Introduction: American Islam, Muslim Americans, and the American experiment
The conversation about where American Muslims fit into the larger fabric of American society far predates the election of Barack Hussein Obama to the presidency in 2008. To critically assess the anxiety over American Muslims as part of a historical chronology and continuum, we should start with the ratification of the United States Constitution. The date was July 30, 1788. The site was North Carolina, and the occasion was the convention to ratify the proposed U.S. Constitution. The speaker on this occasion was a certain William Lancaster, who was a staunch Anti-Federalist. Lancaster spoke of what would happen not if, but when, a few centuries down the road a Muslim would be elected to the highest office in the land, the presidency of the United States of America. But let us remember that we form a government for millions not yet in existence. I have not the art of divination. In the course of four or five hundred years, I do not know how it will work. This is most certain, that Papists may occupy that chair, and Mahometans may take it. I see nothing against it. “Mahometan” was the common designation for Muslims back then, now considered derogatory, and was derived from the also obsolete and equally offensive “Muhammadan.” In 1788 there were no Muslim Americans running for the office of the president. As far as we know, there were not even any Muslim citizens of the newly formed American republic – though there were thousands of slaves from Africa in America who came from Muslim backgrounds. As legal scholars have noted, the putative conversation about a Muslim president was a fear tactic used by Anti-Federalists to put pressure on Federalists. In other words, the conversation about where Muslims fit into the fabric of the American politic was one that was concomitant with the passage of the U.S. Constitution.