Islam in America

Islam in America

This essay is based on a presentation to FPRI’s 2003 History Institute for Teachers on The American Encounter with Islam,” May 3-4, 2003. Forty teachers from fourteen states participated in the conference, which featured lectures by seven distinguished scholars.

Though most of us think of the American relationship with Islam as a modern phenomenon, the encounter in fact goes back to the very first days of the nation. That encounter was from its first a troubled affair and involves the origins of U.S. military and diplomatic affairs. American conflicts with Muslim states in North Africa provide the opening to Max Boot’s fine analysis of The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power, and we all probably know a little about “The Shores of Tripoli.” We may not know that these events occasioned the first draft of our national anthem. In response to these wars, around 1805, Francis Scott Key composed a patriotic song that described how

In the conflict resistless each toil they endured,
‘Till their foes fled dismayed from the war’s desolation;
And pale beamed the crescent, its splendor obscured
By the light of the star-spangled flag of our nation.
Where each radiant star gleamed a meteor of war,
And the turbaned heads bowed to its terrible glare,
Now mixed with the olive the laurel shall wave,
And form a bright wreath for the brow of the brave.
The tune would become “The Star Spangled Banner.”

In short, there is a long record of antipathy between America and at least certain Muslim states, if not Islam itself. Muslims in America have been trying for a long time to make themselves recognized as fully American. Two years ago, they thought they had achieved their greatest victory when finally the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp with the Arabic words for Eid Mubarak, “blessed holiday.” In a case of disastrous timing, the stamp came out on September 1, 2001. But the achievement of that stamp showed that Muslims had the self-confidence to feel deserving of representation as an American community. Politicians now routinely speak of church, synagogue and mosque. It is ironic in light of recent events that one of the great criticisms of the Bush administration in its first few months was that it was too closely tied to Muslim causes in this country.

In the last couple of years, as Islam has grown as a presence in this country, Muslims have tried to write themselves into the early history of America, in the way that every immigrant group does to some extent. (Think of nineteenth century Minnesota Swedes erecting bogus runestones as proof of Viking settlement.) If we look at a modern book about Muslims in America, we will read stories about Moriscos, crypto-Muslims, among the conquistadors, and we read claims about Islam among African slaves in this country. There is indeed some sort of Muslim presence, but it is far thinner than is often claimed. The slavers who raided Africa and brought captives to the American colonies deliberately avoided Muslim territories as much as possible. And colonial society was certainly inhospitable to Muslim religious practices, the Islam that was brought vanished quickly, it being difficult to keep up any sort of Muslim identity. So we have to be suspicious about some claims that are made about this part of the world. Things were different in South America, and in Brazil, where there were Muslim slave rebellions through the nineteenth century.

The First Strand

There were three distinct waves of Muslim immigration. The earliest phase was a substantial immigration of Muslim traders-merchants, shopkeepers, peddlers-throughout the United States, and these have left traces in all sorts of odd places. The oldest known Muslim group for organized prayer in America dates to 1900 in Ross, North Dakota. Over the first twenty or thirty years of the twentieth century, little Muslim groups show up around the country, especially a major concentration around Detroit, where the Ford works provided a major magnet for workers and traders. The first permanent designated mosque as a mosque in the United States dates to 1934, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

American Islam is distinctive. These Muslims tend to be from today’s Syria and Lebanon. Thus, it is disproportionately drawn from Islam’s Shiite traditions, and its offshoots, the Druzes and the Alawites, which Sunni Muslims find suspect, and even doubt their Muslim credentials. Most questionable from a strict Muslim perspective is the Druze idea of incarnationism, the idea that human beings can be manifestations of the divine-that God became incarnate as a particular figure.

By the 1940s, Muslims were quite widespread across the United States, and by 1952, an organization was established which a couple years later changed its name to The Federation of Islamic Associations, which originally had 52 mosques across the United States. It was also then that for the first time American servicemen were allowed to list their religion as Muslim. In addition to those 50 FIA mosques, there were African-American mosques, which represent an especially interesting part of the story.

African-American Islam emerged in the early part of the twentieth century, originating on what might be called the far fringes of Islam. Over the century, it became more orthodox and mainstream. The first Muslim organization among black Americans, the Moorish Science Temple (MST), was founded in New Jersey in 1913 by Noble Drew Ali. It had a lot of strange ideas, including secret scriptures, very new age-y ideas, and in fact, when the FBI in the 1940s obtained a copy of the MST’s Holy Quran, it was an adapted version of a new-age, channeled scripture called the Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, adapted to become an Islamic document. Noble Drew Ali vanished in 1929. The MST was a strange body, but it introduced the idea of Islam among black Americans, and brought Islam home as a possible alternative.

Nation of Islam

In 1930, a man named Wallace Ford or Wali Farad appeared in Detroit, who claimed to be Hawaiian or Polynesian. He created a new religion, the Lost-found Nation of Islam. This won enormous support in the Detroit area during the 1930s and was the root of the modern black tradition of Islam. But it was a strange kind of Islam. Wallace Ford taught a doctrine that appalled Muslims-sheer blasphemy-which is that he was God. (During the recent sniper shootings in the D.C. area, one sniper letter to the police seems to be quoting Ford by declaring “I am God.”) Almost certainly, Wallace Ford was a Druz or Alawite from Lebanon, and thus represented an ancient tradition that went back at least a thousand years-a stream flowing from Lebanon to Detroit. Ford taught strange doctrines like incarnationism. He taught a non-Muslim doctrine of massive racial difference-blacks were the chosen people, and whites evil products of a mad scientist, a genetic experiment gone wrong. After his disappearance, Ford was followed by Elijah Mohammed, who was one of the great religious entrepreneurs in modern America. The Nation of Islam was important because it took these bizarre, heretical ideas and introduced the presence of Islam into African-American communities. Americans became familiar with Islam, albeit in this strange form.

By the 1960s, the Nation of Islam was in deep crisis. First, it had a long tradition of internal violence and civil strife. Also, more and more of its members were drawn to orthodox Islam. In 1975, when Elijah Muhammad died, his son Warith Din, “heir of the faith,” began a massive move of the Nation of Islam toward orthodox Islam. Today, the Nation of Islam represents a tiny part of this much larger body. (The term “Black Muslim,” the term by which the Nation of Islam was originally known, creates confusion between the Black Muslim movement–the NOI–and Black Americans who are Muslim. The vast majority of Black Americans who are Muslim are orthodox, not NOI followers, an important distinction.)

When talking about Islam, we must recall that the various fragments of Islam are all Islam, rather than separate creeds. The 150 millions Shiite Muslims represent 15% of total Muslims worldwide. If the Shiites were a separate religion, they would be the world’s fifth largest in their own right. They are a very important part of the religion, though much underestimated in the West.

The Third Strand

In 1965, the Immigration Act was passed. Contrary to expectations, it led to a huge influx of people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and it transformed the nation’s population. Islam was one of the great beneficiaries. The estimated size of the American Muslim population ranges from 2 million to 15 million. A consensus estimate would be about 4.5 million. Of those, roughly 42 percent would be African Americans, 25 percent would be people from India and Pakistan, and about 12 percent would be Arab.

Of course, “Muslim” and “Arab” are not synonymous terms. The vast majority of Muslims worldwide are not Arab, and in the United States, 75 percent of Arabs are Christian. There is a whole history to be written on Christian-Arab radicalism in the Middle East in the twentieth century, a phase which is now passing but has had an impact in this country. Back in the 1970s, the Palestinians who hijacked airliners had Orthodox Christian chaplains who would bless the teams going out. Palestinian radical groups operating in this country, such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, are Christian Arab as well as Muslim.

What are some of the new issues affecting these communities to date? One is their sheer newness. There has been a remarkable growth in the number of mosques in religious communities. In the 1950s, there were, counting African- American mosques, probably 150. Today, there are about 1250, most of them set up in the past 20 or 25 years. These mosques are trying to operate as they would in the Middle East. For example, they have to import talented religious experts, importing a hafiz who can recite the whole Quran. American Islam still doesn’t have many who can do this, so we find American mosques talent-spotting in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

What are some of the political issues facing American Muslims today? One is Islamic schools, which have mushroomed in the last twenty years. They have attracted controversy because of the suggestion that they often teach radicalism, separatism, and terrorism. Local newspapers have observed the Muslim schools and reported the singing of dangerous songs and use of subversive materials. The problem is that the easiest way for a mosque to get such materials is from the well-funded Islamic foundations and bodies, which are happy to provide materials, books, free Qurans. The problem is that the money behind these is often associated with a very narrow, intolerant kind of Islam, and that brings me back to the idea of what is Islam.

As an analogy, imagine that back in the 1920s, it turned out that all the oil in the world was found in Tennessee and it was entirely run by a few families of fundamental Baptists. And over the next few years, they made it their mission to spread the message of Christianity, but it was going to be their version of Christianity: This is Christianity, accept no substitute. That’s rather what happened in terms of the enormous wealth of Saudi Arabia and the kind of Islam it represents. Online, massive amounts of information about Islam are available from Saudi-funded organizations. In practice, this means Wahhabi Islam: a narrow, strict, puritanical Islam that sets itself apart from other equally authentic kinds of Islam. Like most fundamentalist faiths, this particular variant is modern, an eighteenth-century movement. It has no more monopoly on Islamic truth than the hypothetical Tennessee Baptists would have on authentic Christians.

This division raises problems for Shiite Muslims in particular. Many Shiite Islam ideas (shrines, saints, pilgrimages) sound attractive from a Catholic Christian perspective. Wahhabi Muslims believe these are pagan ideas but Shiism is nonetheless important worldwide. In Pakistan for instance, there is a very strong Shiite influence. Equally vulnerable to Wahhabi attack is the Sufi tradition, which has produced some of the greatest glories in Islam. This includes the mysticism, poetry, art, music-concepts that infuriate the Wahhabis.

We can see these religious conflicts erupting on American soil, for instance in the New York state prison system. Islam is a major presence in American prisons, and many would say that this is a good thing because the Muslim influence can encourage people to get their lives together, to get off drink or drugs, to learn self discipline. In the New York prison system today, about 15% of inmates are Muslim. Recently, there was a lot of criticism of Warith Din Omar, the senior chaplain of the New York system, after his statements describing the 9/11 attackers as martyrs and the attacks as something that America had brought on itself. This provoked a systematic investigation of the chaplains in the New York system, all of whom were appointed under Omar’s auspices, which investigation found a great deal of extremist, Wahhabi sentiment. For example, Omar would not minister to Shiite prisoners because he did not view them as real Muslims. In response, Shiite Muslim groups offered to provide chaplains who would teach real Islamic tolerance.

Issues concerning Muslim chaplains and the kind of religion they teach also appear in the armed forces and in universities. As in the prisons, there can be a lot of tensions, not just between Islam and U.S. policy, but between particular kinds of Islam.

Another recent issue has involved charity, one of the five pillars of Islam. Recently, though, there have been publicized cases of specific Muslim charities such as the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development being terrorist conduits. Reportedly, some American Muslims now know that they have an obligation to give to charity, but they are afraid to give because they don’t know what happens to these gifts. Muslims also complain of a double standard. Irish Americans have no qualms about giving to groups that are going to support nationalist causes in Ireland. Different people from different ethnic groups are quite happy to give to different causes in their homeland or wherever they feel a historic link to, so why are Muslims blamed for supporting Palestinian causes? Their view is, we are not giving to anti-American causes, we just support our kith and kin overseas. That is a sensitive topic and leads Muslims to believe that they are not properly trusted or acknowledged as patriotic Americans.

There is one analogy from American history: a large religious group that was regarded as being violent, brainwashing its children in schools, and using its places of worship to stockpile weapons to overthrow the government. It was the Roman Catholic Church in the mid-late nineteenth century. Catholics, too, were accused of setting their religion above the state. The charge was that a real Catholic could not be a real American, though ultimately those ideas faded in the second and third generations, as Americanization progressed. Absolutely nothing that has been said about Muslim schools in the last five years was not said about Catholic schools a hundred years ago. Then a good Protestant audience would be regaled about the bloodthirsty secret oath of the Knights of Columbus to destroy the United States. This fear of immigrant religions is a potent American inheritance. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had 5 million members in the United States, and it was primarily an anti-Catholic movement. Without trivializing genuine fears about Islamist terrorism or subversion, one would hope that, ultimately, Islam will Americanize, just as Catholicism Americanized during the twentieth century.

In summary, Islam may not be as strong numerically as many people may believe, but it is an important presence. We are moving towards a phase when Americans will have to consider three religious symbols: the church, the synagogue, and the mosque.