The story of Muslims in America
Peter Manseau rocks the status quo in his book, One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History. Dissecting 500 years of history, he presents scholarly research as compelling storytelling that presents a controversial view: the notion that the United States was founded as a Christian nation is a myth.
Manseau acknowledges that early Christian settlers, such as the Puritan pilgrims, wielded political and economic power. But, he says: “A society is always shaped not only from the top down but the bottom up. We take for granted that other parts of culture — music, literature, art — are influenced from the margins… the same is true of belief.”
Manseau introduces a fascinating cast of characters of diverse faith traditions, who enslaved, indentured or free, native or immigrant — were present in vastly larger numbers than the Christian colonists long before the establishment of the United States. Their presence, Manseau argues, reflects the true American character in all its religious diversity.
Manseau writes carefully documented history but the outcome is a real page-turner. “I wanted this to be a story of individuals as much as it is a story of 500 years of history,” he told The Arab Weekly. “I wanted it to be entertaining for readers to relate to these lives and their faith traditions, to open up that world for them and break it down by generation, to find a story of a community or a person caught by minority beliefs when the majority was so dominant.
Manseau’s accounts of the first documented contacts by Europeans with the American continent make for fascinating storylines, such as the role played by Moriscos and Marranos, Spanish Muslims and Jews who converted to Christianity in the 15th and 16th centuries. As people who were accustomed to adapting and were often multilingual, they were invaluable.
On Christopher Columbus’s first voyage, the first man to spot land and the first dispatched as a “translator” to communicate with the natives were Marranos. A key member of another exploration team, who survived a shipwreck and led a milestone survey trip through what is today Arizona and New Mexico, was a Morisco who became famous as an explorer-diplomat.
Jews played a crucial role in financing the American Revolution, the Continental Congress and the Civil War. They established flourishing centres of commerce in New Amsterdam (New York City), Philadelphia and even a strategic Caribbean island.
Muslims accompanied the explorers and were later imported en masse from Africa by slave traders. Most ultimately were forced to convert to Christianity. But one slave, Omar bin Said, remained a devout Muslim and in 1848 published a book in Arabic about his life, exposing the inhumanity of slavery.
Fast forward to today when Muslims account for less than 1% of the US population (compared to the 5% of 200 years ago). Anti-Muslim rhetoric and attacks on mosques reflect the phenomenon of the powerful majority perceiving a minority threat.
Manseau writes: “While some of the incidents making up this trend may be bold racism dressed up in religious garb and others may have grown out of misdirected responses to news of atrocities committed by ISIS [the Islamic State] and other extremist groups, they all are now part of a more complicated history: Islam today plays a role in American culture previously occupied by other supposedly foreign beliefs. Every generation finds its own religious bogeyman… Fear is the constant; the beliefs that inspire it change over time.”
A YouGov/Huffington Post poll of 1,000 Americans, published in March, found that 58% had a “somewhat unfavourable” or “unfavourable” view of Islam. Just 7% reported “favourable” and 14% “somewhat favourable” views.
Responding to a poll indicating that 57% of Republican respondents support establishing Christianity as the national religion, Manseau wrote on the Fox News website: “The insistence that the United States is explicitly Christian arises from the assumption that a majority of citizens have been [Christian] since the nation’s founding. Yet historians have estimated the number of American churchgoers in 1776 to be only around 350,000 — less than a fifth of the population.”
It is ironic that, while polling shows American religiosity in precipitous decline, conservative voices, particularly in the Evangelical Christian community, are disproportionately energetic and politically influential. Despite the nation’s diversity and, up until recently, the clarity of separation between church and state, in the 1950s Congress replaced the first official American motto E Pluribus Unum with ”In God We Trust” and inserted the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. We are increasingly diverse and now see references to God in public life more than ever.
One Nation, Under Gods is a tour de force, definitely in the must-read category. The book comprises more than 400 pages of text with helpful chapter summaries, 40 pages of end note references and an index.
One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History, published by Little Brown and Company, January 2015. $28. 469 pages including chapter notes, end-notes and index.