TRUMP and SCOTUS: How bad could it get?

At 9:00 tonight, President Trump will announce his pick to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy on the Supreme Court. This replacement is almost guaranteed to be approved by the Republican dominated Senate, barring some unforeseen and shocking revelation. This replacement is also guaranteed to be a partisan instrument for conservatives who have (brilliantly, in retrospect) played a long game for the last 40 years or so to win Congress, a majority of state legislatures, a majority of governor’s seats, and now the Presidency, and thereby stack state and federal courts with conservative judges.

All for the purpose of ending abortion rights.

This new justice means that Kennedy’s swing-vote will no longer be in play. For the first time in a long time, SCOTUS will have a solid majority of conservatives. (Thanks, it has to be pointed out, to voters who bizarrely thought that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was somehow MORE corrupt than Trump and a LESSER choice.)

So now SCOTUS will no longer be the godsend (pun intended) to progressive causes it has been over the last few decades. SCOTUS has been responsible for safeguarding abortion rights, LGBT rights, equal protection under the law, etc.–a great many Constitutional causes in which the legislative branch has failed us. But no longer. Progressive organizations would be foolish to challenge things in court for years to come.

Until the tide turns, how bad could it get? Pretty bad, it turns out. Grab a stiff drink and/or your favorite plush toy, because I’m about to depress you.

Expect, in the immediate future, to see an avalanche of blatantly anti-abortion legislation to pop up in dozens of states, for the purpose of triggering lawsuits that will percolate up to the new conservative-dominated SCOTUS. Up to this point, Republican lawmakers have mostly satisfied themselves with petty, disingenuous, so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. These are laws that on the surface claim to increase medical safety, but are really intended to bankrupt abortion providers or harass them into going out of business. The need for such nibbling aroung the edges of Roe v Wade is over. State legislatures will now try to ban abortions outright, hoping that they will win at SCOTUS. And again, progressive organizations should think twice about bringing challenges they are likely to lose and thereby generate precedents that could haunt us in the future.

(Of course, I should point out that overturning Roe v Wade does NOT mean that abortion will be illegal nationwide. If SCOTUS overturns Roe, the right to an abortion will simply devolve to the States, in which case the US will become a patchwork with respect to the right to choose. A disaster, yes, but not as bad as it could be.)

And it’s not just abortion. Expect legislatures to begin passing radically conservative regulation on a number of issues near and dear to conservative hearts.

We should also not assume that this is the end of Trump’s imprint on the Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 85 years old. Sad to say, her health cannot last much longer, and in the event that she dies or becomes unable to continue in her duties, that’s a THIRD seat that Cadet Bone Spurs will get to fill.

There have also been rumors that Justice Clarence “Chatterbox” Thomas, currently 70 years old, is considering retiring. There have been reports for years that Thomas just flat-out hates being a Justice, and it would not surprise me if he decides to retire in the near future, especially if he thinks Trump won’t win re-election. Thomas could retire from his misery while consoling himself with the knowledge that his replacement will be a fellow arch-conservative.

Finally, Justice Stephen Breyer (a Clinton appointee), is 79. If–perish the thought–Trump wins re-election in 2020, he could have the unprecedented opportunity to name FIVE justices to the Supreme Court. (Of course, Trump himself is 72 and not exactly known for a healthy lifestyle. All this speculation could go out the window if Trump himself dies or becomes incapacitated.)

So, yeah, if Trump continues as President, and especially if he wins re-election, things will get pretty fucking bad for the Supreme Court. A conservative supermajority, held by a relatively young cadre of justices, will mean that for the next THIRTY YEARS the Supreme Court might as well not exist if you’re hoping to use it as a safeguard for liberal democracy and progressive causes.

Meanwhile, what can we do to hasten the turn of the tide? Plenty, it turns out.

  1. Encourage your Senators and congressthings (even if they’re Republican) to OPPOSE any judicial appointments by Trump. Period. This may be futile in the short-run, but it is important to make your political voice heard, early and often. Lawmakers do occasionally pay attention to their constituents.
  2. Vote Democratic. Not Libertarian. Not Green. And not “Well, I don’t like any of the candidates, so I’m not voting.” That’s bullshit. Democrats have warts, but right now the character of this nation is under existential threat, and that threat appears on the ballot with “(R)” after its name. Oh, and give money to the Democrats to the extent you can afford it. And volunteer. And participate in protests.
  3. Become conversationally intolerant. I’m not saying shoot your mouth off at work and get fired. But if you find yourself at a dinner party, or a family gathering, or standing in line at the grocery store, whatever, and someone spouts Republican/Trumpian talking points in your direction, bring the conversation to a halt until you’ve made it clear that you disagree, and why. The conservatives around you need to know the truth, and they also need to know that not everyone shares their misguided opinions. Too often, bullies think that because nobody ever says anything in opposition to them, they must be right. Disabuse them of that notion.
  4. Vote with your wallet. Do not knowingly patronize any business associated with Trump, with Republicans, or with retrograde causes. You can’t know this about every person or business you come into contact with, but if they’ve made their positions clear, they’ve made it easier for you to know where to, and where not to, spend your money.

There’s lots more to be said, but this essay has gone on long enough. It’s not an exaggeration to say that we are in a crisis, one that’s not likely to end until at least January 2021. But we can (hopefully) claw back the House of Representatives in November, with a teensy weensy chance we could claw back enough seats in the Senate to effectively challenge dangerous judicial nominations and cripple Trump for his last two years in office. We’re not dead yet.

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A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 10 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 10: 9/11 and the 21st Century

Although American Muslims track very closely with their Christian counterparts in terms of level of education, household income, crime rate, etc., the popular perception of Muslims by mainstream America has been shaped mostly by racism, xenophobia, religious bigotry and downright ignorance.

In the aftermath of the devastating terrorist attacks of 9/11, American perception of Muslims (whether citizens or not) has only gotten worse. There’s no arguing that the worldwide Muslim community has an ongoing terrorism problem, but it’s also a fact that, since 9/11, you are far more likely to be a victim of white Christian terrorism on American soil than Islamic terrorism. None of this has been helped by the fact that, for decades, Muslims have been depicted quite narrowly by liberal Hollywood and the national news media as barbarians, terrorists or oil sheiks, or if you’re a woman, as a harem girl, a belly dancer, or a burka-encased cypher.

Since 9/11 America’s relationship with its Muslim citizens has been a mixed bag. George W. Bush admirably resisted labeling all Muslims as terrorists, but he also inaccurately declared that “Islam is peace”. And it’s still shocking to me—pleasantly shocking—that we Americans were able to overcome our post-9/11 panic regarding anything Islamic, enough to elect a man with the decidedly Muslim name of Barack Hussein Obama (a man with a Protestant-turned-agnostic white mother and a Muslim-turned-atheist black father), a man who spent some of his formative years in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

But, the pendulum swings, and in 2016 it swung hard to the right, with the election of Donald Trump, a man with no political experience who ran on a platform that included a “total ban on Muslims entering America.” This campaign promise has manifested itself as three successive travel bans that affect several Muslim-majority countries.It’s interesting to note that no Muslim terrorist on American soil has ever come from any of the countries on the current ban.

This ban has traveled through the courts like a toxic pinball, and was finally argued before the Supreme Court just last month. (The safe bet is that the conservative majority on the Court will side with the president, and will claim that the president has wide latitude when it comes to immigration policy and national security, even if those policies are not grounded in reality and cannot be shown to have any substantive benefit in protecting America against terrorism.)

And so here we are. Muslim Americans are just Americans. They’re laborers and legislators, scientists and teachers, businesspeople and entertainers, heroes and cowards, and a few, as we know, have been terrorists.

Muslim Americans will likely experience the same generational cycle as all Americans who came before: the first generation will struggle to find their place in America; their children will be largely assimilated into the American mainstream; and THEIR grandchildren as well as OURS will wonder what the fuss was all about.

END

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A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 9 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 9: Asians, Arabs and Changes in US Immigration Policy

So far I’ve talked almost exclusively about the experience of European Americans and African Americans when it comes to Islam in America. We’ve seen that nearly all Muslim Africans brought over as part of the slave trade either converted to Christianity or had to suppress their faith, thus failing to pass it on to the next generation.

We’ve also seen that Americans of European extraction almost never embraced Islam.

You’re probably wondering why I haven’t spoken more about Arab-Americans or Asian-Americans. In short, it’s because of the way American immigration policy evolved from the beginning of the Republic through the middle of the 20thcentury.

From the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 until after the Civil War, full citizenship and full participation in political life was limited to free white men. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to “free white persons” of good character. Further laws and refinements were passed in 1795, 1798 and 1803, but they still only applied to free whites. The 14thAmendment granted citizenship to anyone born within the United States, regardless of race, but it had little effect on Asians and Arabs because there were so few living in America in the 1860s.

The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” This applied not just to sub-Saharan Africa, but to the Mediterranean coast as well, which was populated mostly by Muslim Arabs and related ethnic groups.

This Act was not without controversy. In opposing it, Senator Lyman Trumbull complained that “it opens the whole continent of Africa, where are to be found the most degraded examples of man that exist on the face of the earth, pagans, cannibals, men who worship beasts, who do not compare in intelligence at all with the Chinese.”

In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled in United States vs Wong Kim Ark that a child born to Chinese parents was a citizen by birthright under the Constitution. This precedent has been the source of considerable controversy to the present day, but for our purposes here it created an environment whereby any child born in America of parents from any race, or from any religion—including Islam—was automatically a citizen. Later courts ruled that this protection includes even children of illegal immigrants.

The complete history of US immigration policy and its effect on the Muslim world is a complex and interesting topic all by itself, but I can’t go into all the details here today. Arab immigration to the United States was barely a trickle from the 1870s.

One antebellum Muslim of note is Ali al-Hajaya, an Ottoman of Greek and Syrian origins who was brought in in 1856 by the US Army as part of an ultimately failed attempt to introduce camels into the American West. His name–Ali al-Hajaya–was Americanized to “Hi Jolly.” The US Camel Corps met with mixed success, but with the outbreak of the Civil War the Army was too distracted to continue the experiment. Hi Jolly eventually married, had two sons, and died in Arizona in 1902.

The trickle of Arab immigration became a steady stream beginning in the 1870s when over 100,000 Arabs from the Ottoman Empire (mostly Syrians, and mostly Christians) came to the US. This flow was staunched with the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred entry to persons from vast swaths of territory, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East and Turkey.

People from Mediterranean Africa were still allowed, but they still faced unofficial and official discrimination. In 1942, a Yemeni Muslim named Ahmed Hassan was denied citizenship on the basis that, being of dark complexion, he was not considered white under the Naturalization Act of 1790. However, in 1944, a judge in Massachusetts ruled that an Arab named Mohamed Mohriez was eligible for citizenship, agreeing that Arabs should be considered an offshoot of the white race.

Things changed dramatically with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which abolished the race-based immigration quota system and replaced it with a system that prioritized refugees, people with special skills, and those with family members living in the United States. It also forbade discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas on the basis of race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.)

From the mid-20thcentury forward, the number of Muslims coming to the United States increased significantly. Before 1900, the total number of Muslims in American was easily less that .01%. By 1951 there were about 200,000, or about 0.1%. Today there are an estimated 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, or about 1% of the population.

The first purpose-built mosque in the United States was erected in 1929 by a small group of Syrian-Lebanese homesteaders in Ross, North Dakota (current population: 97). The oldest standing purpose-built mosque is the Mother Mosque of America, erected in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and still operational.

By the 1950s there were around 20 active mosques in America, including in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dearborn, Michigan, where many Muslims settled to work for Henry Ford. Today about 40,000 of Dearborn’s 94,000 residents are Arab Americans. The Arab American National Museum, which opened in 2005, is located in Dearborn. And in 2010 Lebanese-born Dearborn resident Rima Fakih became the first Muslim Miss USA. In a supreme irony, the Miss USA pageant was owned at the time by a businessman named Donald J. Trump. (As a footnote, Miss Fakih converted to Christianity in 2016.)

Today, Muslims in America are even more demographically diverse than their Christian counterparts. About one-third are from the Indian subcontinent; about one-fourth are from the Middle East, and about one-fourth are of African or African-American origin. Three-quarters of American Muslims today are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

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A Brief History of Muslims in American (Part 8 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 8: Black Islam

While imported Islam may have died out among African slaves and their immediate descendants, a new form of homegrown Islam sprung up in the early 20thcentury. Not connected to mainstream Islam, these various sects of so-called “Black Islam” were cult-like organizations, led by charismatic “prophets” who mixed traditional Islamic beliefs with pseudo-historic, pseudo-scientific innovations. Many rejected Christianity as the religion of white oppressors, and embraced (at least some form of) Islam as the true religion of Africans.

Most notable of these organizations was the Nation of Islam, founded in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad, a mysterious character, usually described as a light-skinned black man. He sought to “teach the downtrodden and defenseless Black people a thorough Knowledge of God and of themselves, and to put them on the road to Self-Independence with a superior culture and higher civilization than they had previously experienced.”

Muhammad chose as one of his protégés a young man from Sandersville, Georgia named Elijah Robert Poole, best known to history as Elijah Muhammad. Elijah Muhammad eventually became leader of the organization after Wallace Fard Muhammad disappeared unexpectedly in May 1933.

The Nation of Islam held that Wallace Fard Muhammad was a prophet, and later that he was Almighty God himself. The Nation’s doctrines are a weird mishmash of militant race politics, pseudo-science, conspiracy theories, and spiritual mumbo-jumbo that would make L. Ron Hubbard blush.

According to the Nation of Islam, the Earth is 76 trillion years old. (That’s trillion, not billion. Take that, Carl Sagan.) Black people are the descendants of the original humans, the tribe of Shabazz, who appeared when the planet separated into the Earth and the Moon 66 trillion years ago. White people are devils created as part of a eugenics program initiated 6,600 years ago on the Greek island of Patmos by a mad scientist named Yakub. These blue-eyed, blonde-haired devils spread across the world, conquering black and brown people through violence and deception. The Nation of Islam also believed in establishing a black separatist state.

Prominent adherents to the Nation of Islam included influential civil rights activists such as Malcolm X and boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Both men rejected the Nation of Islam’s teachings later in life. Malcolm X converted to mainstream Sunni Islam and split from the Nation in 1964. He was assassinated by his former brethren in 1965. Muhammad Ali also rejected the Nation of Islam, and eventually embraced Sufi mysticism.

After Elijah’s death in 1975, his son Warith Deen Mohammed embarked on a radical reformation—indeed, a radical realignment toward orthodox Islam—of the Nation. He rejected the divinity of Wallace Fard Muhammad, abandoned the weird and militant social and political teachings, and engaged in outreach with mainstream Muslim communities. The organization, with its 400 mosques, was eventually renamed the American Society of Muslims.

But that wasn’t the end of the Nation of Islam. From its ashes arose a second incarnation under the leadership of Louis Farrakhan. Farrakhan has made headlines over the last 40 years for his incendiary rhetoric, including anti-semitic and homophobic remarks. (Not to mention his close relationship with the late Libyan dictator Muammar Khaddafi.)

And although membership in the Nation of Islam is estimated at only 20 to 50,000 people, in 1995 Farrakhan organized the Million Man March, which drew hundreds of thousands (if not exactly a million) demonstrators to the National Mall, and featured several prominent Christian or secular celebrities, including civil rights icon Rosa Parks, author Maya Angelou, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, and the Reverend Jeremiah Wright (he of later controversy involving Barack Obama).

The Nation of Islam continues today, and is even more farcical than before. In 2010 Farrakhan endorsed Dianetics, and has said that white Americans should flock to Scientology.

For good or bad, the Nation’s influence has been eclipsed by more mainstream Muslim religious organizations.

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A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 7 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 7: Alexander Russell Webb

Until the rise of homegrown Black Islam in the early 20th century, very, very few Americans converted to Islam. I find this quite surprising, given that the 19th century was a time of incredible religious innovation in the United States. The 1800s gave rise to new movements like Mormonism, spiritualism, and transcendentalism—even atheism and agnosticism—not to mention the countless schisms and reorganizations that occurred within mainstream American Christianity.

But the only white Islamic convert of any note is a man named Alexander Russell Webb.

Born in Massachusetts in 1846, a newspaper publisher by trade, he was appointed as a consular representative in the Philippines in 1887 by President Grover Cleveland. It was while in the Philippines that Webb was first introduced to Islam, and by 1888 he publicly declared himself a convert. His immediate family converted as well.

In 1893 he returned to the United States and started a pro-Islam newspaper called Moslem World. That same year, Webb was the sole representative for Islam at the first World Parliament of Religions, a noble attempt to create a dialogue of faiths, at the world’s fair in Chicago. Webb also founded a short-lived mosque–on Broadway, of all places.

Webb died in 1916 and in the end, his influence was fleeting. The last of several Islamic study groups he started around the country shut down during World War II.

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A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 6 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 6: Muslim Slaves

While many of the Founders expressed tolerance for Islam, they expressed no such compassion for the only followers of Islam they would ever meet: African slaves. Of the hundreds of thousands of Africans abducted and shipped to America as part of the slave trade, as many as 30% were Muslim.

For good or ill, most of them either abandoned their religion or practiced it in the privacy of their hearts. Inevitably, given the privations of slave life and the pressure from Christian slaveholders, the children and grandchildren of Muslim slaves were raised as Christians.

While the vast majority of Muslim slaves lived and died in anonymity, a few of them are noted by history. Among the more celebrated Muslims of the slavery period are:

  • Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701-1773), a Senegalese who was brought to Maryland as a slave and eventually freed and returned to his homeland with the help of James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia.
  • Yarrow Mamout (~1736 -1823), a slave freed in 1796 who settled in Washington, DC, owned land, had shares in a bank, and as a result of which recovered from bankruptcy three times.  He was so well known locally at the time that his portrait was painted TWICE, once by Charles Willson Peale (who also painted George Washington) and another time by an artist named James Alexander Simpson. Peale wrote of Mamout, “he professes to be a mahometan, and is often seen & heard in the Streets singing Praises to God — and conversing with him, he said man is no good unless his religion comes from the heart . . . The acquaintance of him often banter him about eating Bacon and drinking Whiskey — but Yarrow says it is no good to eat Hog — & drink whiskey is very bad.”
  • Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864), another Senegalese and Islamic scholar who was enslaved in the Carolinas, and who wrote FOURTEEN Arabic transcriptions from the Quran from memory while serving as a slave in the South. Some of his papers are owned today by the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
  • Ben Ali Muhammad, also called Bilali Mohammed, a slave brought to Sapelo Island, Georgia in 1802 or 1803, served as the imam for a congregation of 80 fellow slaves and even wrote a 13-page commentary on Islamic law and conduct that is currently owned by the University of Georgia.

By the way, nearly 300 Muslim last names appear in the rolls of soldiers who served in the American Civil War. Unfortunately, I do not have a breakdown of how many served in the Union vs the Confederacy, how many were slave vs freedmen, how many were immigrants vs born in America, etc.

At the very least it shows us the small but perceptible participation of American Muslims throughout the country’s history.

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A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 5 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 5: The Barbary Wars

In 1777 Morocco’s sultan Muhammad III declared that American ships could safely use Moroccan ports, and in 1786 Morocco became the first country to recognize the independence of the United States. The Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship was negotiated by Thomas Barclay, and signed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the sultan.

Despite this early friendship with the Islamic world, the United States soon found itself in conflict with Muslim states. For years the so-called Barbary States—Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli–had engaged in piracy, kidnapping and the outright enslavement of Europeans captured on the open sea. Many European governments, as well as the newly minted United States, paid out what amounted to protection money for their merchant fleets in the Mediterranean.

In 1786, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were stationed overseas as American commissioners, they visited Tripoli’s ambassador in London, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, for the purpose of discussing the justification of these payments.

Adams later wrote: “We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the Grounds of their pretentions to make war upon Nations who had done them no Injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation. The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

For some time after that, the United States continued to pay this tribute, but eventually the sums became so burdensome the government decided it was cheaper just to go to war. Between 1801 and 1815 the US fought two wars with the Barbary States. (Indeed, Decatur, Georgia is named for Commodore Stephen Decatur, who was crucial to the successful conclusion of the Second Barbary War.)

One outcome of the Barbary Wars was the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, commonly called the Treaty of Tripoli. It was signed in 1796, then ratified unanimously and without debate by the US Senate, and signed by President John Adams in 1797. What’s most notable about this document is the text included in Article 11:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

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A Brief History of Muslims in American (Part 4 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 4: Islam and the Founding Fathers

Let’s move from Spanish-speaking America to English-speaking America. The religious worldview of the English colonists and their American-born descendants was driven mostly by memories of the Protestant-Catholic conflict that dominated much of British history. Unlike the Spanish, the English had never had to confront a threat of Islamic conquest or homeland security concerns over conquered Muslim populations. The English view of Islam at that time was, I think, more remote and more academic, influenced mostly by business transactions with Ottoman traders, and concern over Barbary pirates threatening British shipping in the Mediterranean. (More on that in a moment.)

Looking backward at the religious wars of Europe, and looking around at the wide variety of Christian denominations in colonial America (many of them established as state religions), and concerned over interstate religious rivalries and possible attempts to establish a federal religion at the expense of all others, the Framers of the Constitution were no-kidding serious when they said that there would be no religious tests for federal offices and later added the 1stamendment prohibition against federal laws concerning religion. There’s no mention of Jesus, or God, in the Constitution, but the Founders could quite easily have established America as an exclusively Christian democracy had they wanted to.

A great many Christian apologists (and notorious pseudo-historians like David Barton) have repeated claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, or that even if it weren’t explicitly so the Framers implicitly understood American culture as Christian, and that they intended American government to be inclusive only to various flavors of Christianity, at least Protestant Christianity. But is any of this true?

As we’ll see, the Founders and Framers often cast a very wide net when describing their conceptions of religious liberty, and often used Muslims (variously described by antique or inaccurate terms like “Mahometans, Mohammedans, Musselmen, Moors, Turks, infidels, muftis,” etc.) as examples of people who would definitely fall under the protection of—and even be allowed full participation in—the American system.

In 1739, Benjamin Franklin praised the construction of a facility in Philadelphia intended as a meeting place for all religions. He wrote “Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”

In 1765, Thomas Jefferson bought an English-translation copy of the Quran (he would own more than one during his lifetime). As we heard earlier, one of those copies made it into the collection of the Library of Congress.

In 1784, George Washington responded to a letter asking what kind of workmen he wanted at Mt. Vernon, writing, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews, or Christians of any Sect, or they may be Atheists.”

In 1786, the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, became law. Jefferson was especially pleased that the House of Delegates had rejected an amendment to add “Jesus Christ” to this otherwise denominationally neutral bill. Jefferson confirmed that this new law “meant to comprehend, within its mantle of protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of every denomination.”

John Leland, a Baptist minister and ardent supporter of universal religious liberty, wrote in 1790: “The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever. … Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” (I should pause here to note the irony of a 18th century Baptist advocating for absolute religious liberty and for the separation of church and state. How far his 21st century brethren have drifted away from their roots.)

Finally, it should be noted that In the history of the American Revolution, a few names appear that are obviously Muslim or show Islamic influence, including “Yusuf Ben Ali” and “Bampett Muhamad.”

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A Brief History of Muslims in American (Part 3 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 3: Moriscos in the Spanish Colonial Period

It entirely possible—in fact, probable—that the first Muslim to visit America came as part of a Spanish crew, either with Columbus himself, or with one of the many subsequent missions of exploration or conquest.

To understand how this came to be, we should remind ourselves that Muslims ruled most or part of the Iberian Peninsula beginning in 711. This came to an end in 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella finally completed the so-called Reconquest.

Very soon thereafter the new Christian rulers ordered the expulsion or forcible conversion of the Jewish and Muslim populations. Converted Muslims were called “moriscos” (meaning “Moorish”), but the fact was that while many of these people were nominally converts to Christianity, many of them still privately or secretly considered themselves Muslims.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of moriscos sailed as part of Spanish crews to the new World during the Spanish exploration and conquest of America. And one of those men was the first Muslim in the New World.

We may never identify for certain the first Muslim in America, but one candidate is a man called Estebanico, sometimes also called Esteban the Moor, Esteban de Dorantes, or Steven the Moor.

Born in Morocco around 1500, he was sold as a slave in 1522 to Spanish nobleman Andres Dorantes de Carranza, and sailed with his master in 1527 to the Caribbean.

He was supposedly raised a Muslim and converted to Roman Catholicism soon after his enslavement, but it would not be crazy to suggest that his conversion was not altogether sincere.

In any event, Estebanico sailed to the New World and eventually became part of the extremely ill-fated Narvaez expedition, which began in 1528 with 300 men intending to establish Spanish settlements on the Florida Gulf Coast.

The expedition soon ran afoul of the natives, and led to (among other things) shipwreck near present-day Galveston, Texas, and an arduous journey on foot across South Texas and down into Western Mexico. At the end of this ordeal, in 1536, only four men of 300 had survived, including Estebanico.

Estebanico was later employed as a scout for Spanish expeditions into what is now the American Southwest, and is believed to have been murdered by the villagers of Hawikuh, New Mexico.

Nobody can say for certain how many Estebanicos came to America. It’s not hard to imagine that many moriscos who remained secretly faithful to Islam came to the New World, settled down, and started families, during the Spanish colonial period. They passed on their DNA in the New World, if not their faith.

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A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 2 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 2: Did Muslims Discover America?

Nobody knows for certain who was the first Muslim to reach the New World.

There’s general agreement that the first prehistoric people came via waves of migration from Asia starting about 20,000 years ago. The historical consensus is that the Vikings later “discovered” America around the year 1,000, with Christopher Columbus following about 500 years later.

Naturally, non-European cultures would love to snatch the glory from the Vikings and Columbus, and claim the honor of American discovery for themselves. China, Japan, India, Africa, the Middle East—all have thinly supported or completely unsupported theories of pre-European contact. So it should come as no surprise that the Islamic world makes such claims.

An admiral with the impressive name of Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad supposedly sailed westward from Islamic Spain in the 10thcentury, returning some time later with booty from a “strange and curious land.” (If his story is true at all, it’s far more likely he visited the Azores, the Canary Islands, or even just part of West Africa.) And as late as 2014, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech, “In fact, Muslim sailors reached the American continent 314 years before Columbus, in 1178. In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba.” Level heads counter that Columbus was merely describing the appearance of a geographical feature rather than literally claiming to have seen a mosque.

Another claim involving Islamic discovery comes from the other side of the world. Admiral Zheng He (pronounced “zhung huh” was a real-life person, a Chinese Muslim born in southern China in 1371, who became a major player in 15thcentury China. During the early 1400s, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions using extraordinarily large ships (120 meters long, by some accounts) and thousands of men, which traveled throughout the China Sea, and along the coasts of Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and even the Arabia peninsula and East Africa.

But did Zheng He also discover America? This remarkable claim is outlined in a 2003 book titled 1421: The Year China Discovered America, by retired British naval officer and amateur historian Gavin Menzies, who has been roundly criticized by mainstream historians and scholars for playing fast and loose with the facts.

The only notable corroboration for Menzies comes from a Chinese lawyer named Liu Gang, who owns a world map, supposedly drawn in the mid 1400s based on information from Zheng He, that shows the New World in extraordinary detail.

As intriguing as these claims are, there is currently no archaeological evidence for a pre-Columbian Islamic presence in the Western Hemisphere, and no credible historian who supports such a theory.

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