An Amer­i­can story that few get to hear

Mu­seum strug­gles to tell his­tory of Mus­lim mi­gra­tion to US

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Kim Hjelm­gaard

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.

Amir Muham­mad

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