They came before Columbus: Muslims at the crossroads

In 2003 Ameen Izzadeen spent nearly a month in the United States as a guest of the US State Department. This is part one of a series of observations penned  after his visit. As an outside observer Mr. Izzadeens insights are both enlightening and squarely on the mark.  Mr. Izzadeen addresses the concerns of Post 9-11 Muslims in America and the campaign to vilify  the American Muslims.  We present the 8 part series in its entirety.

Islam in America : (P-1)
They came before Columbus: Muslims at the crossroads
This article appeared on Friday, October 3rd, 2003 in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

by Ameen Izzadeen
(Deputy Editor The Sunday Times and Daily Mirror-Sri Lanka)

Early July this year, when I was getting ready to leave for office, I  got a call from the United States Information Service, informing me  that the State Department in Washington had selected me for a three- week tour of the United States. This was consequent on a conversation I had had a year ago with some USIS officials who had advised me to send my resume for a visit. Since I had been a vehement critic of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, I asked them whether I was being bribed. They said it was a study tour that would help me
understand the American culture better. The theme of the tour was “Islam in America after 9/11” – a politically charged topic – I could not resist.
To broaden my horizons, to explore the land that has always  fascinated me and to experience the vibrancy of the democracy,  protected and promoted by a constitution, which, I believe, is the  best man-made document on earth, I agreed to undertake the tour.
This sticker put out by the Council for American Islamic Relations, a  premier Islamic human rights group, shows that Muslim reawakening has  begun
When I shared the news with my friends and family members, I was  warned. “They are getting you there to bump you off.”
My two little daughters, Sumaiyah and Safiyah, in their innocence told me, “Dada, don’t go. The Americans will bomb you, like the way they bomb Iraq.” I had a tough time in assuring them that most Americans are good people.
It is no secret that many Muslims in the post-9/11 global order perceive the United States as an enemy. They suspect that the Bush administration’s war on terrorism is a cover for a war on Islam and Muslims. Some still believe that 9/11 was a plot hatched by the CIA or the Israeli intelligence service Mossad or even the right wing Christian elements or the all three to subjugate the Muslim world.
It is amidst such apprehensions that I decided to undertake the ‘Islam in America’ tour, come what may. The fact that I have come back alive shows that reality is far from apprehensions. Why should they do away with me? After all I am not even an insignificant small fry in the US global agenda. Besides, I am not the only critic of the US foreign policy.
While admitting that three weeks were hardly sufficient to carry out a comprehensive study on Islam in America, my interaction with government officials, Islamic activists, Native Americans, Jewish and Christian leaders, human rights activists and secularists helped me view the subject from many perspectives.
The tour as a whole was an intellectually stimulating experience.  With our outlook having been conditioned by Euro-centric or America- centric notions, people, living in this highly enlightened age of science and reason, still say that America was discovered by Christopher Columbus, thus negating the fact that America was inhabited by hundreds of tribes. Such a belief also pushes us to
resign ourselves to the fait accompli and quashes the questions that help us go beyond the so-called Columbus discovery.
They came before Columbus? Who? The Muslims: In fact, nearly 180 years before Columbus. Young Afro-American scholar Amir Nashid Ali  Muhammad in his book ‘Muslims in America: Seven centuries of History  (1312-2000)’ traces the origins of Islam in America to 1312 when  African Muslims first arrived in the Gulf of Mexico for exploration  of the American interior using the Mississippi River as their access  route. These Muslim explorers were from Mali and other parts of West Africa. Abu Bakri the brother of Mansa Musa was one of the first to set sail to America from Africa.
Amir Muhammad is not the only person to say this. Ivan Van Sertima in his books, ‘They Came Before Columbus’ and ‘African Presence in Early America’ also confirms that Moors or Muslims arrived before Columbus.  Dr. Barry Fell in his book ‘Saga America’ says that the southwest Pima people possessed a vocabulary which contained words of Arabic origin. Dr. Fell also reports that in Inyo County, California, there exists an early rock carving which states in Arabic: Yeses ben Maria (Jesus, son of Mary) – an Islamic reference to Christ.
That is the beginning; a beginning many Americans do not know or have never been taught in school.
Throughout American history, the saga of Muslims has depicted suppression and resilience, slavery and freedom, retreat and renaissance: A cycle of ups and downs. Islam in America is full of ironies. While, today, Islam is the fastest growing religion and the second largest religion in America, it is facing many a challenge. On the one hand, Muslims are being attacked by white racists while on the other, new legislation and security measures have curbed their freedom. They are caught between their Islamic identity and loyalty to the State, which is fighting a war they do not support. The American Muslim today stands up and cries, “I am a Muslim and I am an American”.
September 11, 2001 changed the destiny of the Muslims and the world.  As the sole superpower, for the first time in post-World War II history, took the brunt of what it scornfully called Islamic terrorism on its own soil, Islam itself came into the spotlight.

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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