What would the founding fathers think of Donald Trump?
A disturbing wind is blowing in American politics this election cycle. A wind that attempts to alienate a segment of American society under the cloak of national security. A wind that speaks of threats to American values and culture. A wind that isolates and targets a group by painting an entire community with the same brush strokes for the actions of a few. This wind is Islamophobia, and it is being fanned by Donald Trump and like-minded politicians and constituents of the Republican Party creating an atmosphere of distrust, marginalization, and exclusion of Muslims living in America.
President Obama speaking at the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday talked about the history of Muslims in America and the vision of America’s Founding Fathers in forging a strong foundation based on diversity and inclusion of all faiths, including Islam.
These positive foundations were the basis for a petition of a group of citizens of Chesterfield County, VA to the State Assembly on November 14, 1785 which read:
“Let Jews, Mehometans (Muslims) and Christians of every denomination enjoy religious liberty…thrust them not out now by establishing the Christian religion lest thereby we become our own enemys and weaken this infant state. It is mens labour in our Manufactories, their services by sea and land that aggrandize our Country and not their creeds. Chain your citizens to the state by their Interest. Let Jews, Mehometans, and Christians of every denomination find their advantage in living under your laws.”
In contrast to the inclusionary ideals of this country’s forefathers, 2015 saw an intensification of anti-Islamic rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Ted Cruz. The trickle-down effect of this vituperation has been an uptick in attacks on Islam and Muslims in America.
In mid-December of 2015, a Virginia County closed all of its schools because of intense backlash after a high school geography teacher at Riverheads High School in Staunton VA, gave a class assignment to her students that required them to practice Arabic Calligraphy. What followed was a venomous outpouring of vicious threats that included emails suggesting putting the teacher’s head on a spike and accusations of Islamic indoctrination.
Lost within this Islamophobic outpouring was the irony that just 30 miles to the south, at the University of VA in Blacksburg stands a statue of Thomas Jefferson, where a tablet in the hands of one of the statues spirits is engraved with the many names of God – Jehovah, Brahma, Atma, Ra, Allah, Zeus, all serving as a testament to Jefferson’s vision for religious freedom.
In his address, President Obama quoted Thomas Jefferson who in 1777 wrote in the Virginia Colonial Register;
“The Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, and the Mahamdan [Muslim], the Hindoo [Hindu], and infidel of every denomination” are welcome.
Similarly, Jefferson’s old ally, Richard Henry Lee asserted,
“True freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.”
Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric including calls for closing down some mosques has resulted in an upsurge in incidents of attacks, vandalism and armed protests against mosques since November. A day after Trump called for a national registry to track Muslims in America, a local militia group in Texas showed up wearing military camo and carrying assault rifles outside an Islamic Center in Irving, TX and announced that they had shown up to stop the “Islamization of America.”
Now let us examine the current exclusionary anti-Islamic environment against the backdrop of Benjamin Franklin’s vision of interfaith harmony and inclusion, when in 1739 he funded the construction of a religious temple in Philadelphia that would be open to all faiths. Franklin wrote:
“Both house and grounds were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people of Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Muhammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.”
The recent attacks in France and San Bernardino have also ratcheted up the venomous language regarding the US acceptance of Syrian refugees in America. Many of the Republican candidates and Governors of 31 states oppose the entry of Syrian refugees into the US. Nevada Republican lawmaker Michele Fiore went one step further when on her weekly Las Vegas radio show she stated;
“I’m not OK with Syrian refugees. I am not OK with terrorists. I’m OK with putting them down, blacking them out, just put a piece of brass in their ocular cavity and end their miserable life. I’m OK with that.”
Language and stances like these have led to incidents like the one recounted by a Minnesota attorney Deepinder Mayell who while attending his first Minnesota Vikings game found himself being confronted by a fan who belligerently accused him of being a refugee.
In an Op-Ed describing the incident, Mr. Mayell wrote,
“It was also abundantly clear that he (the fan) didn’t know about refugees, dignity or freedom. He didn’t know that if he were speaking to a refugee, he’d be speaking to someone who feared persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group. He didn’t know that many refugees are victims of some of the worst human rights abuses occurring on the planet, ranging from being sold into sexual slavery to being killed in mass executions. He didn’t know that being a refugee is a badge of resilience and honor, not danger.”
Now let’s take a look at the views of George Washington, who in a letter dated December 2nd, 1783 wrote;
“The bosom of America is open to receive not only the Opulent and respectable Stranger, but the oppressed and persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges, if by decency and propriety of conduct they appear to merit the enjoyment.”
In light of the current xenophobic environment being fanned by the Republican Party, a question begs to be answered? Has America abandoned its roots and turned its back on the promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in these powerful words;
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
John Adams referred to Muhammad and founders of other faiths as “…sober enquirers of truth.” One of the root causes of Islamophobia in the US today is the lack of understanding of Islam which is further exacerbated by a movement to ban familiarity with the religion because of underlying fears of Islamization of the society leading to a loss of American values and ideals. We as Americans must not give into the current winds of censuring invective but rather hold up the vision and principles of our nation’s forefathers to help preserve the essence of what made and still makes this nation great.
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