American-Islam relationship pre-9/11

One of the fundamental differences between the US and Europe, particularly on the continent, is that the US doesn’t have as long and well-known of a history with the Islamic world. It is true that there are very few Muslims in the country historically. As of 2015, the Muslim population of the US was around 1% of the total population, and that’s the peak of the population in the country. Yet, one can look and find traces of influence of Muslims in American politics.

In fact, if one looks to the founding of the US, one of the earliest countries to formally recognize the US was Morocco in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Even in later years, the Founders had good relations with the Moroccan sultanate, so much so that the South Carolina legislature passed the Moors-Sundry Act, giving Moroccans special privileges over other Africans (who were slaves). This continues with John Adams and the Treaty of Tripoli and the relations with Tunisia during Jefferson’s administration.

That’s history, but what about at the philosophical level? While Senator John McCain may have stated that American principles and Islam are fundamentally at odds, this contradicts the Founding Father’s views on Islam. John Adams believed that Muhammed (“Mahomet”)’s views were among the ennobled figures of other religions and in line with the vision of the new government that was being created. In fact, Jefferson recounts in a draft of his autobiography that, during the constitutional debates, there was explicit argument about the universality of the freedom of religion:

“the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

– Thomas Jefferson, draft of autobiography, 1821

Looking further to the original population of the US, The original religion of some slaves in the US was most likely Islam, especially given the common origin of most African slaves in West Africa. Of course, to a white supremacist, 3/5 of a person doesn’t really count in the census of original Americans.

One of the more interesting ideas coming out of the “War on Terror” era is the idea that al-jihad (literally, “the struggle”) is inherently militaristic and threatening to the West (in a not so subtle revival of the “Yellow Peril” propaganda of the previous decades). However, this is a classic case of American elites’ amnesia over the older connotation of the word in American media. While one could argue that jihad is a mental rather than physical struggle, another more glaring contradiction to the narrative is the US’s own position on this term. During the Bosnian Civil War of the 1990s, the US did would be viewed as unthinkable today. The American government under Bill Clinton supported the Muslim Bosniaks by using NATO air strikes on Christian Serb targets. In fact, the term jihad at that point was used as a synonym for Muslim solidarity, rather than terrorism. At that time, the idea of containing communism far surpassed any threat of a religious group. The Serbs were communists and therefore in the wrong. It was different world then.

The largest population of Arab Muslims is in Dearborn, MI, which is not big by any standard. That should give a sense of how small the Muslim population is in the US. However, despite its relatively small Muslim population, the US clearly has a long history of religious tolerance that includes Islam, one which should be looked at when it comes to how to move forward in the era of illegal wars.


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