islam around the world. This is similar to the percentage of the U.S. general public that shares these concerns (83%). We do need correct information these days and a balanced perspective on all contemporary Americans not just the narrow-minded ones.
There is a particular urgency for Christians and Jews to become participants in dialogue with Muslims, their brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition. Anti-Muslim prejudices in the United States are very real and damaging. In recent years, Anti-Muslim protesters have broken into mosques, destroyed copies of the Qur’an, spray-painted vulgar language on Muslim buildings, accompanied by threats of other violence, arson attacks, and even murder. (It reminds me of the nineteenth century U.S. “Nativist” prejudice and the burning of churches and convents, and murderous attacks against Catholics.)
Religious, cultural, and political polarization is a contemporary evil. It does not have to be that way……For our survival it MUST NOT be that way. The house divided against itself will not stand….