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.”

 

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