Islam in the USA

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.

Muslim American Demographics

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.

Muslim vs Western Perceived Characteristics

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.

Sunni vs Shia in Context

Muslims split into two camps, Sunni and Shia, soon after Muhammad died in 632, they have battled ever since, and their violence has spread here.  Is that true?  Should we be afraid?

The Sunni-Shia divide over the succession to Muhammad obscures both what all Muslims accept and significant differences between five Sunni and three Shia schools of law as well as many schools of theology, some of which are accepted by both Sunni and Shia sects.

The seed that grew into today’s conflict was sown in the early 1500s when the Safavids, a Kurdish Sufi mystic order that turned militant, gained control of Iran and established a Shia sect as their empire’s religion to differentiate it from the previous regime, the Sunni Ottoman Empire based in Turkey (see this excellent article for a comprehensive geographic history of the Islamic states.)

Islamic States 1550

Today’s battles do reflect sectarian differences but they are primarily about worldly power.  I’ll say more about those differences and what every Muslim accepts, then review events in the recent past that made the early 1500s split newly relevant.

The Quran, Allah’s words to Muhammad, is the foundation for all Muslims.  There are also Hadiths, reports on Muhammad’s words and actions that correspond to the gospels about Christ’s words and actions.  Some Hadiths are followed by both Sunni and Shia, others only by one or the other.  The major Hadiths happen to have been collected by a Persian Muslim.

The Hadith of Gabriel is the most important and is accepted by both Sunni and Shia.  It includes the mandatory Five Pillars for all Muslims — faith in Allah and Muhammad, five daily prayers performed in a prescribed way, charity (because all things belong to God), fasting (to purify worldly desire), and pilgrimage to Mecca.

The mode of prayer is essentially the same for all Muslims and although the prayer leader in any mosque belongs to one of the Sunni or Shia schools, unlike Catholic or Protestant churches where the fundamentals of practice are different, Muslims of any school can pray in any mosque.

The main Sunni schools of law are Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki and Shaf”i.  They are associated with different territories as with any organized religion:

  • Hanafi has the largest number of followers and is dominant in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, parts of Iraq, India and Bangladesh, and a vast area to the east and north that includes most Russian Muslims
  • Hanbali is strictly traditionalist and is dominant in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  The Saudi regime enforces a harsh, fundamentalist form of Hanbali known as Wahhabism
  • Maliki is in Kuwait, Bahrain, Dubai and NE Saudi Arabia
  • Shafi’i was the most popular school but was superseded by Hanafi under the Ottoman Empire

The major Shia traditions are the Fivers, Seveners, and Twelvers who differ on which of Muhammad’s successors are legitimate.  The Twelvers’ Jaʿfarī is the school of law for most Shia Muslims because Twelvers are a majority in Iran and among the Shia Muslims in Bahrain and Iraq.  They are also a significant minority in Lebanon.

Overall, around 85-90% of Muslims are Sunni, 10-15% Shia.

Sunni Shia Map

Now the events beginning in 1979 that made the Sunni-Shia split newly relevant.

The leading political movement in the Middle East in the 1950s and ’60s was Arab nationalism.  Sunni-Shia distinctions were almost irrelevant then.  The important issues were shared Arab ethnicity, which is different from Turks and Persians, and their long suffering under colonial powers who divided them.

What changed all that was Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrowing the pro-Western shah.  Iran’s theocratic revolution was both popular and anti-monarchist, and the new regime encouraged uprisings in other Middle Eastern nations.  That threatened Saudi influence and their monarchy itself.

Then came the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.  The Saudi regime supported Iraq’s 1980s war against Iran to preempt revolution by Iraq’s Shias, but Saddam Hussein considered both Saudi Arabia and Iran enemies.  Removing him disrupted the balance between the powers and left a power vacuum in Iraq.

Next the Arab Spring, starting in Tunisia in 2010, spread to Syria and other Middle East nations.   Saudi Arabia and Iran, in rivalry for influence, amped up Sunni-Shia sectarianism.  Their power plays, the Saudis’ heavily supported by the US and Israel, greatly increased the violence.

In Syria protests grew into rebellion then civil war.  Rebels, encouraged by US policy to oust President Bashar al-Assad, were armed by the Saudi regime and Qatar.  The Saudi regime wants Assad replaced by a Sunni government because Assad is Alawite, a Shia sect.  They fear a potential “Shiite crescent” from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.  Seeing the civil war recast as anti-Shia, Iran’s regime encouraged Shia militias from Iraq and Lebanon to battle the Sunni rebels.

Those rebels include Al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham (funded chiefly by Kuwait), and Al Qaeda’s spinoff, the Islamic State.

Israel shares the Saudis’ fear of Iran.  Shia group Hezbollah in Lebanon, one of whose chief goals is the elimination of Israel, gets substantial support from Iran.  Sunni group Hamas, an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, also seeks to establish an Islamic State in what is now Israel.

Meanwhile in Yemen, where civil war also rages, Saudi bombing, justified by greatly exaggerating Iran’s support for Houthi Shia rebels, has greatly worsened the humanitarian disaster.

And meanwhile in Iraq, changes there illustrate how Sunni-Shia strife is not the norm.  Iraq’s population is 75%-80% Arab and almost all Muslim, half to two thirds Shia.  Saddam’s regime was Ba’athist, a movement aiming for a single Arab state that would be Muslim by tradition but more importantly, socialist (see comment.)  Most of Saddam’s government were Sunni.  Shia were oppressed by them, but there was little conflict between Sunni and Shia people until we made Iraq essentially lawless.

Sunni and Shia lived side by side in much of Baghdad, even in 2005.  But as chaos grew, Sunni and Shia began to form self-defense militias, then saw each other as threats.  Neighborhoods in Baghdad that had been mixed were starkly divided two years later.

Baghdad Shia-Sunni Map

The Sunni-Shia split is real enough to excite support for political leaders, but it is their contests for power that are the root of today’s Middle East violence.  Our military interventions to prop up or topple these autocrats are counter-productive and greatly increase the suffering of the people.

Middle East conflict has spread to the USA only in the sense that we replaced the 20th century British and French Empires as the power whose actions aim to dominate the Middle East.

Should we be afraid of the variously named ISIL, ISIS or Islamic State?  It is famous for beheading opponents and now controls most of Syria, but we do not condemn the Saudi regime for beheadings.  Should we then support Syria being ruled by ISIL, a regime similar to Saudi Arabia’s?

No, we should stop being afraid, and we should stop compounding violence.

The Pathetic Fallacy – Race and Religion

Bad results come when concepts obscure reality.  It is individuals who decide what corporations and nations will do, and it is not Arab, Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim or other aggregate entities but individuals who act in the name of race and religion.

Power-seeking leaders use our delusion that religious and other institutions make decisions to trigger our fears about “other” groups.  It is all too easy to persuade us to fear people we do not know, and fear sparks hatred.  The massacre when India was partitioned is a chilling illustration.

When its ownership changed in 1947, what had been British India was reconfigured into three territories operating as two nations, (1) India, (2) East Pakistan which later became today’s Pakistan, and (3) West Pakistan, which became today’s Bangladesh.

British India was a collection of 565 semi-sovereign principalities.  Those directly governed by the British are shaded pink in the map below.  The yellow shaded ones were subject only to British control over their relations with each other.  You’ll notice the British considered Nepal part of their empire.  Nepal’s kings did not.  They kept Nepal closed even after India became independent.

Indian Empire 1909

Arab and Persian Muslims began coming to the Indian subcontinent almost immediately after Mohammed’s death in 632.  There were military expeditions and trading, and some soldiers and traders married local women, but it was not until the 13th-14th centuries that Islam became an important force in India.

Many principalities became tributary to Islamic sultanates and then, from the early 16th to the mid-18th centuries, almost the whole subcontinent was ruled in prosperity and religious harmony by a Muslim administration, the Turco-Mongol Mughal Empire.

Next came a Hindu warrior regime, the Maratha Empire from southern India.  At that time, Hindu just meant people in India who were not Turks or Muslims.

The mix of Hindus and Muslims varied.  The highest concentration of Muslims was in the West close to Persia and the Ocean route to Arabia, and in the East close to Calcutta, Britain’s primary ocean port.

You might expect a Shia Muslim majority since the greatest number of Muslims is closest to Persia, but 70% – 75% of Muslims in India and 80% – 90% in Pakistan are Sunni.  That’s because the Mughal emperors happened to be from the Sunni tradition.

India Muslim Population 1909

In the late 19th century, many people on the Indian subcontinent were starting to think of themselves more as Indian than as members of one of the local kingdoms.  The British, who followed the Marathas, had begun allowing them into the administration of the continent as a whole.

The 565 semi-sovereign kingdoms still existed when British rule ended in 1947 and there were starkly different views about whether they should be unified into one or two nations.  Gandhi, who was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist the following year, was relentlessly against violence and for a single nation with Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in unity.

But Hindu leader Savarkar had written in 1923: “We Hindus are … a nation” and by 1937 he was saying: “Indian Hindus and Muslims are two distinct nations, regardless of ethnic or other commonalities.”  Then in 1940, Muslim leader Jinnah told cheering crowds: “[We Muslims] are not a minority (but) a nation.”

So, driven by their leaders’ quest for power, India and Pakistan became separate nations.  Appalling riots broke out.  As many as two million people were killed and over fourteen million fled for their lives, half of them Muslims from India to Pakistan, the others Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India.

The Indian subcontinent’s highly diverse population — the 2001 census found 122 major languages and 1599 other languages in India alone — had suddenly been conceptualized as two nations, India with a secular government, Pakistan as an Islamic Republic.

Individuals pursuing power had aligned race and religion with nationalism.  Tellingly, Hindu leader Savarkar was an atheist and Muslim leader Jinnah did no Muslim practice.  It was too late when in 1947, Jinnah called for a secular and inclusive Pakistan.  He had gotten himself a nation by inflaming religious hatred.  Then he could not bring the hatred to an end.

Power-seeking individuals are using the same dark tactics today.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi melded the ideas of nation and religion into the Islamic State.  In response, US Presidential candidates Trump, Cruz and others exhort us to condemn every Muslim as a potential terrorist.

We don’t have to fall for these spurious calls for mass hatred.


The Pathetic Fallacy – Nations

I wrote in Pathetic Fallacy – Corporations that a pathetic fallacy — personifying what is not a person — masks reality with an idea and triggers false emotion from false perception.

Thinking of a nation as an entity with a will is as misleading as thinking that a corporation decides what to do.  Nations and corporations are not beings with a mind of their own.  They are artificial entities that enable real people, their leaders, to command resources and project power.

To see that a nation is a concept just like a corporation, consider nations to be a form of business.  For example:

  • The business known as England, where I grew up, was owned and operated as the Tudor family business from 1485 until 1603 when it was taken over by the business operated by the Stuart family since 1371 that was known as Scotland
  • The USA business, where I have lived all my adult (hah!) life, resulted from the hostile takeover of what we term the “Indian nations.”

Indian Nations Map

But what actually is a nation?  There are many forms of nation, just as corporations are only one form of business, so there are many definitions :

  1. “A large group of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent, or history
  2. “A large body of people, associated with a particular territory, that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own
  3. “A large area of land that is controlled by its own government

The USA is not a nation of the first kind since we do not have a common language — there are 45 million Spanish-speaking Americans — or a common culture, ethnicity or descent.  It is also not a nation of the second kind, not unified in a deep way, as this election season makes so clear.

As Colin Woodard’s excellent historical analysis shows, the USA is better understood as eleven nations, each with a different culture.

Eleven American Nations Map

So the USA is a nation of the third kind, one with the same system of government for more than two centuries whose territory kept expanding until it spanned its ocean borders.

What about other nations, those in the Middle East, for example?

A map of their territories suggests that:

  • Large ones on the periphery — Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — are likely to fight over those in the center — Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon
  • Iraq is likely to want to control Kuwait to get ocean access
  • Saudi Arabia is likely to want to control Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAR, Oman and Yemen

Middle East Map

But we are misled by our delusion that nations are natural entities, especially Saudi Arabia, whose eastern and western coastal borders make it seem to be a nation of the third kind like the USA.

In fact, the territory now known as Saudi Arabia only came into existence in 1932.  It is, to continue the business analogy, an Ibn Saud family-owned oil production business.  Their administration happens to require the people in that territory to conform to an ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam.

The territory now known as Iran, however, part of whose borders are also coastal, is a nation of the first kind.  It has a distinct ethno-linguistic population and a common culture formed by operating from 530 BC to 1979 as the Persian Empire.  Its secular dynastic rule was then overthrown by Ayatollah Khomeini who established a fundamentalist Shia Islam theocracy.

The territory now known as Iraq, with no natural borders, has an even longer history as Mesopotamia.  It is where the world’s first cities formed around 5300 BC.  Unlike Iran, the majority of Iraq’s people are Arabs although there are also Kurds where it borders Turkey and Iran.  Mesopotamia was conquered by Muslim Arabs in the 7th century, later absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, briefly stable under Saddam Hussein after 1979 but its territory is now battled over by an elected government and unrecognized new nations, Kurdistan and Islamic State.

The territory now known as Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire from 1299 to 1922 when it was re-established by Kemal Ataturk as a secular democracy whose natural borders are coastal.

And the territory known as Egypt, with desert and coastal borders, was managed as a kingdom for three thousand years, then by the Arab Muslim Empire for six centuries and as part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 until that empire fell.  Its monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by Gamal Nasser.

So Iran, Egypt and Turkey each has a long history during which an ethno-linguistic majority established a culture in a territory defined largely by coastal borders.  Iraq also has a long history but lacks natural borders and has a divided population.  Saudi Arabia lacks agricultural potential and has only been a nation since oil was discovered.  The government of all five nations is in fact quite new.

The future of territories is determined to a great extent by geography.  The behavior of people is influenced by cultures that diverge over time.  But the behavior of what we imagine to be nations is decided not be those conceptual entities but by individuals such as Ibn Saud, Ayatollah Khomeini, Saddam Hussein, Kemal Ataturk and Gamal Nasser.

That’s a critical distinction because a territory and its people can, when characterized as a nation, inspire fear, hatred and violence, replacing what is real — people like us — with fantasy, an alien mass against which appalling violence seems necessary and right.

Terrible things happen when we condemn entire populations whose existence in the form of a nation is the product of our imagination.

We teach children who crush their thumb with a hammer not to fly into a rage at the hammer.  We must see for ourselves that it is not corporations and nations that take action but their leaders.


Let’s Stop Being Terrorized

A year ago we were exhorted to close our borders against Ebola.  Some State Governors went ahead and did so, taking action, they said, when President Obama would not.

Then a friend posted this appalling and spurious image.  What we should really fear, she thought, is Islam.  One in three conservative Republicans already believed President Obama to be a Muslim.

Although fear trumps facts, that particular lie did not have legs.  Islam does not allow such behavior and Ayatollah Khomeini, who died a quarter of a century ago, is not the “current leader of Iran.”

Fear is a helpful survival instinct — we’re safer taking automatic fight-or-flight action with intellect engaging only later.  But there’s a downside.  Because it closes our mind, instilling fear is a powerful way to control us.

Knowing that, politicians are now instilling fear of a much more potent terror, ISIS.  They say it is the true face of a religion that commands its followers to kill all others.  And some Americans think they know exactly what to do about that nightmare.

Mainstream media eagerly participates in the fear-mongering.  Ten days after the recent San Bernardino massacre, the New York Times claimed one of the attackers had years ago publicly committed to terrorism.

The allegation is false, said FBI Director Comey, and the Times provided no evidence, but presidential candidates claimed it as a catastrophic Obama administration failure.

Voters want someone to blame for their struggles, politicians want us to have an enemy because they will get more power if we are fearful, and mainstream media amplifies our fears so we will consume more.  Our emotions are being manipulated.  We are being misdirected.

As I wrote a year ago, while we cannot eliminate infectious disease, a health care system that encourages all with symptoms to get treatment right away would minimize the spread of disease.

And while San Bernardino was horrific and likely was inspired by ISIS publicity, the odds of being killed by terrorists in America are extremely small. Depending on how you define them, there have been 40 mass shootings since 9/11/2001 but only a few were terrorist attacks.

Mass Shootings Map

We cannot anticipate all future mass shootings or other kinds of massacres.  We could not have anticipated Timothy McVeigh killing 168 people with a homemade bomb in Oklahama City twenty years ago, or the drivers who mass murder pedestrians.

We could eliminate many mass shootings, however, including San Bernardino and the massacre in my home town, by removing assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society.

And we could go further.  We could start eliminating the future equivalent of this year’s 355 shootings  in which four or more were injured or killed, and this year’s 33,000 individual deaths and 80,000 hospitalizations from gunshots.

Police work will not end hatred of blacks, Muslims, our government, fellow workers, shooters’ families or others, desire for fame, other people’s money or ending one’s own life, or just plain foolishness.

But we could start eliminating the easy way to kill by removing not only assault weapons and semi-automatic handguns with high-capacity magazines from our society, but all hand guns.  We could even restrict rifles and shotguns.

I do not expect our society will make that choice.  I expect our freedom to own a wide range of weapons will continue to outweigh its costs.  We will choose to continue having mass shootings.

Perhaps we will get a universal health care system one day because our present approach costs far too much.  But our freedom to own guns does not seem something about which we can make conscious choices.

Beset by all these nightmares and more, is there anything we can do as individuals?  As this wise Christian leader wrote when we faced immediate nuclear extinction, we can pull ourselves together and meet our fate doing sensible and human things.

Let’s stop being terrorized by politicians and media people.  Let’s summon the courage to live in the happily generous American way.

Things we do out of fearfulness with which we’ve been infected frustrate and sadden people like this Muslim family that we would not allow to come on holiday and enrage those in other countries like our own “Overpasses for America” people.  That rage is why some want to kill us.

So let’s each of us do the deeply human thing.  Let’s learn how to help each other overcome fear.