Around 200,000 Africans had been brought to the US, some of them Muslims, when 55 delegates gathered at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Among them, 51 were Christian. Some said Islam threatens Christianity, but those in favor of religious liberty prevailed.
John Adams had written a decade earlier in Thoughts on Government that Muhammad was a “sober inquirer after truth” along with Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, and others, and as President in 1797 he declared that the US has no “enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen (Muslims).”
But Islam was not much thought about after that until the late 19th century since most owners made slaves attend Christian churches. It was only when immigrants began arriving from the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent that Muslims began to be noticeable. Now the pace has greatly accelerated — two in five Muslim immigrants have come since 1990.
Around 3.3 million or 1% of the US population is Muslim today. About 40% are white, 30% African-American and 30% Asian. About half the native-born US Muslims are African-American, many of them converts, and 16% belong to what used to be the Nation of Islam aka the Black Muslims.
The first US mosque was founded in 1915, the first built specifically as a mosque in 1934. Of 2,000+ mosques in the U.S. now, almost 90% were founded in the last three decades. Around 400 are associated with The American Society of Muslims, the successor to the Nation of Islam.
During the first half of the 20th century, a small number of African Americans had established groups based on Islamic teachings. Then in 1930 the Nation of Islam (NOI) was created. Christianity, its founder declared, was the white man’s religion, forced on African Americans during the slave experience. He said Islam was their identity.
The message resonated even though most slaves had come from West Central Africa where there were relatively few Muslims. Slavery had been outlawed since 1865 but seventy years later in the 1930s, African Americans were still oppressed. It felt long past time to bring that to an end.
In the 1950s Malcolm X, whose house was burned by Ku Klux Klan terrorists when he was a child, became the charismatic face of the NOI advocating complete separation of blacks and whites.
That Islam was brought to the US by relatively recent immigrants and embraced by black separatists colors our attitudes today. And there is a much longer and broader history that labels Westerners and Muslims in each others eyes.
Pew Research studied traits each sees in the other in a cross-section of Western and Middle East and Asian Muslim nations. No surprise; Westerners and Muslims see each other as violent and fanatical.
Westerners consider Muslims to be above all fanatical and lacking respect for women. Muslims consider Westerners to be above all selfish and not generous.
Muslims also see Westerners as violent, greedy, immoral, arrogant, fanatical, neither honest nor tolerant, and not very respectful of women.
But perhaps surprisingly, although Westerners see Muslims as violent and intolerant, they also see them as honest, quite generous, and not selfish, immoral or greedy.
The perception Muslims have of Westerners was formed centuries ago in the Crusades, confirmed by Britain and France’s more recent colonial domination, and compounded by US-led regime change and warfare in the Middle East now as well as Islamophobia whipped up by our politicians and media.
Westerners and Muslims have a long history of prejudice and violence toward each other, but that can change. It is encouraging that, along with the negatives, Pew Research found Westerners attributing positive traits to Muslims, especially in Europe where there are many more Muslims .
The more we interact the more accepting of differences most of us will become and the safer we all will be.