An American story that few get to hear
Museum struggles to tell history of Muslim migration to US
WASHINGTON – In a small, airless hallway, the light kept flickering. Nearby, a smoke alarm periodically chirped: the batteries needed changing. Several of the glass displays that housed Qurans from around the world were dusty. The view of the front entrance from the road was run-down liquor-store chic, but without the chic.
One of the greatest stories never told about the long history of Muslim immigration to the United States is actually being told by Amir Muhammad, the founder and chief curator of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, a tiny institution with a DIY collector’s vibe and a donate-by-paying-more than-the-entrance-fee fee. It sits in a corner of southeast Washington, D.C., where the incomes are low, the crime rates are high and taxi drivers caution outsiders against visiting after dark.
Still, in an age of political sectarianism with incendiary comments from the president, white nationalist rallies and the worst attack on American Jews in history, not many people are paying attention to the story Muhammad is telling.
“American Muslims haven’t been great at ex- See MUSLIMS, Page 2T
plaining 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. “Once, a French documentary crew stopped by,” he added. “It’s like that.”
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 current location on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the museum, according to its website, has entertained and introduced about 18,000 people to artifacts, documents and photographs that explore the contributions and legacies of American Muslims. That’s about 2,600 visitors a year. More than 30 million visits were 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, to justify why some Americans may choose to give his museum a wide berth.
But there are other reasons, too. Scholars of the Middle East such as Hussein Rashid, who teaches at Columbia University, say 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 farther back than the 1960s and certainly not beyond the 20th century for this history at the popular level,” he said.
According to the Pew Research Center, about 3 million Muslims live in the U.S. This compares to about 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.
Yet if the American Jewish and Christian experiences are well documented, 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 spends his spare time traveling, searching for Islam’s forgotten roots. 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, he has a few thousand examples of American Islamiana.
“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, 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.”
“Quite frankly, a lot of American Muslims are not that conversant in their own history,” said Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, who spent more than a decade as a counter-terrorism adviser.
Yet American Muslims are raising their profiles and speaking out in different ways. At least 128 American Muslims, virtually all Democrats, have run 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, 107 were first-time candidates.
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.
Reporting for this story was made possible by the Washington-based East-West Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes better relations among the U.S., Asia and the Pacific.
“American Muslims haven’t been great at explaining our side, at engaging with folks,” says Amir Muhammad, founder and chief curator of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum in Washington, DC.