During the 2016 presidential election, Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University spoke about the “normalization of Islamophobia”. With the election of Donald Trump, there is growing concern among some Americans, especially among American Muslims. Mr. Trump’s National Security Advisor, Lt. General Michael Flynn, has spoken of Islam as a “political ideology” and a “cancer”. As of this writing, there is talk of reviving some version of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which ran from 2002 to 2011, registered some 82,000 people born in Muslim-majority countries, yet resulted in no terrorism-related charges being filed. Thankfully, President Obama dismantled the NSEERS program at the end of 2016, and at the beginning of 2017, Senator Cory Booker and others introduced the “Protect American Families Act” to block any future such registry.
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 twenty years, but my own life as a Muslim living in America during that time.
I was born in Pakistan, and came to Canada in 1970 when I was 4. I grew up in Toronto, 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 over 40 years later, they remain models for me of how to be a Muslim. Ali passed in 2016, and at the end of last year, Kareem received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Both men were also instrumental in civil rights, and not just exemplars of athletic greatness. When we think of the history of the civil rights movement in America, how many of us think of Malcolm X when we think of Dr. Martin Luther King?
Through Ali and Kareem, I learned about the history of Islam in African American communities. We estimate that at least 10 percent of the slaves brought over from West Africa were Muslim. So to take only one example, in 1730, a Muslim slave named Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, also known as Job ben Solomon, was brought as a slave to Annapolis, Maryland. This, one needs to remember, was two years before George Washington was born. Solomon’s story was told in a slave narrative that was published in London in 1734.
Two centuries earlier, in 1528, another Muslim, 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. During the second presidential debate, Hilary Clinton mentioned that Muslims had been in America since the time of George Washington. In fact, we’d been there over 90 years before the Pilgrims arrived, and some two centuries before General Washington was born. There has, it surprises some people to learn, never been an America without Muslims.
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 also gives the lie to the oft-repeated claim that Muslims are newcomers to the United States. At the end of 2015, ABC News reported figures from the US Department of Defence that some 5,896 Muslims were serving in the military. That number may be higher, since some 400,000 service members did not self-identify their faith. So almost 6,000 American Muslims serve in the armed forces, helping to defend their country.
In 1997, I moved to Los Angeles where I’ve lived for the past twenty years, teaching and researching about American Muslims. For the last dozen years, I’ve done that in a Catholic university. Last year, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego spoke of “the New Nativism”, the connection between American Muslims and American Catholics. We are very much alike, conceived in Protestant American history as alien others, Catholics in the 19th century, and Muslims in the 21st. American Muslims, like American Catholics, are ethnically diverse. 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, Kurdish, etc.). Like American Catholics, 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 other Muslim in Congress, André Carson from Indiana, is also an African American convert, elected in 2008. 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. But there are also issues for American Muslims.
In 2011, Anwar al-Awlaki, the leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen was killed in a drone strike. However, he was also a U.S. citizen, and as such should have been subject to the “due process” that is the right of every citizen. And this was under the authorization of a Democratic president, Barack Obama. One wonders what will happen under President Trump. Again, there is a connection here with American Catholics, who in their history were also seen as “un-American”. A few days after the 2016 election, Archbishop Jose Gomez, himself a Mexican immigrant, spoke eloquently about the Church siding with immigrants, Latino/a or otherwise.
There is talk of “sanctuary”, and of sanctuary cities, where local police will not cooperate with federal requests to detain immigrants. These include major cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, as well as over 350 counties. On the one hand, I appreciate the gesture, that local police in Los Angeles will not do the work of federal immigration authorities. And of course I appreciate the bravery of those in the New Sanctuary Movement, who risk their own imprisonment to help immigrants. They are living out the highest ideals of their religious traditions to do justice and provide hospitality to the stranger.
On the other hand, I am worried. The concept of “sanctuary” is a noble one, and the idea of a church or other place of worship as an inviolable, sacred space is an important one. But I also hold no illusions, and I think there is a blurring of legal categories. As much as cities may declare themselves “sanctuaries”, the marginalized are still at risk. The federal government still has very strong powers, and if we can kill our own citizens (something that we in a Catholic majority state like California, in direct violations of the teachings of the Church, voted for), we certainly can arrest and deport them. I hope that those in need can find sanctuary in our churches, mosques and synagogues, but I also pray that it doesn’t come to that.
Dr. 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.
Photo: Malcolm X photographs Mohammad Ali after his defeat of Sonny Liston in 1964. Credit: Bob Gomel, EPHouston [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons