Essay

There Has Never Been an America without Muslims

By | January 30, 2017

(Getty/Anadolu Agency)

There has never been an America without Muslims. But the long history of Muslims in America has been overlooked, forgotten, and purposely dismissed in our current political climate. On Friday, President Donald Trump ordered that the United States ban travelers and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen). Trump’s national security advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has spoken of Islam as a “political ideology” (and therefore not protected as a religion under the First Amendment) and a “cancer.” There has been talk of reviving some version of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, which ran from 2002 to 2011 and registered some 82,000 people born in Muslim-majority countries, yet resulted in no terrorism-related charges being filed. Trump and his surrogates have falsely depicted Muslims as newcomers and outsiders to the United States.

My new book, Muslims and the Making of America, examines the reality of Muslim life in the United States and shows how Muslims have helped to make America the country that it is. The book reflects not only my own academic work for the past 20 years but also my own life as a Muslim living in America. During the second presidential debate, Hillary Clinton mentioned that Muslims had been in America since the time of George Washington. In fact, we had been in America more than 90 years before the pilgrims arrived, and some two centuries before most of the founding fathers were born.

Scholars estimate that at least 10 percent of the slaves brought over from West Africa were Muslim. In just one example out of thousands, in 1528, a Muslim man named Estevancio the Moor landed in what is now Florida. He was a slave of Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and they both accompanied the Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez on his expedition to the New World. Estevancio explored not only Florida but also Arizona, before he was killed in 1539 by the Zuni in what is now New Mexico. Two centuries later, in 1730, a Muslim slave named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon, was brought as a slave to Annapolis, Maryland, and his story was told by Thomas Bluett in a narrative published in London in 1734. Solomon stepped on American soil two years before George Washington was even born.

American Muslims have served in the United States military since the Revolutionary War. There were some 300 Muslim soldiers who served during the American Civil War. That’s not a large number, certainly, but it again disproves the oft-repeated claim that Muslims are newcomers to the United States. At the end of 2015, ABC News reported figures from the U.S. Department of Defense that at least 5,896 Muslims were serving in the military. That number is surely higher, since some 400,000 service members did not self-identify their faith. Some people became aware of Muslim soldiers with the powerful testimony of Khizr Khan at the Democratic National Convention about the death of his son, Army Cpt. Humayan Khan, in the Iraq War.

I was born in Pakistan and came to Canada in 1970, when I was 4. I grew up in Toronto and was educated there from kindergarten to PhD. In those early days in Toronto in the 1970s, I saw almost no Muslims on television. The only ones I remember were African American athletes, particularly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the “Greatest of All Time,” Muhammad Ali. They were my childhood Muslim heroes, and more than 40 years later, they remain models for me of how to be a Muslim. Ali died last year, and a few months later, Kareem received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Through them, I learned about the history of Islam in African American communities.

In 1997 I moved to Los Angeles where I’ve lived for the past 20 years, teaching and researching about American Muslims. African American Muslims represent somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of American Muslims. Another third of American Muslims are South Asian, while the last third are Middle Eastern (which may mean being Arab, Iranian, Turkish, Kurdish, etc.). American Muslims are an American success story, solidly middle class and mostly professional. There are thousands of American Muslim physicians, for example, perhaps as many as 20,000 if one looks at information from the Islamic Medical Association of North America.

In 2006 the first Muslim was elected to Congress, Minnesota’s Keith Ellison, an African American convert to Islam. The second Muslim in Congress, André Carson from Indiana, was elected in 2008 and is also an African American convert,. It’s no surprise that the two Muslims in the U.S. Congress are both African American, given the long history of Islam in African American communities.

American-style secularism doesn’t seek to abolish religion but to give all religions an equal seat at the table. We don’t have an exact counting of America’s Muslims, and I’ve seen estimates anywhere between 2 million and 10 million. My own work and that of other scholars suggests a population of some 7 million American Muslims, who are free to live out their Islam in the public space. And there are so many American Muslims who do this, none who did it better than my childhood hero, the “Greatest of All Time.”

Think of him, and all of a sudden Islam is not a “foreign” religion but part of the history of this country, connected as much to civil rights as to athletic glory. Can we imagine an America without Muhammad Ali, who was born Cassius Clay in Louisville and gained national fame when he won a gold medal at the Rome Olympics in 1960 as a light heavyweight boxer? In 1964, Clay defeated Sonny Liston, becoming the world heavyweight boxing champion. A few years earlier, Clay had gone to Nation of Islam meetings. There, he met Malcolm X, who as a friend and advisor was part of Clay’s entourage for the Liston fight. Clay made his conversion public after the fight, and was renamed by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad as Muhammad Ali.

When he was reclassified as eligible for induction into the draft for the Vietnam War, Ali refused on the grounds of his new Muslim religious beliefs. Famously, reflecting on the racism he had experienced in America, Ali said, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong—no Viet Cong ever called me ni**er.” His conscientious objector status was rooted in the teachings of the Nation of Islam, as Elijah Muhammad had earlier been jailed for his refusal to enter the draft in the Second World War.

On April 28, 1967, Ali refused induction into the draft. He was arrested, and his boxing titles were stripped from him. Ali never went to prison, but he couldn’t box professionally for more than three years as a result of his refusal. For him, as a Muslim, as a Black Muslim, the Vietnam War was wrong. In 1967, that was not the popular stance that it is today, and Ali paid dearly, unable to make a living at the trade for which he was eminently qualified, at the peak of his talents.

Ali’s case went to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously on June 28, 1971, to overturn his conviction. The Court did this on a technicality, since the appeals court had never given a reason for why Ali was denied conscientious objector status. But Ali was free and able to resume his work.

As people began to see what Ali did in the 1960s, he became a hero not just for his athletic prowess, but for his work on civil rights. Who can forget the opening ceremonies for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996? There, front and center, was Ali, who held the torch aloft in his right hand but whose left hand shook with Parkinson’s syndrome. In the hush of the crowd, it was Ali who would light the cauldron, something that he would repeat at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Or think of my other great hero, another American Muslim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The greatest basketball coach ever, the late John R. Wooden, thought that Kareem was the greatest basketball player ever. In his three years of eligibility under Coach Wooden at UCLA, Kareem was three-time player of the year, three-time finals MVP, and three-time NCAA champion. In other words, he had three perfect seasons while he earned his degree. He lost the same number of games at UCLA—two—that he did in high school.

Kareem converted to Islam in 1971, and excelled in the pros just as much as he did in college or high school. All in all, he won six NBA championships and six NBA MVP awards, was a nineteen-time all-star, and remains the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Combine that pro record with his three NCAA championships, and I don’t know how you can make the case for anyone else as the greatest basketball player of all time.

And like Ali, Kareem is more than simply or only an athlete. He’s quiet and soft-spoken, not one to seek the media spotlight. He’s also an accomplished writer. Besides his two volumes of autobiography, he’s also published almost a dozen other books, and recently has been doing a column for TIME magazine. Kareem came from the generation that grew up with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, those who spoke out against injustice—those who, like Ali, stood up at great risk to themselves. In 2016 Kareem was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the land, not only for his basketball prowess, but for his work in social justice.

Think of Kareem and Ali, both American icons, when you next think of American Muslims. Think of all the American Muslims that came before them and will come after them. To borrow a line from Langston Hughes’ magisterial poem, “I, Too,” American Muslims, too, are America.

Amir Hussain is professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, where he teaches courses on Islam, American Muslims, and world religions. His most recent book, Muslims and the Making of America, was published by Baylor University Press in October 2016. From 2011 to 2015, Amir was the editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the premier scholarly journal for the study of religion.

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