Tea Party Needs a History Lesson on Islam in America

Phillip Dennis, a Tea Party leader in Dallas, Texas, has “a big problem with Islam.” In an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Dennis said Obama “certainly has a soft spot in his heart for Islam” and that the current president has done more to reach out to Muslims than any other leader in American history.

Dennis also disputes the president’s recent claim “that Islam has always played a major part in this country.” As he puts it, “Our founding fathers weren’t Muslims, they weren’t breaking for prayers five times a day.”

But it’s Dennis who has his history wrong.

So, first of all, what did President Obama really say about Islam’s role in America?

I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson—kept in his personal library.

Now, second, what was the role of Islam in American history? Well, the narrative the president laid out in that speech in Cairo is basically correct. In fact, that same Treaty of Tripoli also rejects the idea that America is a “Christian nation.”

In fact, during the early period of the American republic America depended on many Muslims for its economic success. On the one hand, many of the African slaves that worked to produce the raw materials of early American industry were Muslims. On the other hand, during the trade of goods between India and New England, some of America’s trading partners were South Asian Muslims. These two economic factors helped keep the young country afloat in the first decades of the nineteenth century. (Check Kambiz GhaneaBassiri’s  A History of Islam in America for the whole story.)

So, Mr. Dennis, yes the founding fathers were not Muslims, but they depended on Muslims — whether as forced labor or trading partners. It’s American history, like it or not.