WASHINGTON – One of the greatest stories rarely told about the long history of Muslim immigration to the United States stretching back hundreds of years is actually being told most days by Amir Muhammad, the founder and chief curator of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, a tiny institution with a do-it-yourself collector’s vibe and a modest entrance fee that sits in an out-of-the-way corner of southeast Washington, D.C.
But, in an age of American political sectarianism when immigrant and minority-rights groups and U.S. lawmakers have blasted President Donald Trump’s incendiary comments, not many people are paying attention to the story Muhammad is revealing about the Muslim experience.
“American Muslims haven’t been great at explaining our side, at engaging with folks – you know? Not too many Americans come out here. We get some schools and international guests,” said Muhammad, 64, in a recent interview.
As Muhammad spoke in one of the museum’s small airless hallways, the lights kept flickering. Nearby, a smoke alarm chirped in need of batteries. Dusty glass displays featured Qurans from around the world. Outside, the run-down front entrance was framed by a sign in a blue font: America’s Islamic Heritage Museum. Orange-yellow streaks of rust ran down the face of it.
“Once, a French documentary crew stopped by,” he added. “It’s like that.”
Vestiges of Islam
America’s Islamic Heritage Museum started in 1996 as a traveling exhibition called Collections and Stories of American Muslims. Since moving, in 2011, to its location on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the museum has introduced and entertained about 52,000 people with artifacts, documents and photographs that explore the contributions and legacies of American Muslims. Last year, about 8,000 people visited, a figure far from the more than 30 million visits made last year to the 19 museums, galleries and National Zoological Park that comprise the Smithsonian Institution a few miles away.
“This area’s kind of the hood of the hood,” said Muhammad, using slang to describe an economically deprived area, and also to justify why some Americans may deliberately choose to give his museum a wide berth. But “from darkness comes light,” he added, noting that the neighborhood was improving.
But there are other reasons, too.
“It was a struggle for a long time to even get American Muslims behind our idea,” said Emad Al-Turk, referring to the International Museum of Muslim Cultures in Jackson, Mississippi, an institution he co-founded about six months before the 9/11 attacks.
The International Museum of Muslim Cultures is perhaps less well known than America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, partly because it is located far from any major city in a predominantly rural state. And its focus is on educating the public about Islamic history and culture and Muslim contributions to world civilization, not just America’s.
“At the time, people were really scared about what was happening and how the relationship between American Muslims and non-Muslims was changing,” Al-Turk said.
In “Al’ America,” his 2008 book about America’s Arab and Islamic roots, the writer and journalist Jonathan Curiel notes that since the 9/11 terrorist attacks it has been difficult for some Americans to “see Arab and Muslim culture as anything other than terrorism and fundamentalism … ‘Arab’ and ‘Muslim’ have become code words of alarm.”
There has also been a tendency, Curiel believes, to reject any historical claims Arab and Muslim culture might have on American culture – to view it as “their” culture, not “ours.”
Did you know there are two towns in the United States called Mohammad? There’s also a Palestine, in Texas, and an Aladdin, in Wyoming. There’s been a U.S. post office in Mecca, Indiana, since 1888. In fact, from New Orleans to the Alamo, Moorish styles of architecture can be detected in buildings across the USA. Even the pointed arches that once stood at the base of the fallen World Trade Center towers in New York City mimicked Islamic geometric tradition. Blues music may be a uniquely American art form that originated in the Deep South – music ethnographers have established that many of its harmonies and note changes resemble Muslim prayers and other recitations, a result of the African slaves who came to the U.S. from Muslim areas on that continent.
Scholars of the Middle East say that there are many possible explanations for an apparent lack of interest in the USA’s Islamic heritage, not least that many Americans simply don’t know it exists.
“A lot of people might assume Muslim immigration started in 1965 when the U.S. had a period of immigration reform, others will date it back to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, yet others to the 9/11 attacks, but usually no one looks further back than the 1960s and certainly not beyond the 20th century for this history at the popular level,” said Hussein Rashid, who teaches at Columbia University.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.
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Some point to the rhetoric of President Donald Trump as a more recent reason for the dearth of interest in Islam in America.
Not only has the president signed executive orders targeting immigration from some majority-Muslim countries, but Trump himself has frequently negatively associated Islam and the Middle East more generally with violence and cultural differences claimed to be anathema to American life and identity.
“Islam hates us,” Trump said on the campaign trail in 2016.
“Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in,” he tweeted on Oct. 22 after ordering the military to be on alert for a caravan of migrants from Central America attempting to enter the U.S. despite efforts to have them stopped at the border.
“For Trump, there appears to a whole lot of people who are not fully American. Muslims aren’t. Mexican-American communities aren’t. Women. Black people,” said Rashid.
But experts on Islam say there is a problem with Trump’s Muslim narrative: Muslims have been coming to America since at least the 17th century, with anywhere from a third to a quarter of the enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. against their will likely Muslims.
There is also evidence that Muslims were on the ships that the Italian explorer, navigator and colonist Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in the 15th century.
There are even reports of Chinese Muslims making it to American shores, in California, in the 9th century. They arrived as pirates or fleeing religious persecution.
“We have autobiographies, we have oral histories, we have mosques, cemeteries, tombstones. We also have a lot of conjectural evidence: For example, the way people are buried facing Mecca (Islam’s holiest city, in Saudi Arabia),” Rashid said.
Cornelia Walker Bailey, who died last year aged 73, wrote in her memoir that children on Sapelo Island, Georgia, where she grew up, learned to say their prayers facing east toward Mecca in keeping with Muslim practice. Bailey, like many African-Americans from Sapelo Island, claim Bilali Muhammad, a Muslim scholar from West Africa who was brought to Georgia as a teenage slave in the 18th century, as a distant relative.
A growing population
According to the Pew Research Center, about 3 million Muslims live in the U.S. This compares to approximately 5.6 million Jews and 240 million Christians, the two dominant religions. (About 50 million people are religiously unaffiliated.) But by 2050, Pew Research Center estimates, there will be at least 8 million Muslims living in the U.S. while the Jewish population will remain fairly stagnant, at about 5.3 million.
Federal hate-crime data published by the FBI show that in 2017 more than half of religious hate crimes in America targeted Jews while nearly a quarter targeted Muslims.
American Muslim groups raised thousands of dollars for the Pittsburgh synagogue victims and also offered Jews help with protection and other services they might need.
Immigration was one of the topics that were at the forefront of voters’ minds as they went to the polls with record-level enthusiasm to vote in the U.S. midterm elections.
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Yet if the American Jewish and Christian experiences are well documented in countless journals, research institutes, museum collections, in business, and in popular culture and entertainment, the American Muslim experience mostly appears to sit outside the broader narrative of stories Americans tell themselves about their history, according to religious scholars such as Lior Sternfeld, who specializes in Jewish studies.
“Muslim-Americans were a much smaller and more marginalized community, but it’s changing,” said Sternfeld, who teaches at Penn State University.
Muhammad, of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, wants to do something about this.
He spends his spare time traveling around the USA searching for Islam’s forgotten roots in a country where they were never fully remembered in the first place.
He has collected gravestones all over the South dating to the 1800s with Islamic names written on them in Arabic. He has 200-year-old census records and wills and testaments from virtually every U.S. region that show vestiges of Islamic immigration.
He also has the robe of the first U.S. Muslim judge, the uniform of the first Muslim U.S. Army chaplain and a wall filled with photos of contemporary American Muslim newsmakers, and sports stars from Muhammad Ali to Sam Khalifa, the only Muslim player in the history of Major League Baseball.
In all, his collection consists of a few thousand examples of American Islamia.
“Not even American Muslims always know this stuff exists,” he said.
Hani Bawardi, a professor at the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan in Dearborn, outside Detroit, said the story of Islam in America “awaits excavation.” He said no good scholarship exists on the subject, partly because “no one traced sufficiently the archival evidence on enslaved Muslims. Every time we think we know the location of the oldest mosque an older one is discovered,” he said. “I can’t even point you to a good study there. But Muslims were represented in very remote areas.”
Sill, Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, a historian of Islam who spent more than a decade as a counterterrorism adviser, including at the Department for Homeland Security, said that at a time when Trump appears to be questioning whether Islam is compatible with American life, there is an appetite for more awareness of its place in the American story.
“Quite frankly, a lot of American Muslims are not that conversant in their own history. We’re a pretty diverse group: Economics, class, resources, access. There are so many things that divide American Muslims rather than necessarily uniting them. And I can give you plenty of examples of Muslims in corporate America with the name ‘Mohammad’ who have gone by the name ‘Mo’ because they haven’t been all that comfortable with being Muslim in a public space,” he said. “Now, people are thinking that they might need to be a bit more vocal in this current (political) context.”
American Muslims are raising their profiles and speaking out in different ways.
Former Michigan state lawmaker Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, Minnesota’s first Somali-American legislator, become the first Muslim women elected to Congress in the midterm elections this month. (Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., became, in 2006, the first Muslim to be elected to the lawmaking body.)
And at least 145 American Muslims, virtually all of them Democrats, ran for state or national public office this year, according to Jetpac, a Boston-based organization that works to increase American Muslim education and civic engagement.
Of these, 110 were first-time candidates who represent an unprecedented rise for a diverse Muslim community that is typically underrepresented in American politics.
“For almost two years people have been witnessing the direction our country is going in” and they don’t like it, said Abdullah Hammoud, who is serving his first term in the Michigan House of Representatives. “I don’t think Donald Trump is something new. He’s just unveiled what was behind the curtain. They feel empowered to speak vitriol.”
Away from politics, Moses the Comic – real name Musa Sulaiman, 33, from Philadelphia – has embarked on a “Super Muslim Comedy Tour” to break down negative barriers and narratives surrounding Muslims in the USA.
“It’s about going into public places and subverting the stereotypes by making people laugh,” he said. “Art and entertainment can combat ideologies of racism and bigotry. Not all black men only become Muslim in prison, something we are constantly told,” he said.
And Mona Haydar, 30, from Michigan, which has the largest Muslim population in the USA, is a poet-turned-rapper who has written a song called “Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab).”
The video has been watched 5 million times on YouTube. Haydar told USA TODAY in Detroit last month that the song was about “normalizing Muslim-American women.”
Normalizing Islam is something Muhammad, of the museum, also strives for.
When USA TODAY visited with him in early September he kept getting interrupted every few minutes by a group of school kids, ranging in age from 6 to 16, loudly knocking on the museum’s front entrance. Because there was no one else in the building, Muhammad had locked the front entrance to conduct his tour, but these kids were here to collect snacks as part of an after school program the museum runs for neighborhood children.
Muhammad said that while a few of the kids from time to time might express interest in the museum and its exhibits, which he was grateful for because there was “nobody else, literally nobody else” to share this history with them, they mostly came for the snacks.
Reporting for this story was made possible by the Washington-based East-West Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes better relations among the United States, Asia, and the Pacific.