Due to the rise of Islamic extremism in the last few decades, the position of Islam in US culture and society is often a topic of conversation. Indeed the Right talk about Islam as if its existence in the US was a particularly new phenomenon. Much like an article I had written about socialism in the United States, this piece will be looking back at history and culture to show how Islam is not only present in American culture, but US history is filled with examples of Islam’s ideas influencing American icons.
In relation to American history, there are many events and people that are seen as important. One of the groups of people that are venerated, for obvious reasons, are the Founding Fathers. Not only were many of the Founding Fathers influenced by many different ideas, but some of them were determined to show the new republic as a welcoming place. In 1776 future president John Adams identified Muhammad alongside Socrates, Confucius, Jesus, and Zoroaster as a “sober inquirer after truth”. As president Thomas Jefferson celebrated an Iftar dinner with a Tunisian envoy in 1805, which was unsurprising given Jefferson’s hostility toward state-endorsed religions. Jefferson also looked at religious views from all over the world and Congressman Keith Ellison of Minnesota used Jefferson’s copy of the Qu’ran during his swearing in ceremony.
Admittedly it wasn’t always a positive response. People at the time who identified as anti-constitutionalists focussed on the importance of Protestant Christian principles rather than the separation of Church and state established in the First Amendment. Furthermore some of the first Muslims in the United States were slaves from West Africa, and their masters often justified their ownership of slaves in Christian theology.
Back on a more positive note, Islam was also treated with respect during the Civil War. In April 1865 Union troops set fire to the University of Alabama and whilst the buildings were ablaze a staff member of the university saved a copy of the Qu’ran from the library. As well as this anecdote, statistics collected from a variety of historical sources state that 292 Muslims are known to have fought in the Civil War in many different fields such as infantry, cavalry, and in military hospitals. It’s also worth pointing out that the overwhelming majority of those who fought in the Civil War were on the side of the Union against slavery and racism.
In more modern times, Muslim communities travelled to the United States just like any other migrant communities and assimilated into a number of different areas. In 1906 Bosniaks travelled to Chicago and this community is widely seen as the longest lasting incorporated Muslim community in the US. In 1907 Polish Tatar Muslims founded the American Mohammedan Society in New York City, which was the first Muslim organisation in the country. In 1934 the first purpose-built mosque was established in Ceder Rapids, Iowa where a notable Muslim veteran, Abdullah Igram, became the local Imam. Following the Chinese civil war, many Chinese Muslims migrated to California and became integrated; this community is now a thriving part of the state’s multicultural identity.
In terms of politics one of the most famous activists in American history, Malcolm X, was a Muslim and was good friends with a number of other prominent Muslim Americans including Muhammad Ali. The first Muslim elected to Congress was Keith Ellison (D) who was elected in 2007 for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District, and the second elected Muslim was André Carson who has represented Indiana’s 7th Congressional District since 2008. Amazingly there has never been a Muslim elected to the US Senate, and given that Muslims have only been Congresspeople since 2007 there work to be done in this regard, especially as there are more Muslims in America than Jews and Jews have been active as politicians for years.
Away from politics, Muslims have been present in American society for a number of years, many of whom have become national icons. Boxing legend Muhammad Ali is the most famous American convert to Islam, having changed his name from Cassius Clay in 1964, and was the political and religious student of Malcolm X as I alluded to above. Other iconic Muslim-American sports stars include Mike Tyson, former boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World, and 19-time NBA All-Star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
In more creative disciplines Muslims have also influenced American culture. Comedians Dave Chappelle and Aasif Mandvi are followers of Islam with the former widely recognised as a giant of the industry. Rappers Ice Cube, Mos Def, and Busta Rhymes all follow Islam. Furthermore Raekwon, the former member of the Wu-Tang Clan, and Jermaine Jackson, the former member of the Jackson 5, are also both Muslims, thus showing that followers of this religion have not only influenced the US music industry but in many ways have defined it.
The purpose of this article isn’t to simply list off a number of people that are Muslim, or to recall anecdotes about the experiences of Founding Fathers in relation to Islam. One minor point is that Muslims have been important in US culture for a number of years and the fact that Muslims are now discriminated more overtly because of their faith should offend any ‘patriot’. Another minor point is that the nature of the US’ approach to Muslims, in a legal sense, has always been unremarkably similar to other religious minorities and this leads on to the main point of the article.
The main point of this piece was to illustrate that most Muslims in the United States have been perfectly normal citizens. In the world today there are many crises that need to be fixed but to shut a nation to one group of people because they believe in a different religion is insanity. If Muslims wish to migrate to the United States like many fellow Muslims have done for hundreds of years then I defy any person to argue that Muslims have historically made a negative contribution to American life.