Sunday, May 1, 2016

Islam and US History

Many of the comments made about Muslims that I hear on the campaign trail or read on social media bear a striking resemblance to comments about Catholics made during the high point of Irish immigration to the US during the 1840's and 1850's. Catholics were described as unassimilable, loyal to a foreign power ( the Pope) and a danger to American citizens because of their determination to convert or conquer those who did not share their faith. These fears led to attacks on Catholic churches, attempts to restrict Catholic immigration and the rise of an entire political party- the Know Nothing Party- which sought to insulate the United States from Catholics destructive influence.
Over time these fears eased and Catholics became an integral part of the American social fabric, represented in every portion of the nation's leadership from the Presidency to the Supreme Court to the military to our educational institutions. I am proud to teach at an educational institution founded these once despised immigrants. But full assimilation and acceptance took a long time- over a hundred years. Along the way, many Catholics were victims of discrimination, occasionally of violence.
I am hoping we can avoid this dynamic with American Muslims. I have had the experience of working closely with the Muslim community in the Bronx and have Muslim students and colleagues that I have gotten to know quite well. And can tell you that the extraordinary diversity of the Muslims I have met defy any stereotype you have of uniformity in religious practice, political ideology, gender attitudes or relations with people of different faith. I know practicing Muslims who will not shake hands with people of a different gender; I know others who greet their friends and colleagues with a hug. I know Islamic centers which remain private spaces for those who worship there; I know Islamic centers which invite the whole neighborhood in for meals and meetings.
Islam, like Judaism, Catholicism, or Protestantism is a dynamic, evolving faith which cannot be defined by quoting passages from religious texts, or political actions taken in its name by those competing for control of resources or political power.
Those sowing hysteria about the Muslim presence in this country need to remember that similar fear mongering about Catholics or Jews, or Asians did great harm, and ultimately proved to be based more on myth than real life experience in diverse American communities.