Islam And Our Founding

If you missed the entire speech President Obama gave in a mosque yesterday, you missed yet another example of why we have been so fortunate to have had him in the White’s House these past seven years.

Speaking before the Islamic Society of Baltimore, he did something he shouldn’t have had to do: assure Muslim Americans that they are, well, Americans. And he wanted them to know that the weirdly popular Republicans who scapegoat them, who are partly responsible for the surge in “threats and harassment of Muslim Americans,” who can take some credit for bullied Muslim children and vandalized mosques, those Republicans are the anti-Americans. At least that was my takeaway from the speech.

The president mentioned a forgotten fact:

Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim.

He then referenced Jefferson:

Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans.  And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.”

That would later lead to a humorous part of his speech. He talked about staying “true to our core values,” including “freedom of religion for all faiths.” Which led to this:

Now, we have to acknowledge that there have been times where we have fallen short of our ideals.  By the way, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim — so I was not the first — (applause.)  No, it’s true, it’s true.  Look it up.  (Laughter.)  I’m in good company. (Laughter.)

Turns out you can look it up in The New Republic (“Thomas Jefferson Was a Muslim”), among other places. Back in the 1790s, Christians, much as they do today, “viewed all Muslims as agents of religious error and a foreign threat.” The issue then was a form of terrorism, piracy around Muslim North Africa. And sounding like many evangelical scaremongers and fear merchants today, Christian zealots then were worried about losing culture-controlling power. But despite being called a Muslim, a gross slander in those days, Thomas Jefferson was no Barack Obama. As Denise Spellberg, a scholar of Islamic history, makes clear:

Suffice it to say, Jefferson did subscribe to the anti-Islamic views of most of his contemporaries, and in politics he made effective use of the rhetoric they inspired.

Despite cynically using his fellow Americans’ anti-Islamic views, Jefferson at least understood, in the words of Abbas Milani, the author of The New Republic piece,

that Muslims should enjoy the full rights of citizenship. Indeed, some of the critical elements of [John] Locke’s views of toleration were developed precisely in his attempt to defend the rights of Muslims—not because he believed in the righteousness of their cause or their religion, but because he believed in the right of liberty and the toleration of others.

Liberty and tolerance together form the essence of the American experiment, and who could have guessed that defending the rights of Muslims was crucial to its beginning?

I want to be clear. I despise many of the views of both conservative Christians and conservative Muslims. I don’t want either group to have any influence on American politics whatsoever. But both groups remain free to exert as much influence as citizens will accept at the ballot box. And both groups, as long as they believe “in the right of liberty and the toleration of others,” can and should proudly call themselves Americans. And let us all hope, with President Obama, “that ultimately, our best voices will win out.”

 

8 Comments

  1. Anonymous

     /  February 4, 2016

    The value of knowing our past history! History, history, history…..nothing new under the sun! Do you get it America!!!

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  2. Anonymous

     /  February 4, 2016

    Love your essays; wish you would get wider publication–maybe send to St. Louis Post-Dispatch or KC Star.

    Like

  3. Duane,

    Well, I not surprised at Obama making nice with Muslims when he’s in a one of their Mosques. All politically correct, of course. And what he says of some Muslims is true – they hold office, they serve in our military, they pay taxes, and in most other respects, they are law-abiding citizens.

    But the reference to Jefferson is a bit misleading. According to history, this was a time when our fledgling country was trying to fight off pirates from the Barbary states in North Africa who were stopping and looting ships on the high seas with supplies headed to the U.S. Jefferson and John Adams managed to arrange a treaty to stop the pirating. It was called the Treaty of Tripoli and it contained the now famous statement, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

    As reported by http://www.reformation.org/islam-versus-us.html, “While he was ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson was frankly told that the Muslim creed commands them to make war upon all unbelievers:

    “In May 1786, Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. ambassador to France, and John Adams, then the U.S. ambassador to Britain, met in London with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the resident Tripolitan ambassador, to try to negotiate a peace treaty to protect the United States from the threat of Barbary piracy. These future U.S. presidents questioned the ambassador as to why his government was so hostile to the new American Republic even though America had done nothing to provoke any animosity of any sort. Ambassador Adja answered them, as they reported to the Continental Congress, “that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every Muslim who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. (London, Victory in Tripoli, pp. 23-24).”

    Jefferson obviously wanted to appease the Muslims because he understood their radical beliefs. But the U.S. had a small navy at the time and we needed their help to stop the pirates. So, the quotes above are evidence of that appeasement and used, appropriately, by Obama, but without the context.

    As to the current day, I have tried to stay informed, while, at the same time, be objective regarding the Islamic religion. My conclusions from this research may be best summarized in an article written by Eric Allen Bell, “The High Price of Telling the Truth About Islam.” http://www.inquiryintoislam.com/2015/02/the-high-price-of-telling-truth-about.html

    “Where do I stand on Islam? Let’s look at its founder – a man who raped a 9 year old girl, a slave owner, a leader who ordered people to be tortured, for adulterers to be stoned, for countless nonbelievers to be beheaded, a killer, a warmonger who spread his “religion of peace” by the sword, a man who suffered from hallucinations of voices telling him to do violent things, a tyrant, a homicidal maniac perhaps the equivalent of 100,000 Osama Bin Ladens. And this sadistic lunatic is considered to be the “ideal man” in Islam. What more needs to be said about Islam than that?

    “So in this climate where innocent people are killed when Korans are burned, when there are riots and bomb threats and killings over cartoons that offend Muslims, when a novelist such as Salman Rushdie is advised by Indian intelligence authorities that it is unsafe for him to enter the country to attend the world’s largest literary festival, when Muslims outside the festival threaten violence such that the festival organizers decide to cancel even patching in a video of Rushdie for the conference, in a world where a man, Theo Van Gough, was shot a couple dozen times in broad daylight, then stabbed, then had a sword rammed into his heart on the sidewalk of a European street simply for making a 10 minute film about the mistreatment of Muslim women – in such a world that is constantly terrorized by Islamic militants whose insanity is co-opted by an army of Liberal bloggers who make excuses for them – who tell us that 911 was probably our fault – what will become of my documentary when I finish it?”

    Herb

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    • Duane,

      I apologize for the reference to “army of liberal bloggers” in the above quote. I don’t mean that to apply in any way, shape or form to apply to you. I should have deleted it, but I overlooked it in my hurry to make the post. Sorry if it caused you any upset.

      Herb

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      • Herb,

        No apology necessary, my friend.

        This may or may not surprise you, but I know quite a bit about the criticism that “liberals,” whether they be bloggers or not, are getting from people who are fierce critics of Islam, often from people who, normally, are liberals themselves. Sam Harris is a perfect example. On almost every issue, he is a left-leaning commentator. But he has been in a fight with liberals for a while now over Islam. He has criticized Obama, he has condemned the liberal “establishment” (my word, not his) for failing to properly label the struggle with what he calls Islamism. Some liberals have taken to calling him an Islamophobe for his aggressive stance.

        Here’s the deal. Sam Harris’ approach doesn’t make him an Islamophobe. The liberals are wrong to call him that and they are wrong to reflexively label all criticism of Islam as Islamophobic. But Sam Harris’ approach is still troubling. It is troubling because if you follow what some of his kind are doing, they are essentially adopting the attitudes of neoconservatives who want the fight against ISIS and other radical groups to be about a battle between Christianity and Islam. Particularly distressing to me was a podcast Harris did featuring British neocon Douglas Murray. As a Sam Harris fan, some of it made me sick at my stomach. Harris and Noam Chomsky (whom I also have some problems with) have been publicly fighting with each other. And, infamously from the podcast with right-winger Douglas Murray, Harris said this:

        “Given a choice between Noam Chomsky and Ben Carson, in terms of the totality of their understanding of what’s happening now in the world, I’d vote for Ben Carson every time. Ben Carson is a dangerously deluded religious imbecile… The fact that he is a candidate for president is a scandal. But at the very least he can be counted on to sort of get this one right. He understands that jihadists are the enemy.”

        Now, no matter what you think of Chomsky or Carson, for someone to admit that they would prefer a “dangerously deluded religious imbecile” because at least he can be counted on to see the problems with radical jihadists the same way Sam Harris sees them seems, well, a little unhinged to me. As I said, hearing this and other comments literally made me sick. And you know, because you have read my blog for a long time, that I have praised Sam Harris repeatedly in the face of some criticism from the left.

        Like Harris, I think lefties like Noam Chomsky and Glen Greenwald are embarrassingly naive, when it comes to understanding the dangers inherent in a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. I share Harris’ critique of such fundamentalism, a critique that can be applied to nearly every form of fundamentalism, Muslim or otherwise. But what Harris fails to understand is perfectly illustrated by the criticism President Obama received for going to that mosque. The entire point of going there was to send the message to Muslim Americans that not everyone looked at them the way Donald Trump and other Republicans do. It was also a plea for sanity. A plea to not validate ISIS propaganda that the West is at war with Islam. Yet he was criticized by some because his appearance there somehow legitimated Islam or legitimated the way it is practiced, what with its ridiculous segregation of women worshipers and so on. But he didn’t go there to settle intra-faith disputes or even to legitimate Islam. He went there to legitimate Americans who have been under attack for being suspicious Americans.

        You wrote that what Obama said “of some Muslims is true.” Some? That is the problem. Nearly all American Muslims reject the kind of radicalism that ISIS represents. Even conservative Muslims in the U.S. reject jihadist violence. That is why Obama went to that mosque and said what he said, not because, as you say, for political correctness or making nice. And he was trying to give Americans a short history lesson.

        Next, I’m a bit troubled by your historical source, Herb. You cited “Reformation Online: The information Superhighway to Heaven!!”. It appears to me to be a fundamentalist Christian madhouse. I advise you to give it another look. The source I cited is a scholar of Islamic history. Her book makes the point that because Jefferson and the Founders included the much-hated Islamic faith in their idea of religious tolerance and individual liberty, it can be said that Islam played an important role in the shaping of our founding principles.

        As for Eric Bell, I don’t know much about his situation, but losing his job at Daily Kos isn’t surprising is it? I mean, he wrote some things that the bosses found offensive. So what? It’s their platform and they get to do with it what they want. He could just as easily written a diatribe about the Old Testament God or the New Testament Jesus, in whose names countless atrocities have been committed. The fact that today Christians generally don’t get violent against perceived heresy like they once did, and jihadists still do, is exactly why we need to find better ways of encouraging moderate Muslims to rat out the bad guys, not purposely offend all of them because they believe unbelievable things.

        As I said, I vehemently dislike fundamentalism of all kinds. I wish it didn’t exist in any form whatsoever. If it were up to me, churches and mosques and synagogues would all be taxed, mainly because I find it offensive that taxpayers are subsidizing lots of religious zealotry, even though there are some very mild forms of all religions out there. But this is a democracy and people like their religion and so I have to tolerate it or pick another place to live. That’s all I was trying to say about Obama’s speech and its historical references.

        Duane

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        • Duane,

          You are too kind. I kinda went off the deep end in my rant against Muslims. My response to something like that would have been much more blunt or even confrontational. So, I appreciate your forgiveness.

          I won’t stick my toe back into the Muslim controversy, but I will say that I agree with you totally about Sam Harris. He doesn’t have to work very hard to be a complete asshole at times. Even so, he’s an improvement of Dawkins.

          I also agree with Anonymous, you should submit an Op-Ed or two to the Globe or the Star of the Dispatch or whatever paper you like. You are a really good writer and you have a lot to contribute; much more than some of the tripe I seen from other opinion writers.

          Herb

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thanks, Herb.

            I have to agree with you about Dawkins. Man, oh, man. His Twitter feed gets him in trouble all the time. Don’t know why some atheists are such assholes, but I notice now that more and more atheists are getting tired of his shtick. I liked his God book, but I think he should stick to his area of expertise if he can’t behave himself.

            As for the Globe, the only way I would write again for the paper is to be a regular paid columnist. I feel like they got more than their money’s worth the three years I was blogging for them, and then to unceremoniously get canned (along with all the bloggers) because of supposed budget constraints, only to see them feature (and presumably pay) a tripe-producer like Caldwell to be a regular columnist, was more than a little off-putting. But thanks for the generous compliment.

            Duane

            Liked by 1 person

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