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 1: Introduction
On January 3rd, 2007, Keith Ellison was sworn in as the Representative for Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District. He is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress.
Ellison made news right out of the gate by taking his oath of office, not on a Bible, but on a Quran borrowed from the Library of Congress for the occasion. And not just any Quran. The book Ellison used was a two-volume English translation, published in London in 1764, that was once owned by none other than Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States.
As you can imagine, many conservatives lost their minds. Some argued that only a Holy Bible should be used for swearings-in (although there is no legal requirement to use a Bible or any other publication while taking the oath of office).Republican Congressman Virgil Goode of Virginia expressed concern that allowing Ellison to serve would only encourage more Muslims to run for Congress. Conservative pundit Dennis Prager appealed to tradition, saying, “America, not Keith Ellison, decides what book a Congressman takes his oath on.” Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, then making his first run for the US Senate, insisted that (the Constitutional prohibition against religious tests for public office notwithstanding) the House of Representatives had the power to refuse to seat Ellison based on his Muslim identity.
Despite these protests, Ellison was able to take his oath of office in peace, and has served honorably for the last 11 years.
Congressman Goode’s prophecy came true, in a way. On March 11th, 2008, Ellison was joined by Andre Carson of Indiana’s 7th District. There are now two Muslims serving in Congress.
Part of the animosity against Congressman Ellison—against any American Muslim politician—can be explained by quite understandable but often misguided post-9/11 anxiety. This anxiety is not helped by the fact that America has always, unfortunately, had a dark undercurrent of religious bigotry, racism, general ignorance, and garden variety nativism.
And now, I would like to share with you what I’ve learned about the history of Muslims in America.