Islam: Woven Rich Into The Fabric of American Life
This 4th of July American Muslims like their fellow Americans commemorated 236 years of independence from Great Britain and the adoption of the Declaration of Independence that enshrines their rights and liberties. American Muslims share both the sweet and bitter history of America’s early explorers, colonial and revolutionary past as well as its current challenges.
This month they will again recount their role and sacrifices during the American Revolution, the Civil War, World War I and subsequent wars. But unfortunately their American experience is confined to the sanctity of their homes, their local clubs and mosques. Misunderstood, mistrusted and with their national identity and allegiance questioned they have yet to be recognized for their historical role and rich contributions to this nation.(1)
American Muslim men and women are as diverse as the world. Their original ancestries represent multitudes of countries and regions and contrary to common assumptions they are not monolithic representatives of one reality. Despite their small numbers (5-7 million) their presence in this country pre-dates the American Revolution and Christopher Columbus (2). Since the 1500’s Muslims traveled and explored North America. Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas with two captains and their younger brother who were related to Abuzayan Muhammad III, the Moroccan Sultan (1196-1465) (3). In 1572 fleeing the Spanish Inquisition Muslim Estevancio of Azamor (meaning North African Azamiri) was the first to explore Arizona and New Mexico (4).
Every war America fought, American Muslims played a role. During the American Revolution Peter Saleem (Salem), Yusuf bin Ali, Bampett Muhammad, Saleem (Salem) Poor among others- fought and died with American revolutionaries. Poor fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Colonel Frye’s Regiment. Colonel William Prescott and 14 officers petitioned the legislatures of Massachusetts to reward officer Poor for his bravery, distinguished accomplishments and exceptional character. Peter Saleem also fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill and was lauded for his valor. He received his honors in the presence of George Washington. Both Saleem and Poor (5) are commemorated on U.S. postage stamps.
Many of the early African Americans who by force or abduction were enslaved to build American colonies were Muslim (6). Muhammad Bilal in his early teens was abducted from his well educated Muslim family in Sierra Leone (7). Bilal along with 80 Muslims under his command fought the British in the war of 1812 successfully defending Sapelo Island for the Americans. Bilal authored the first American Muslim Arabic manuscript titled “Rissala” or “message” that explored his faith, beliefs and prayers (8). Also in 1832 Omar Said’s hand written accounts of his abduction and enslavement in South and North Carolina were written in Arabic- he was a Muslim.
The Founding Fathers thoughtfully considered the relationship of Islam to the new nation. They willingly included provisions to protect Muslims. In Jefferson’s autobiography, he recounts the passage of his landmark Bill for “Establishing Religious Freedom” and wrote with satisfaction of Virginia legislature’s rational rejection to limit the bill’s scope by including protections for “Mohamaten” (Muslim) (9). Jefferson often stated his despise of narrow-mindedness declaring “Bigotry is the disease of ignorance.”
American Constitutionalists’ views on minority rights were influenced by European Enlightenment philosophers such as Locke and Rousseau who favorably wrote of Islam and tolerance of minorities (10). Rousseau’s central conviction that “all men are born free” is directly quoted in the Declaration of Independence. Rousseau’s views on ethics and morality were well read and circulated including his belief that the fundamental role of a state is the protections of individual freedoms. These views were of considerable value to the Founding Fathers. The US Bill of Rights signed by George Washington and the First Congress clearly and unequivocally ensured Americans’ individual freedoms, privacy and rights of worship (11).
Muslim jurisprudence or Sharia (which literally means law) predisposed Adolph Weinman the sculptor of the Supreme Court room marble frieze to include Prophet Muhammad along with 18 great lawgivers. Today despite the Sharia uproar sweeping the country Prophet Muhammad’s contribution to judicial, human rights and international law are honored in the US Supreme Court high above the justices’ mahogany bench (12).
Despite their small numbers American Muslims have meaningfully contributed to their country since and before its inception. There is no denying that American Muslims are like other faiths and secular communities with their share of lunatic extreme fanatics. But the numbers of American Muslim loonies is no more or less then those represented among other faiths or the larger community.
The horrific assault of September 11th, 2001 that took the lives of thousands of Americans including Muslim Americans (13) has had a devastating impact on their rights and privileges. Eleven years after 9/11 they are blamed and held responsible for our national tragedy (14). Their misfortune did not happen haphazardly. An intentional smear campaign on the hands of a small knit group of anti- Muslims determined to advance key strategic objectives shoulders much of the blame (15). The success of this anti Muslim campaign is a marvel. The 2011 Washington, Post/ ABC poll reveals deep and widely shared negative views of Islam and American Muslims (16).
Fear of American Muslims has become a national obsession jeopardizing Americans’ constitutional rights, individual and communal liberties enshrined 236 years ago. With little objection Americans have consented to suspend American Muslims’ rights and liberties allowing law enforcement authorities to examine and analyze their religious practices; intrude and invade their privacy; trample and infiltrate the sanctity of their holy places (17). These abuses are employed willfully with little regard of the rights endowed every American by the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
Law enforcement officials openly encourage their informers to freely bend and suspend the law to peruse information on American Muslims (18). Since 9/11 American Muslims’ ordinary daily acts are demonized and questioned whether they pray, wear a hijab, sport a beard, or eat hallal. The negative views shared of American Muslims and the tacit acceptance of their abuse is forcing many of them to shutter and recluse. Nevertheless, American Muslims must be resolute in sharing their American experience, contributions and personal stories.
For more than 300 years American Muslims peacefully lived in the US raising their families and overall prospered. Contrary to common belief American Muslim women are one of the most highly educated females in the US (19); American Muslims have the second-highest level of education in the US; and subsequently have a large base of middle and high income earners contributing handsomely to America’s tax system (20). America’s Muslims are well adjusted with their American identity and their faith building and meaningfully contributing to this nation.
Few Americans are aware that the passport they use to prove their citizenship with was designed by an American Muslim, the seat belt that keeps their children safe was modified and improved by an American Muslim, the first mass produced IBM electronic computer was invented by an American Muslim, and even fewer know of the remarkable contributions made by an American Muslim solar energy pioneer whose work and innovations are the foundation of a thriving and promising US industrial sector. American Muslims are fathers and mothers, neighbors, couches, mentors and community advocates. They have and remain committed citizens and are daily hard at work impacting and improving their neighborhoods, cities and communities.
And while American Muslims will take comfort and solace in words written in 1776 they hope will ensure the protections of their rights and liberties; they must step out and come forward to share the many contributions they have offered this country; and the collective and individual abuses they have endured since 9/11. Well aware that they will face fierce attacks and objections they must help lift the veil of mistrust shrouding them. They must lead in protecting our shared constitutional rights; inform and engage Americans of our collaborative rich history; and begin dispelling the thick layers of confounding myths that do not reflect their American experience.
The time has come for American Muslims to defend our Founding Fathers’ vision and America’s ideals and principles.
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