President Obama says Islam has always been part of America, which raises the question, does the president know something about American history that we don't?
It has become customary for presidents to offer greetings to various religious communities on the occasion of their most holy days. Presidents Ford and Carter both issued Ramadan messages, as did Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. The Ramadan greeting became intensely political during Mr. Bush's tenure because he was seeking to dispel the charge that the war on terrorism was a crusade against Islam. But Mr. Obama has used the occasion of Ramadan to rewrite U.S. history and give Islam a prominence in American annals that it has not earned.
In this year's greeting, Mr. Obama said the rituals of Ramadan "remind us of the principles that we hold in common and Islam's role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings. Ramadan is a celebration of a faith known for great diversity and racial equality. And here in the United States, Ramadan is a reminder that Islam has always been part of America and that American Muslims have made extraordinary contributions to our country."
That Islam has had a major role in advancing justice, progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings may come as a surprise to Muslim women. Young Afghan girls who are having acid thrown in their faces on the way to school might want to offer their perspectives. That Islam is "known" for diversity and racial equality is also a bit of a reach. This certainly does not refer to religious diversity, which is nonexistent in many Muslim-majority states. This is a plaudit better reserved for a speech at the opening of a synagogue in Mecca.
Most puzzling is the president's claim that "Islam has always been part of America." Islam had no influence on the origins and development of the United States. It contributed nothing to early American political culture, art, literature, music or any other aspect of the early nation.
Throughout most of American history, the Muslim world was perceived as remote, alien and belligerent. Perhaps the president was thinking about the Barbary Pirates and their role in the founding of the U.S. Navy, or Andrew Jackson's dispatch of frigates against Muslim pirates in Sumatra in the 1830s. Maybe he was recalling Rutherford B. Hayes' 1880 statement regarding Morocco on "the necessity, in accordance with the humane and enlightened spirit of the age, of putting an end to the persecutions, which have been so prevalent in that country, of persons of a faith other than the Moslem, and especially of the Hebrew residents of Morocco." Or Grover Cleveland's 1896 comment on the continuing massacre of Armenian Christians: "We have been afflicted by continued and not infrequent reports of the wanton destruction of homes and the bloody butchery of men, women and children, made martyrs to their profession of Christian faith. ... It so mars the humane and enlightened civilization that belongs to the close of the nineteenth century that it seems hardly possible that the earnest demand of good people throughout the Christian world for its corrective treatment will remain unanswered."
It also is customary in the United States to search for obscure contributions made by in-vogue minority groups as a feel-good way of promoting inclusion. One of the earliest Muslims to come to the United States was a 17th-century Egyptian named Norsereddin, who settled in the Catskills and was described by one chronicler as "haughty, morose, unprincipled, cruel and dissipated." Spurned by the princess of an Indian tribe that had befriended him, he managed through a subterfuge to poison her. He was later run down by the betrayed Indians, who burned him alive. It is not the kind of tale that makes it into politically correct history books.