The Founding Fathers Weren’t Anti-Islam

The Founding Fathers were not nearly as anti-Muslim as many current American Christians.

As Ted Widmer writes in the Boston Globe:

The Founders were way ahead of us. They thought hard about how to build a country of many different faiths. And to advance that vision to the fullest, they read the Koran, and studied Islam with a calm intelligence that today’s over-hyped Americans can only begin to imagine. They knew something that we do not. To a remarkable degree, the Koran is not alien to American history — but inside it.

No book states the case more plainly than a single volume, tucked away deep within the citadel of Copley Square — the Boston Public Library. The book known as Adams 281.1 is a copy of the Koran, from the personal collection of John Adams. There is nothing particularly ornate about this humble book, one of a collection of 2,400 that belonged to the second president. But it tells an important story, and reminds us how worldly the Founders were, and how impervious to the fanaticisms that spring up like dandelions whenever religion and politics are mixed. They, like we, lived in a complicated and often hostile global environment, dominated by religious strife, terror, and the bloodsport of competing empires. Yet better than we, they saw the world as it is, and refused the temptation to enlarge our enemies into Satanic monsters, or simply pretend they didn’t exist.

Reports of Korans in American libraries go back at least to 1683, when an early settler of Germantown, Pa., brought a German version to these shores. Despite its foreign air, Adams’s Koran had a strong New England pedigree. The first Koran published in the United States, it was printed in Springfield in 1806.

Why would John Adams and a cluster of farmers in the Connecticut valley have bought copies of the Koran in 1806? Surprisingly, there was a long tradition of New Englanders reading in the Islamic scripture. The legendary bluenose Cotton Mather had his faults, but a lack of curiosity about the world was not one of them. Mather paid scrupulous attention to the Ottoman Empire in his voracious reading, and cited the Koran often in passing. True, much of it was in his pinched voice — as far back as the 17th century, New England sailors were being kidnapped by North African pirates, a source of never ending vexation, and Mather denounced the pirates as “Mahometan Turks, and Moors and Devils.” But he admired Arab and Ottoman learning, and when Turks in Constantinople and Smyrna succeeded in inoculating patients against smallpox, he led a public campaign to do the same in Boston (a campaign for which he was much vilified by those who called inoculation the “work of the Devil,” merely because of its Islamic origin). It was one of his finer moments.

This theory was eloquently expressed around the time the Constitution was written. One of its models was the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution, which John Adams had helped to create, and which, in the words of one of its drafters, Theophilus Parsons, was designed to ensure “the most ample of liberty of conscience” for “Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.”

As the Founders deliberated over what types of people would ultimately populate the strange new country they were creating, they cited Muslims as an extreme of foreign-ness whom it would be important to protect in the future. Perhaps, they daydreamed, a Muslim or a Catholic might even be president someday? Like everything, they debated it. Some disapproved, but Richard Henry Lee insisted that “true freedom embraces the Mahometan and Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.” George Washington went out of his way to praise Muslims on several occasions, and suggested that he would welcome them at Mount Vernon if they were willing to work. Benjamin Franklin argued that Muslims should be able to preach to Christians if we insisted on the right to preach to them. Near the end of his life, he impersonated a Muslim essayist, to mock American hypocrisy over slavery.

Thomas Jefferson, especially, had a familiarity with Islam that borders on the astonishing. Like Adams, he owned a Koran, a 1764 English edition that he bought while studying law as a young man in Williamsburg, Va. Only two years ago, that Koran became the center of a controversy, when the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, asked if he could place his hand on it while taking his oath of office — a request that elicited tremendous screeches from the talk radio extremists. Jefferson even tried to learn Arabic, and wrote his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom to protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”

Jefferson and Adams led many of our early negotiations with the Islamic powers as the United States lurched into existence. A favorable treaty was signed with Morocco, simply because the Moroccans considered the Americans ahl-al-kitab, or “people of the book,” similar to Muslims, who likewise eschewed the idolatry of Europe’s ornate state religions.

What are Muslims Like?

Some Muslims really are terrorists.

Some Christians are as well.

In truth, the percentage of Muslim and Christian terrorists is very small compared to the huge numbers of adherents of those faiths.

Just like Christians range from abortion doctor killers to mystics, Muslims range from jihadis to poets like Rumi (Sufism – the mystical branch of Islam – is peaceful and contemplative).

As prominent Christian writer, psychiatrist and army doctor M. Scott Peck wrote, all humans – no matter what religion might be dominant in their culture – go through 4 stages of development:

1st: Chaos (a heroin addict, for example, who robs to support his habit)

2nd: Fundamentalism (clinging to dogma in order to fight off chaos; believing the book – whether Bible, Koran or Bhagavad Gita – is THE truth, and anyone who disagrees is evil)

3rd: Skepticism and questioning (feeling stable enough to question the dogma of the dominant religion and other institutions)

4th: Maturity (keeping the skepticism and questioning, but also being open to life’s beauty, love and mystery; using both one’s head and heart; being passionate and dedicated to making the world a better place)

(These 4 steps are not necessarily the full and complete truth, but they present one possible description which is useful for starting a discussion on religion).

Ignore the clothes, the skin color and the accent, and what do we see?

A drug addict in Saudi Arabia, America or Israel will look fairly similar. Fundamentalist Christians, Muslims and Jews all think the other guy is evil, and that God wants them to wipe the other guy out. Skeptics look the same everywhere. And people who integrate their head and their heart all are operating out of the same basic dynamic.

We Helped Radicalize Islam

Moreover – in order to know our history and perhaps become a tad more humble in the process – it is important to recognize that we helped to create “radical Islam”.

President Carter’s National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski has openly admitted that he created the Mujahadeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. And it continued under President Reagan (here’s a picture of President Reagan meeting with some of these folks).

As the Council on Foreign Relations writes:

The 9/11 Commission report (PDF) released in 2004 said some of Pakistan’s religious schools or madrassas served as “incubators for violent extremism.” Since then, there has been much debate over madrassas and their connection to militancy.


It was Pakistan’s leading role in the anti-Soviet campaign in neighboring Afghanistan during this time that radicalized some of these madrassas. New madrassas sprouted, funded and supported by Saudi Arabia and U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, where students were encouraged to join the Afghan resistance.

And see this.

And veteran journalist Robert Dreyfuss writes:

For half a century the United States and many of its allies saw what I call the “Islamic right” as convenient partners in the Cold War.


Today it’s convenient to speak about a Clash of Civilizations. But … in the decades before 9/11, hard-core activists and organizations among Muslim fundamentalists on the far right were often viewed as allies for two reasons, because they were seen a fierce anti-communists and because the opposed secular nationalists such as Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh.

In the 1950s, the United States had an opportunity to side with the nationalists, and indeed many U.S. policymakers did suggest exactly that, as my book explains. But in the end, nationalists in the Third World were seen as wild cards who couldn’t be counted on to join the global alliance against the USSR. Instead, by the end of the 1950s, rather than allying itself with the secular forces of progress in the Middle East and the Arab world, the United States found itself in league with Saudi Arabia’s Islamist legions. Choosing Saudi Arabia over Nasser’s Egypt was probably the single biggest mistake the United States has ever made in the Middle East.

A second big mistake … occurred in the 1970s, when, at the height of the Cold War and the struggle for control of the Middle East, the United States either supported or acquiesced in the rapid growth of Islamic right in countries from Egypt to Afghanistan. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat brought the Muslim Brotherhood back to Egypt. In Syria, the United States, Israel, and Jordan supported the Muslim Brotherhood in a civil war against Syria. And … Israel quietly backed Ahmed Yassin and the Muslim Brotherhood in the West Bank and Gaza, leading to the establishment of Hamas.

Still another major mistake was the fantasy that Islam would penetrate the USSR and unravel the Soviet Union in Asia. It led to America’s support for the jihadists in Afghanistan. But … America’s alliance with the Afghan Islamists long predated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and had its roots in CIA activity in Afghanistan in the 1960s and in the early and mid-1970s. The Afghan jihad spawned civil war in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, gave rise to the Taliban, and got Osama bin Laden started on building Al Qaeda.

Would the Islamic right have existed without U.S. support? Of course. This is not a book for the conspiracy-minded. But there is no question that the virulence of the movement that we now confront—and which confronts many of the countries in the region, too, from Algeria to India and beyond—would have been significantly less had the United States made other choices during the Cold War.

And the chief of the visa section at the U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (J. Michael Springmann, who is now an attorney in private practice) says that the CIA insisted that visas be issued to Afghanis so they could travel to the U.S. to be trained in terrorism in the United States, and then sent back to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets.

In other words, if the U.S. and our allies hadn’t backed the radical violent Muslims instead of more stable, peaceful groups in the Middle East, radical Islam wouldn’t have grown so large.

Stopping the Bad Guys

That’s not to say that we don’t need to stop the handful of Muslim terrorists that are threatening the U.S. (to give you an idea of numbers, there may be less than 50 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan according to the CIA itself).

But war is not the way to protect America, and defeating Islam is not the way to safety. And see this.

Specifically, according to top security analysts, the global war on terror is weakening, rather than strengthening, our national security, and making us more vulnerable to terrorist attacks:

For those who still think that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are necessary to fight terrorism, remember that a leading advisor to the U.S. military – the very hawkish and pro-war Rand Corporation – released a study in 2008 called “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida“.

The report confirms that the war on terror is actually weakening national security. As a press release about the study states:

“Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism.”

Former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told the Senate that the war on terror is “a mythical historical narrative”. And Newsweek has now admitted that the war on terror is wholly unnecessary.

(And no … 9/11 did not “change everything”.)

Beware of False Prophets

The neoconservatives who launched the wars in the Middle East may not even be people of faith themselves.

As I noted last year:

The godfather of the Neoconservative movement – Leo Strauss – taught that religion should be used as a way to manipulate people to achieve the aims of the leaders. But that the leaders themselves need not believe in religion.

As I have previously written:

Leo Strauss is the father of the Neo-Conservative movement, including many leaders of the current administration. Indeed, some of the main neocon players were students of Strauss at the University of Chicago, where he taught for many years. Strauss, born in Germany, was an admirer of Nazi philosophers and of Machiavelli.

Strauss believed that “A political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat . . . . Following Machiavelli, he maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to be manufactured” (quote is by one of Strauss’ main biographers).

Therefore, it is unknown whether the [Neocons] who [launched the wars in the Middle East] actually believed that the brown-skinned people they wished to [destroy] were Satan-worshippers who needed either to be converted or destroyed.

More likely, they just followed the old Straussian playbook in creating a threat which didn’t exist – Satanic Muslims who wanted to take over the world – and using religion to rally the mid- and lower-level participants in the … program to carry out their orders.

Atheists Versus People of Faith

I want to address one more divisive issue related to religion, which I think disempowers those of us working for a better world.

Many atheists believe that all religious people are pedophiles, idiots, crackpots or charlatans, and many people of faith think that all atheists are selfish, rootless, valueless and crude.

But let’s look at the facts.

Initially, about two-thirds of American scientists believe in God if you count the social sciences. About 40% of physical scientists believe in God, and that number has stayed constant for almost 100 years. So atheists shouldn’t assume that all people of faith are idiots.

And the Bible says that you shall know them by their fruits, not by what they say. So believers shouldn’t assume that all people who say they are Christians are good guys.

Some Christians are pedophiles, murderers and con men. But others are fighting hard for justice, truth and social justice.

Some atheists are selfless, valueless hedonists. But others are tireless in their struggle for liberty, have a passion for freedom which they are willing to sacrifice their lives for, are selfless in their service and their love for the smallest of us.

Making the other side the “bad guys” only adds to the ability of the powers-that-be to divide and conquer us.

The left-right split is false, and hundreds of millions of Americans are waking up to the fact that the whole Republicans-Versus-Democrats things is a dog-and-pony show. They are waking up to the fact that both parties serve the big banks, big pharma, military-industrial complex, and the whole oligarchy.

These Americans realize that it doesn’t matter whether a politician wears a red tie or a blue one: he or she either serves the big money boys or the American people, and that the “team” he’s on doesn’t matter.

We also have to wake up to the false dichotomy about faith.

Just as it is urgent that we recognize the left-versus-right split for the game it is, we atheists have to tolerate religious folks … and we people of faith have to tolerate non-believers.

I am lucky to call some incredible atheists and some amazing believers my friends and colleagues in the struggle for a better world. We may not see everything exactly the same … but it is a big tent.

Postscript: Granted, there have always been some radical factions in Islam, just as there have always been radical factions in Christianity and Judaism. But – contrary to what fundamentalists would tell you – Muslims claim that the Quran does not promote going out and killing non-Muslims.

While there might be some stage 2 (using M. Scott Peck’s system) Muslims who believe the Quran commands them to kill the “other guys”, just as some stage 2 Christians or stage 2 Jews think that the Bible commands them to kill Muslims (the Crusades, for example) or atheists or abortion doctors or others. And remember, governments often use tactics to make the other guy seem more violent.

But again, the problem isn’t any particular religion, it is the immaturity of a small handful of its followers, and the misuse of religion by the powers-that-be to divide and conquer us.

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