It took the 9/11 terrorist attacks 15 years ago for many Americans to realize that America is home to a lot of Muslims. As I mentioned here yesterday, the American Muslim population estimates range from 3.3 million to perhaps 10 million.
This widespread failure to recognize and appreciate Muslim presence in this country was more evidence of how often we Americans live in cultural, ethnic and religious silos, unexposed to our neighbors and unaware of our own history.
Prof. Amir Hussain's new book, Muslims and the Making of America, aims to fill in the gap in our historical understanding. It does so effectively, quickly and quite engagingly. (I've linked you to the book's Amazon page on the title of the volume above, but here's the link to the book's Baylor University Press page.)
Hussain, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University on Los Angeles, takes a broad-sweep look at the many ways Muslims have been part of American life since -- and even before -- the days of slavery, when many Muslims were captured in Africa, chained and sold to Americans. Hussain says scholars estimate that at least 10 percent of the slaves brought here from West Africa were Muslims. In fact, he writes, George Washington, "our first president, the father of our country, owned Muslim slaves, who helped to build Mount Vernon."
Islam has been in the United States for a long, long time, and Hussain gives us fascinating details about that. As an important religion in America, it has captured the imagination, as well as the allegiance, of many African-Americans, who today make up something like 40 percent of American Muslims. For some of them, the conversion to Islam is a return to the faith of their African ancestors.
Hussain's argument is three-fold: Islam is not new to the U.S. It is not "un-American." And it is not full of violent extremists who want to overthrow this nation. Some facts he uses to bolster his case:
-- There have been mosques in America since at least 1915.
-- Islam has been part of the pluralistic American religious landscape for centuries, and as one of the three Abrahamic faiths its tenets are neither mysterious nor subversive.
-- Only a minuscule number of American Muslims has turned to violent extremism. And when many Muslims in the U.S. have seen such terrorism on the part of Muslims elsewhere, they have condemned it, even though they aren't responsible for it.
Islam's presence in the U.S. often goes unrecognized, the author argues. For instance, many Americans are unaware that "an imagine of the Prophet Muhammad, holding both a sword and a Qur'an, was added to a frieze on the walls of the U.S. Supreme Court."
Hussain describes the interesting history of the founding of the Nation of Islam in the early 20th Century and how some decades later many of its members walked away from its provocative teachings about white people being devils and, instead, embraced traditional Sunni Islam.
More: Did you know that the first national Muslim conference in America was held in 1952 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa? Why there? Well, there has been a deeply rooted Muslim community there in the middle of the nation for a long time.
Did you know the founder of Atlantic Records and eventually chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Ahmet Ertegun, was an American Muslim?
Yes, you've heard of boxer Muhammad Ali -- once the most famous man in the world as an American Muslim -- and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the best NBA player in history, but are you aware of the architects, prize-winning scientists, artists and other musicians who were and are American Muslims?
They're all in this book, including two Muslims who are members of Congress (so, in the spirit of equality, we can blame them along with other members for the state of things today).
Sometimes Hussain goes off into needless and beside-the-point details, but his message is an important one both for American Muslims and for non-Muslim Americans who are trying to figure out how to live in a country in which white Protestants no longer run the place.
"American Muslims," Hussain writes, "are an American success story, solidly middle class and mostly professional."
If that's not your impression, you (and many other non-Muslim Americans) have been sadly misinformed.
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THERE AT THE CREATION
As we mourn the death of Shimon Peres, it's worth paying attention to the ways in which he was engaged in almost every development in Israel from the time the Jewish state declared its existence in 1948. The Atlantic piece to which I've linked you does a pretty good job of describing that.