Now that the missus and I are three seasons into West Wing, I understand that the nation’s presidents cannot say whatever is on their mind. They need to spin for so many different reasons. It’s almost like watching Tom Reagan in Millers’ Crossing.
Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.
Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)
Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.) So this is not a new thing.
Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. They built America’s first mosque, surprisingly enough, in North Dakota. (Laughter.) America’s oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford’s assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago.
In 1957, when dedicating the Islamic center in Washington, D.C., President Eisenhower said, “I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution … and in American hearts…this place of worship, is just as welcome…as any other religion.” (Applause.)
And perhaps the most pertinent fact, Muslim Americans enrich our lives today in every way. They’re our neighbors, the teachers who inspire our children, the doctors who trust us with our health — future doctors like Sabah. They’re scientists who win Nobel Prizes, young entrepreneurs who are creating new technologies that we use all the time. They’re the sports heroes we cheer for -— like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon. And by the way, when Team USA marches into the next Olympics, one of the Americans waving the red, white and blue — (applause) — will a fencing champion, wearing her hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is here today. Stand up. (Applause.) I told her to bring home the gold. (Laughter.) Not to put any pressure on you. (Laughter.)
Muslim Americans keep us safe. They’re our police and our firefighters. They’re in homeland security, in our intelligence community. They serve honorably in our armed forces — meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom. Some rest in Arlington National Cemetery. (Applause.)
So Muslim Americans are some of the most resilient and patriotic Americans you’ll ever meet.
In many ways I salute the president for trying to make Islam part of the American narrative but I worry that his story line is one that suits Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce better than a president who ran and won in part because he is African-American. For blacks in the 1950s and 1960s, people that the president’s in-laws would well know (and possibly were), Islam looked more like a way to dissent from the nation’s racism and segregation than it did an on-ramp to the American mainstream. The tension between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about the dilemmas that integration posed for blacks who wanted a separate identity from the one King was cultivating:
“You don’t integrate with a sinking ship.” This was Malcolm X’s curt explanation of why he did not favor integration of blacks with whites in the United States. As the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim organization led by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X argued that America was too racist in its institutions and people to offer hope to blacks. The solution proposed by the Nation of Islam was a separate nation for blacks to develop themselves apart from what they considered to be a corrupt white nation destined for divine destruction.
In contrast with Malcolm X’s black separatism, Martin Luther King, Jr. offered what he considered “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest” as a means of building an integrated community of blacks and whites in America. He rejected what he called “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist,” believing that the fate of black Americans was “tied up with America’s destiny.” Despite the enslavement and segregation of blacks throughout American history, King had faith that “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God” could reform white America through the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.
Of course, the experience of most Muslims in the U.S. — namely, immigrants from the Middle East — is distinct from that of descendants of American slaves (like Michelle Obama). But a reminder about Islam’s plausible appeal to black separatists seems necessary for doing justice to both the history of Islam and African-American life in the U.S.
Update: And what would President Obama say to Muhammad Ali, a Baptist turned Muslim, who said this about the U.S. military when refusing to serve in Vietnam?
But who is this white man, no older than me, appointed by another white man, all the way to the white man in the White House? Who is he to tell me to go to Asia, Africa, or anywhere else in the world to fight people who never threw a rock at me or America? Who is this descendant of slave masters to order a descendant of slaves to fight other people in their own country?