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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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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