A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 1 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 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.

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My upcoming presentation to the Atlanta Freethought Society

If you’re going to be in metro Atlanta this Sunday, May 13th, come visit the Atlanta Freethought Society and hear my new presentation, “A Brief History of Muslims in America.” It’s an overview of the Muslim experience in the United States, from colonial times to the 21st century.

Meet at noon for socializing. Show starts at 1pm. Here’s the address:

Atlanta Freethought Society, 4775 North Church Lane SE, Atlanta, GA 30339

See you there!

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20,000 Days

Today I have been alive 54 years, 9 months and 3 days.

20,000 days.

Most people (myself included) reserve the waxing philosophical for significant milestones like 4oth or 50th birthdays. And that’s fine. But not too long ago, for reasons I can’t recall, I calculated the number of days I’d been alive, and it was marching close to the 20,000 mark. So I set a calendar reminder.

It’s pretty sobering, really. That’s a LOT of days, and yet I can’t recall anything important on any but a very few of them. Where did the time go? Why haven’t I accomplished more? SHOULD I have accomplished more?

It’s been a pretty good life so far. I think I’ve gotten a few worthwhile things done. No time for regrets.

Will I see 30,000 days? That’s August 10, 2045. I’d be 82 years old. The average lifespan of an American is currently 78.74 years. So the statistics say I have less than a 50/50 chance of seeing my 30,000th day. Talk about sobering, and more than a little depressing.

(For the record, the oldest living person today is Japan’s Nabi Tajima. Born August 4, 1900, she is now 42,967 days old! Only three other people in history are known to have lived longer than she has.)

If anything, this odd milestone has given me a newfound determination to live life to the fullest, to be aware of the consequences of my actions, to remember how precious my time is, and to make every single day–whether it’s my 20,000th or any other–count for something.

Onward to 30,000!

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Books I’m Reading 2018

The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould (1980) – Gould’s first long-form book, it’s a look at the history of “biological determinism” (i.e. scientific racism, the mis-use of science in the service of preconceived biases, downright bad science, etc.). It’s an important book that anticipated the “correlation between race and IQ” controversy stirred up by 1994’s The Bell Curve (indeed, the latter book prompted a re-issue of TMoM with considerable new material by Gould). It’s an important book, no doubt, but I found it a bit of a plod.

The Panda’s Thumb by Stephen Jay Gould (1980) – The second collection of pop-science essays by the late paleontologist.

Babylon 5 Book #1: Voices by John Vornholt (1995) – Okay, a guilty pleasure. I was a big fan of the 90s TV series Babylon 5, and while it can seem pretty dated nowadays, it was a pioneering show that dared to tell a long-form story (each season can be considered a book, with each episode a chapter) that paid homage to (without coming across as a ripoff of) many, many classic sci-fi books, movies and TV shows that came before. Anyway, several supplemental novels and novelizations were published, and I finally managed to scrape them all together. This first one by Vornholt is a  a clunker, with workmanlike prose, some cringingly sexist language, and unforgiveable scientific errors (Vornholt depicts the Martian atmosphere as too hot to survive in, when even amateur astronomers have known for decades that the danger on Mars’ surface is extreme cold and near-vacuum). For B5 completists only.

Ever Since Darwin by Stephen Jay Gould (1977) – The first collection of pop-science essays by the late paleontologist who contributed the concept of “punctuated equilibrium” to evolutionary science, and championed the (in my opinion, dangerous and erroneous) idea of “nonoverlapping magisteria” (i.e. that science and religion pursue different aims, and therefore need not be in conflict). In any case, Gould was a master at short-form science commentary, and his hundreds of essays on science history and scientific/cultural controversy are still highly readable and (in some cases) disappointingly still relevant.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) – Atwood’s dystopian classic (about a future fragmented America where fertile women are rare, and a fundamentalist regime enslaves them as “handmaids.” Beautifully written and still enragingly pertinent. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know it’s been faithfully adapted as a TV series on Hulu. The first season coincides with the end of the book, but a second season is on the way, extrapolating from the end of the source material with input from Atwood herself. Read this.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer (1960) – One of the earliest popular histories of World War II by a journalist who was stationed in Germany during Hitler’s reign and through much of the war itself. Later historians have criticized Shirer in various ways, but I think this is a very good book to read if you want an idea of how the German people turned over power to the Nazis, how and why the Allied Powers missed numerous opportunities to rein in Hitler, and how Hitler’s insatiable ambition and limited strategic capacity led to Germany’s catastrophic downfall. Sometimes Shirer gets bogged down in too much detail; sometimes he engages in gratuitous descriptions of the primary characters (e.g. calling Goebbels “corpulent” but never mentioning that Churchill was overweight); and perhaps it was part of Shirer’s generation, but in several instances he seems preoccupied with the sexual orientation of various Nazi players (e.g. calling homosexuals “perverts” and the like). At over 1100 pages plus references, it’s a bug-crusher, but well-worth your time if you’re interested in WWII and how it was viewed during its near aftermath.

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1st Episode of Politically Incorrect

His occasional stupidity on vaccines and alternative medicine notwithstanding, I remain a big fan of Bill Maher. I still can’t believe that his current HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher has lasted LONGER than the show that put him on the map: Politically Incorrect, which started on Comedy Central and later moved to ABC. Anyway, I stumbled on this recording of the very first episode from 1993. His guests included Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Quivers (of Howard Stern fame). Bill started out nervously in front of what sounds like an audience of twelve, but he obviously found his stride, since he’s been at it for 24 years!

 

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My Interview with Challenging Opinions

Check out my interview in episode 8 of William Campbell’s Challenging Opinions podcast. We talked about my review of Omar Saif Ghobash’s recent book Letters to a Young Muslim, and about the worldwide struggle over the future of Islam. I’m certainly no expert on Islam, and my voice was a bit shot from a recent cold, but overall it was a good conversation–William’s a great interviewer–and the conversation was fun. Be sure to leave feedback and subscribe to Challenging Opinions!

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A Colony and a Nation by Chris Hayes

A Colony in a Nation Catalog adjusted IL.inddI’ve been reading a lot of books lately that touch on African-American history as well as current issues like the Black Lives Matter movement: older works like W.E.B. du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk and the essays of Lillian Smith, but also new works like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s heartbreaking Between the World and Me. (I also heartily recommend the new Netflix documentary 13th, which covers much of the same territory.)

I think you have to be living under a rock, or willfully delusional, not to understand that, for whatever reasons (conscious or unconscious, accidental or deliberate), the United States justice and law enforcement systems treat black suspects far more severely and view all black citizens with far more suspicion than the general (read: white) populace. You may deny this truth, but to steal from Coates: “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.” Continue reading

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A Week of Firsts

snider_march_2017-02-25

John C. Snider at the ACA March, Atlanta, GA, February 25, 2017

A week of firsts:

  • My first protest march.
  • My first political planning meeting.
  • My first cash contribution to a political campaign.

Due to previous social and personal obligations, neither Allison nor I was able to participate in the Women’s March (Atlanta version) that took place the day after the Marmalade Charlatan’s inauguration. (Allison did, however, knit several pussyhats, which were well-received and went to good use.) So, I did not want to miss the opportunity to show support for the Affordable Care Act (aka ACA aka Obamacare) in a march in downtown Atlanta yesterday. It was hard to tell from the middle of it all how many participated, but I’d say easily over 1,000 people. Modest, yes, but I think every little bit helps in trying to put some fear into both the Republicans in power and the Democrats in opposition, showing them that there are Americans who want progress in this country, and we’re going to hold them accountable for what they do (or don’t do) about it. Continue reading

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In Praise of Ka’ahumanu

kaahumanu

My wife and I plan to vacation in Hawaii later this year, and in preparation we decided to read a few books about Hawaiian history and culture. Among the books I recommend are Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell and Captive Paradise by James L. Haley. (Both books cover the period from European discovery of the islands through American annexation, roughly 1778 through 1898; if you’re in a pinch, Vowell’s book is shorter and funnier, but if you have time Haley’s book is deeply researched and quite compelling.)

One of the most fascinating historical figures we’ve read about–and, honestly, one of the overlooked feminist and freethought heroes of history–is Queen Ka’ahumanu (c. 1768 – 1832). She was one of the wives of Kamehameha the Conqueror, the man who, using newly available Western weaponry, was the first to unite the islands under a single crown. Ka’ahumanu was an imposing woman, by most accounts over six feet tall and north of 400 pounds, but she was also well-known for her intelligence, kindness and humor.

For centuries, Hawaiian society had been deeply stratified, with a squabbling nobility that, in partnership with the kahunas (the priestly class), ruled with near-absolute impunity over the longsuffering peasants. Hawaiian religion was both harsh and capricious, often requiring human sacrifice, and characterized by a complicated system of kapus (i.e. taboos, many of which, if broken, carried a sentence of death). Women were (oddly) forbidden from eating common foods like bananas and pork, and it was death for men and women to eat together. For a peasant’s shadow to touch the Queen was also death, but it is well-documented that Ka’ahumanu routinely pardoned the inevitable infractions. (Indeed, Ka’ahumanu, according to the rules of rank that governed Hawaiian society, was so high in the pecking order that even the Conqueror had to show obeisance in her presence.)

Things came to a head with the death of the Conqueror in 1819. His son and successor, Liholiho (also called Kamehameha II) was a drunkard and a poor ruler, and Ka’ahumanu, along with Keopuolani (another of the Conqueror’s widows, and the mother of Liholiho), conspired to bring down the kapu system or die trying.

During a royal feast, Ka’ahumanu rose and delivered a short but eloquent speech, which she concluded by saying, “We intend to be free from kapu. We intend that the husband’s food and the wife’s food shall be cooked in the same oven, and that they shall be permitted to eat from the same calabash. We intend to eat pork and bananas and coconuts. If you think differently you are at liberty to do so; but for me and my people we are resolved to be free. Let us henceforth disregard kapu.” Liholiho’s mother then urged him to join the women, but when he relented, she recruited his six-year-old brother to break the taboo.  No one moved against them, and a short time later Liholiho fell in line.

Within a matter of months, a religious system that had developed over the span of 1,000 years was ended, its idols burned, its sacred places plowed under, and replaced by…nothing. In 1819 there were only a few hundred foreigners (Americans, Brits, etc.) living on the islands, and no one had yet mounted a serious attempt to proselytize the natives. For good or bad, this would soon change. In 1820 a ship carrying the first of dozens of New England missionaries arrived, delighted to hear that the islanders had abandoned their pagan ways, making it much easier to persuade them to turn their hearts to Jesus Christ. Among the converts were Ka’ahumanu and Keopuolani. For all its wrongness, at least Christianity wasn’t demanding human sacrifices or execution for an errant shadow.

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Letters to a Young Muslim

letterstoayoungmuslimHardly anyone would disagree that Islam is at war. But who defines what it is to be a Muslim? And who exactly are the combatants? These two questions are almost impossible to answer, and without answers it is nearly impossible to solve the global problem of Islamic-fueled violence.

Many non-Muslims are convinced that Islam is at war with Western civilization; that Islam is hopelessly retrograde and that violence is an inherent, inseparable aspect of Muslim belief. Some Muslims believe this too, no doubt, but others believe that Islam is at war with itself; that the Ummah (the worldwide community of Muslims) is in an epic struggle between those who hold a harsh, fundamentalist view of the faith and those who believe that Islam is flexible and adaptable, capable of addressing 21st century issues like women’s rights, democracy and “alternative” sexualities.

Ironically, this bitter, internecine conflict is intended to unify the Ummah; one side seeking to enforce an unyieldingly narrow interpretation of the Quran and Islamic history; the other side by creating a culture of tolerance, where many ways of being Muslim are recognized and tolerated, and where differences of religious opinion are resolved by discussion rather than bombs and beheadings.

This war will not be over soon; indeed, its resolution (if there ever is one) will rely on future generations. But the seeds of victory are being planted today, by both sides. Which seeds will flourish remains to be seen. While the fundamentalists plant seeds of hatred and intolerance, others–like Omar Saif Ghobash–are planting seeds of a more hopeful sort.

Ghobash is currently Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to Russia, and the author of the new book Letters to a Young Muslim (available in hardcover or for Kindle). Addressed primarily to his older son, Ghobash’s letters are part memoir, part history and part fatherly advice. Ghobash recounts his difficult childhood: his mother was Russian; his father (UAE’s first Foreign Minister) was assassinated when Omar was only six years old. Growing up as an English-educated “halfbreed” who spoke imperfect Arabic, Ghobash struggled to find his place within the Arab world. He expresses his heartfelt desire to be a good father, to raise his two young sons to be responsible, thoughtful Muslims in a world literally terrorized by horrific violence perpetrated in the name of Allah.

Letters to a Young Muslim, given its intended audience, is necessarily not as deep or as definitive an exploration of the problems currently plaguing the Islamic world as an adult reader might like. But it’s a good and necessary start. Ghobash repeatedly emphasizes the need to think, to empathize, to doubt authority and to be suspicious of those who insist that they have the answers. Islam, Ghobash insists, is capable of embracing modernity and all its controversies. What he doesn’t fully address is how Islam might accommodate issues like women’s equality, democracy, homosexuality and rapidly advancing science. In short, can Islam modernize in the ways that Christianity and Judaism have? Can “moderate” Muslims defang their rabid coreligionists? It won’t happen in this generation, but Ghobash hopes to pass a torch of tolerance and enlightenment to his sons.

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