Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an:

Muslim fears and Muslim rights

posted by Nerina Rustomji

Thomas Jefferson's Qur'anMuslims played a crucial role in determining the full extent of religious liberty in the early history of the United States of America. Even though the founders did not know any actual Muslims, the figure of a Muslim represented two ideas about authority and belonging. The first idea drew upon European fears of Islamic authority. For Americans who were familiar with Enlightenment texts, Muslims, and particularly Turks, supported despotism and enslavement, and it was believed that if the United States did not stamp out monarchical tendencies, then it was in danger of replicating tyrannical systems represented by the Ottoman Empire. The second idea celebrated the promise of civic rights by including hypothetical Muslims as potential citizens and office-bearers of the United States. Denise Spellberg’s book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders demonstrates that fear of Muslims may have played a role in American cultural perceptions of the world, but it was the second idea about rights of Muslims that guided the founders as they built a government based on religious liberty.

For European strategists and writers, the Ottoman Empire was both an inspiring imperial power and a threat by providing an alternative to Christian Europe. Enlightenment writers drew on the image of the sultan to identify the limits of monarchical authority. Plays such as Voltaire’s Le Fanatisme and later Mahomet the Imposter presented scenes of Muhammad as a tyrant and Muslims as lustful monsters. Staged in the 1780s by both British and American troops, these plays and their variations continued to be popular well into the nineteenth century. Like Enlightenment thinkers, Americans found Islam a politically useful tool. For them, the image of a tyrannical sultan was the best example of political excess.

While the fear of Muslims borrows from an existing European prejudice against Islam as a political force and religion, Spellberg draws our attention to another more expansive idea where Muslim rights provided a litmus test for the United States as a place where religious identity would not determine civic inclusion. Instead, the founders valued reasoned principles of religious freedom rather than formulaic fears of religious minorities. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson argued in his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1777) for the inclusion of the “Jew and the Gentile, the Christian, and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.” The desire for religious liberty was significant enough that it was debated by North Carolina Federalists in their Ratification Convention of 1788. They affirmed that a Muslim, Jew, or Catholic could be president under the new Constitution. To exclude even the hypothetical Muslim was to allow religious favoritism. Yet, these debates were not just exercises in political theory. Baptist John Leland argued for the inclusion of Muslims, Catholics, and Jews as he sought protections for Baptists. These arguments for a hypothetical Muslim as citizen and president helped envision that actual Catholics, Jews, and Baptists would also have the same rights as mainstream Protestant citizens.

Even as the rights of Muslims became a way of understanding the terms of inclusion in the United States, the fear of Muslims never faded. In fact, to accuse someone of being a Muslim was a way to signal a dangerous foreign tendency. Thomas Jefferson himself was accused of being an infidel and a Muslim by President John Adams’s campaign during the 1800 presidential election. A similar accusation surfaced during the campaign of Barack Obama. A self-avowed Christian, Obama was born to a Muslim father. But the charge of being a Muslim was less about lineage and more about a diminishing of his faith, character, and patriotism. By the end of his second term, President Obama even acknowledged the larger history of the accusation when he mentioned that he was not the first person to be charged with being a Muslim in the United States, and that he had good company with Thomas Jefferson.

The idea of the Muslim as potential citizen and perceived threat, then, has a history that is deeply rooted in the foundation and architecture of the republic. But that history did not involve actual Muslims. Muslims may have provided the litmus test, but none of the founders knew a Muslim. The irony, of course, is that there were Muslims in America. But they were slaves from West Africa so they did not have any possibility of achieving the promise of equal rights. In fact, the first acknowledged Muslims were nineteenth-century Arab immigrants.

The opposing political notions of fearing Muslims and upholding Muslim rights still exist today. During President Obama’s two terms, the fear of Muslims proved to be useful for political mobilization. On a local and state level, examples include refusals to build mosques and anti-Shari’a bills. More dramatic moments included protests against building an Islamic community center at Park 51 near the World Trade Center in 2010 or the Florida preacher Terry Jones’s commemoration of the ten-year anniversary of 9/11 by burning a Qur’an. These charges about the legitimacy of Islam stood alongside a continued effort to cast suspicions upon Obama’s faith and citizenship.

Yet, the assertion of Muslim rights as a part of the American political landscape was highlighted, as well. During his endorsement of Obama in 2008, Colin Powell defended Islam in America. After noting that Obama was a Christian, Powell asks a critical question: “Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is no. That’s not America. Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?” He bolstered his argument by acknowledging the death of American soldier Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan who died in Iraq in 2007. In fact, scholarship suggests that Muslim soldiers may have fought in the United States military during the Revolutionary War. American Muslim soldiers also fought in the War of 1812, Civil War, World War I, World War II, Korean War, Vietnam, and Gulf Wars I and II.

Today, we see an active drumming up of fear of Muslims at the expense of Muslim rights. As a candidate, Donald Trump promised a Muslim ban as he evoked a vision of America where people who seemed foreign had no place. His mythical America ignores that the United States was built by slave labor and by generations of immigrants, including Europeans who were perceived as a threatening other. With his executive orders on immigration, his administration sets out to fulfill the campaign promise by categorizing and classifying refugees, immigrants, visitors, and citizens by religion. Increased hate crimes also signal that his “America First” message inspires an unraveling of religious tolerance encouraged by the founders. President Trump’s near silence about the protection of all Americans irrespective of religion shows support for a culture of exclusion that is at odds with the founders’ design of the republic. This exclusion also includes crimes, such as the increase of hate crimes against Muslims and mosques, the targeting of Sikhs, the killing of two Indian-Americans in Kansas, and the continuous threats to Jewish community centers and cemeteries.

Unlike the 1700s when actual Muslims were not recognized, in 2015, Muslims made up approximately 3.3 million, or one percent, of the United States population. Spellberg returns us to the founder’s inclusion of Muslims so that we can recognize what is at stake. After all, Muslims are no longer ideas in the United States—they are citizens, soldiers, neighbors, and school children. To suggest that they should not have equal standing under the law is, as Spellberg reminds us in the final sentences of her book, a betrayal of the blueprint of the United States.

“Any attack upon the rights of Muslim citizens should be recognized for what it remains: an assault upon the universal ideal of civil rights promised all believers at the country’s founding. No group, based on religion, should be excluded from these rights. To do so now would betray both our hard-won national legacy and the genius of those who conceived it.”

Thomas Jefferson did not know Muslims, did not necessarily like Islam, and even waged the first American war against the Barbary pirates who were Muslim. But he recognized that in order for the United States to fulfill its promise of liberty that the Muslim, the Jew, the Catholic, the Hindu, the Protestant, and all others had to have equal standing under the law. It is because of this principle that the founders conceived of a United States where a Muslim could be president. They wanted to ensure that markers of religious identity should not shape the affirmation of individual rights. For these architects of the republic, the United States had a civic integrity that could provide liberty and engagement to all future citizens.

The first idea of fearing Muslims will not go away easily. It has proved to be politically useful, and any acts of terrorism will only sustain the fear. But it is the second idea about rights of Muslims, which allows us to reclaim the vision of the founders that Americans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” and it is the exercise of these rights that allows the full potential of American greatness. After all, the United States of America is an idea too. And it is an exceptional idea because it extends political liberty and opportunity to all religious groups.

Tags: , , , , ,

Printer-Friendly Version


Leave a Reply

Please note: All comments will be approved by an administrator before they appear on this page.