Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Islam WAS Part of the Fabric of Colonial Life

In his closing speech at the recent Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, Barack Obama made a remark about Islam and American history that is bothering some of his opponents.  Here is what he said.  (I have highlighted the part of this passage that is drawing the most criticism):
And finally, we need to do what extremists and terrorists hope we will not do, and that is stay true to the values that define us as free and diverse societies.  If extremists are peddling the notion that Western countries are hostile to Muslims, then we need to show that we welcome people of all faiths. 
Here in America, Islam has been woven into the fabric of our country since its founding.  Generations of Muslim immigrants came here and went to work as farmers and merchants and factory workers, helped to lay railroads and build up America.  The first Islamic center in New York City was founded in the 1890s.  America’s first mosque -- this was an interesting fact -- was in North Dakota.   
Muslim Americans protect our communities as police officers and firefighters and first responders, and protect our nation by serving in uniform, and in our intelligence communities, and in homeland security.  And in cemeteries across our country, including at Arlington, Muslim American heroes rest in peace having given their lives in defense of all of us. 
I interpreted Obama's remark about Islam being " woven into the fabric of our country since its founding" to mean that Muslims have always populated the American religious landscape.  It could also be interpreted to mean that some eighteenth-century people, such as Thomas Jefferson, read the Koran.  I don't think Obama was saying that Muslims specifically contributed to the political founding of the nation, that they were part of the religious mainstream at the time of the founding, or that Islam somehow informed the political philosophy of the founding. This was instead a statement about the United States's historic commitment to religious freedom. 
Yet Obama's critics hear what they want to hear.
For example, at The New American, Selwyn Duke says Obama is historically illiterate because, as we all know, there were no founding fathers named "Gamal bin Washington" or "Thamar Jefferson."   At, Ben Shaprio is a bit more nuanced. He admits that there were Muslim slaves in the colonies, but argues that this hardly affirms Obama's statement that Muslims have been "woven into the fabric of the nation." Shapiro is writing under the assumption that slaves did not contribute in some way to the making of the nation, as if their labor did not provide the wealth necessary for Washington and Jefferson to make their grandiose claims about freedom. (See Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom on this point). Meanwhile, David Barton, in an appearance on the Glenn Beck show, correctly notes that Muslims came to America as slaves, but like Shapiro he concludes that "it might be a stretch" to say that these Muslim slaves were part of the "fabric of the country."

Indeed, about ten percent of seventeenth-century slaves in the colonies were Muslim (and they did not have freedom--religious or otherwise).  

Most British-Americans were anti-Muslim in the same way that they were anti-Catholic.  They viewed Islam as a false and tyrannical religion.  The founding fathers did not have nice things to say about Islam as a religious system.  This is all true.

In 1784, Virginia founder Richard Henry Lee wrote that he agreed with the premise that "true freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo as well as the Xtian religion." There were few Muslims in British North America when he wrote this in a letter to James Madison.  But they did exist.  And as human beings they were part of the "fabric" of colonial life.  Did they have the power or the numbers to shape colonial and revolutionary life?  Of course not.  But I don't think this was what Obama meant when he said that Muslims were part of the nation's "fabric."

Perhaps this discussion rests solely on how one defines the phrase "fabric of our country."  If so, isn't it true that all stitches are part of the fabric?