During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said he wanted to create a registry of Muslims. Trump’s idea to force Americans to register their religion in a government database, and his subsequent electoral victory, was a sign of continuing prejudice in America against followers of the world’s second-largest religion. “Islam hates us,” the candidate said in March.
But when it comes to Islam and America, is it really a matter of “us” versus them?
The same year that brought anti-Muslim rhetoric to a new fever pitch also saw the death of Muhammad Ali, a Muslim American and one of the greatest athletes of all time. Ali’s death was a reminder of Muslim contributions to American culture, and there was an outpouring of praise for him.
Hussein Rashid, a professor at Hofstra University and a consultant on religious literacy, pictured at right, says it’s a mistake to view religious relations as a conflict between Islam and the United States because Muslims have been part of the America since the arrival of European explorers.
“We’ve got pretty good circumstantial evidence that there were Muslims and Jews on Columbus’s ships,” he says.
Rashid was scheduled to give a talk on Wednesday, December 7, from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library on the role of Muslims in American history for the past 500 years. For more information on the free event, visit www.princetonlibrary.org. The lecture is part of the library’s “Spotlight on the Humanities” series.
Rashid grew up in New York where his father was a real estate agent and his mother worked as an executive assistant. Raised Muslim, he became interested in seriously studying religion and culture by a religion professor at Columbia, where he earned his undergraduate degree in Middle Eastern studies. He got a master’s and doctorate in Near Eastern languages and cultures at Harvard, and is now a professor at Hofstra and founder of islamicate L3C, a consultancy focusing on religious literacy and cultural competency.
Rashid has written multiple academic articles on Muslims in the U.S., including “Muslims in Film and Muslim Filmmaking,” “Muslims, Islam, and Making American Popular Culture,” “Muslim Congregations in the United States,” and “Shaheed-E Harlem: The Meaning of Malcolm X in the Work of Fun^Da^Mental.”
Rashid’s talk will cover how the first wave of Muslims came with the slave trade beginning in the 1500s. “We suspect about a quarter to one-third of all slaves brought to America were Muslim,” Rashid says.
Thomas Jefferson owned a Koran, and discussed Islam in some of his writings. “He’s not talking about Muslims in the abstract,” Rashid says. “He is aware there were Muslims in America as slaves. He’s not thinking about them as citizens, but they were certainly a part of his world view.”
Although the religion was largely suppressed by slaveowners, Islam continued to be practiced in America over the next several centuries. Civil War records show there were Muslim soldiers serving in the Union army.
Following the Civil War and through the early 1920s, there was another wave of immigration from Muslim countries. These immigrants, mostly from the area that today is Syria, Lebabnon, Israel, and Palestine, were seeking a better life economically and settled throughout the Midwest, continuing to practice their traditional religion.
Between 1898 and 1946, Muslims made up a significant portion of the American population. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, the U.S. took over the Philippines. Although the islands were a majority Christian country, a large population of Sunni Muslims lived on southern islands where Islamic traders had settled centuries before. These Muslims were not citizens but were governed by the U.S. colonial administration after a bloody 14-year rebellion.
Later in the 20th century some black Americans began to convert to Islam, and after 1965 there was a new wave of immigration from Muslim countries.
Rashid does not plan to address the current political situation in his talk, since it was planned long before the election, but he acknowledges that religion and government is an unavoidable topic.
“There are two issues,” he says. “One is the official policy of the Trump administration. We don’t know what the official policy will be. What Donald Trump has said on the campaign trail is really not matching up with his actions.” Rashid says Trump has already backtracked on some of his campaign promises and cited the example of his treasury secretary pick. During the campaign Trump pledged to fight for the common folk and then appointed Steven Mnuchin to head the treasury department. Mnuchin owned a bank that once tried to foreclose on a woman’s house because she wrote a check that was 27 cents short of the required payment.
Rashid is waiting to see whether Trump will go back on his Muslim registry or his call to ban Muslim immigration.
But whether or not any concrete policy comes from the campaign talk, Rashid says the divisive rhetoric during the campaign has done plenty of damage. “This campaign cycle has shown the fault lines in America, whether it’s along lines of race or religion. As Trump was speaking out against Muslims, he was also speaking out against Latinos and blacks, immigrants, and members of the military. People chose sides. We have to begin to come back together and acknowledge that we have got these differences, but that we can live with these differences without letting them divide us.”