Following President Obama’s famed Cairo speech, there were those who were excited, those who were nettled and those who were simply unimpressed. Among the nettled were some American conservatives — of the Wingnut, moderate and innovative sorts — who objected to the the speech’s content and tone on a number of grounds. Most notable were those around it form a part of an “apology tour” or that it was too harsh on the Israelis. Another objection was that Obama took too conciliatory a tone with American Muslims, especially his remark that Islam has “always been a part of America’s story.” Those came from the right but they spoke to something much bigger.
David Frum, for instance, called those lines “really absurd” and characterized it as a part of the speech’s “persistent misrepresentation of history.” Max Boot, in a Commentary blog post, wrote that the line “twisted history”. Frum did not explain how Islam (or Muslims) have not been a part of the “American story” — he dismisses the idea in one line — though his assumption likely comes from old narratives on American history and identity. Or ideology. Boot’s quarrel was more with an example used in Obama’s speech, related to the often quoted 1798 Treaty of Tripoli, than the line itself; Obama’s use of the Treaty was actually somewhat off, a good example of a historical document being distorted for political purposes. There were innumerable examples the President could have used; out of all context, though, that particular Treaty is especially useful. Again, so long as it is out of context. That is the poverty of the Obama administration’s trumped up outreach to Muslims: Months after the Cairo sermon, one cannot imagine Barack Obama addressing American Muslims at, say, the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. The lack of perspective and courage in much of the President’s outreach to the Muslim world and Muslim community in the United States produces such errors and others. The President shares that with men like Frum and Boot and Douthat, too. America and American Muslims need a stronger focus and broader perspective on American Islam. Men who stand before the public should see the bigger picture; such thought may be a tragedy of hope.
In efforts to highlight points of contrast between “western” and “Islamic” civilization or to paint the Islamist menace as pervasive and irreconcilable, conservatives (and some liberals) have frequently put artificial boundaries the space-time relationship between Muslims and Islam and America. Conservatives frequently express paranoia about Muslims and Islam in America (and Europe) but with little interest or attention to the long history of Islam in the New World. Frequently associating American Islam with immigrants or black radicals (think imported preachers with scraggly beards and the Nation of Islam) rather than with the many thousands (if not more) of Muslims brought to the United States as slaves, who sometimes kept their religion for generations. Many American Muslims, regardless of their politics, look at that early history with pride — for immigrants their story is a gateway to their new identity in America; for others it turns their conversion into a reversion, settling problems imposed by socialized dogmas. A recent book on American Muslims, attempting to capture their diversity and challenges after 9/11 makes scarce reference to pre-twentieth century Islam in America. Many immigrant Muslims are ignorant of it altogether. Wider awareness of that history among all Americans might help in a far broader process of assimilation into the American pattern of identity.
The contrary claim, though, that Islam has not been a part of the American story from at least the founding does not hold up to close (or even mild) scrutiny. Articles and books have been written on the subject. In a history of Arab Americans, otherwise dominated by Levantine tendencies, there are the stories of the North African fighters who arrived in the American colonies to assist in the American struggle against Britain. Some of their graves (and descendants) can still be seen in South Carolina and elsewhere (see Orfalea, Gregory, The Arab Americans: A History, Olive Branch, 2006, pg. 45). Muslims fought — and died — in every American war from the Revolution to the present. There are biographies of some Muslim slaves written by their sympathizers after they escaped the moil; there were others who wrote down Qur’anic suras before dying in bondage. These were remarkable Americans. Roots, Alex Haley’s American story is not without the memory of Islam, either. In most histories of the United States they are ignored; now more than ever, it is critical that the long history of Islam in America be understood in the broader context of the American project, not just the “post-9/11 world” or the post-World War II era.
A recent and amazing Library of Congress report by James H. Hutson starts at that by looking at attitudes towards Muslims and Islam among American Founding Fathers and in the commons. Its findings, based on primary documents, are as extraordinary as they are diverse. Early Americans carried differing views on Islam: one Southern preacher believed the “religion of Mahomet originated in arms, breathes nothing but arms, is propagated by arms” while but Ezra Stiles called Muslim morality “far superior to the Christian.” The report has it that: “it is clear that the Founding Fathers thought about the relationship of Islam to the new nation and were prepared to make a place for it in the republic.” It concludes more interestingly: “The Founders of this nation explicitly included Islam in their vision of the future of the republic. Freedom of religion, as they conceived it, encompassed it.” The Founders believed, Huston writes, that Muslims “would make law-abiding, productive citizens.” In Hutson’s view, “the Founders would have incorporated it [Islam] into the fabric of American life.” The daft might read that as Hutson having men in wigs and stockings buddying up with some caricature of an Islamist. One can dispute that conclusion, but the report’s greater implication is to cast a long shadow of a doubt on the idea that Islam or Muslims are “new” to America or have not been a part of the American story. That it has been forgotten and neglected speaks to a broader and deeper need for an appreciation of the need for a national narrative that incorporates Muslims in the same way it incorporates Jews, Christians and others. And it is really absurd.
One sees that there is piece of a generation of young American Muslims coming up from their roots, angry and lonely, tearing the soil with them — the generation of 9/11. All minorities must at all times trust but verify, to protect their rights and their property and their principles; but these young have done none of that, colluding against their country and, ultimately, against their faith. The failure of society was to let bigotry and paranoia run so rampant as to produce a lust for violence among an increasingly important minority. It was to allow ignorant forces to control public conversation about the Muslim community; both those advocating disguised discrimination and criminal political correctness. The failure of American Muslims was to not keep their gates guarded when fanatical and delusional websites and preachers and “missionaries” reinforced those pressures alienating their sons, right behind their backs and beneath their noses. These boys were not “self-radicalized” — villages raise sons and here the village failed to do its part. For that there is no excuse.
The buzz going round saying that “Muslim” and “American” are incompatible, mutually antagonistic and perverse in their intercourse has infected both Muslims and non-Muslims in America, many of whom have gone beyond reach with their convictions. These are narratives of American (the “real” Americans, as they might have it) and Islamist bigots; what is needed now is a historical narrative that most reasonable people are fully capable of grasping, but which has been rendered mute by old Europocentric biases and post-9/11 backlash politics. Building this understanding in elite and popular circles in the United States is a long-term responsibility of the American polity after 9/11, and it goes hand-in-hand with efforts against domestic terrorism and radicalization. It requires that historians do their jobs well and that men of letters and politics advance a semblance of character. For that one might hope.