Visits to American mosques by sitting U.S. Presidents are a big deal. Only three have ever done so.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first to visit a mosque on June 28th, 1957. This week marks the 59th anniversary of that visit to the Islamic Center of Washington.
President George W. Bush visited, incidentally, the very same mosque, but 44 years later and six days after September 11th, 2001.
President Barack Obama visited the Islamic Society of Baltimore earlier this year in February.
Particular sets of politics played out in each visit, but the overall message it sends to the American Muslim community remains consistent – a recognition and validation of the American Muslim experience. This piece will explore and contextualize President Eisenhower’s speech, highlighting both the inspirational and, well, the problematic. In so doing, there are important lessons to be learned for today. In 1957, President Eisenhower visited the Islamic Center of Washington in D.C. There, President Eisenhower delivered a speech that marked the dedication of the recently-built mosque. In it, he highlighted the “Muslim genius” that has cultivated some of history’s most important inventions, discoveries, art, literature and thought now considered indispensable to modern civilization.
“Civilization owes to the Islamic world some of its most important tools and achievements. From fundamental discoveries in medicine to the highest planes of astronomy, the Muslim genius has added much to the culture of all peoples. That genius has been a wellspring of science, commerce and the arts, and has provided for all of us many lessons in courage and in hospitality.”
It is important to also remember that President Eisenhower’s visit marked a time in which the United States began to look to the Middle East amidst global geopolitical struggles over ideology. This was especially the case with Iran. During that time, American Muslims were looked to with great interest as political intermediaries between the U.S. and Muslim-majority countries. President Eisenhower’s remarks, then, must also be viewed from a lens of strategic and calculated diplomacy. The Islamic Center of Washington – originally established by and for Muslim ambassadors and foreign diplomats on Embassy Row – thus made for a fitting backdrop. President Eisenhower also spoke of freedom of religion and religious pluralism, and firmly rooted these ideals to the founding tenets of the U.S. Constitution:
“I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.”
It is curious that President Eisenhower here used the word “church” instead of “mosque.” Perhaps some contextualization will help to clarify. According to Will Herberg in his widely acclaimed Protestant-Catholic-Jew, the 1950s were a unique period in American history, marked by a paradox of “pervasive secularism amid mounting religiosity” within American society. Herberg explains that, in the 1950s, Americans increasingly turned to religious communities to achieve a sense of belonging – a logical progression considering America’s unique immigrant experience, in which everything but one’s religion was expected to be changed or “melted down.” Herberg goes on to explain that “religious normality” in the mid-twentieth century U.S. was limited to the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faith traditions. To identity as anything else, be it Muslim or secular humanist, for instance, was somehow “un-American” insofar as it was disloyal to, or a betrayal of, the “American Way of Life” and “its appropriate manifestations and expressions” of Protestantism, Catholicism and Judaism. As a result, explains Kambiz GhaneaBassiri in A History of Islam in America, many immigrants with Muslim backgrounds or whose race fell outside the bounds of culturally and legally accepted norms of the time faced enormous pressure to assimilate in such a way that shed either their ostensibly problematic religious identity, or to “pass” as one of the legally acceptable “races” for naturalization, or even both. GhaneaBassiri expands on this harsh, xenophobic reality:
“The conflation of race, religion, and progress affected immigrants from countries with a significant Muslim population at the turn of the twentieth century in two principled ways. At one level, it legally restricted mainly through quotas, their entry to the United States and their eligibility for citizenship. At another level, it defined the paradigm of American identity through which they were expected to self-identify in order to be accepted as Americans. Since the stigma around Islam at this time would not have allowed for its inclusion within this national identity paradigm, immigrant Muslims who sought inclusion did so primarily through an ethnic rather than a religious mode of self-identification.”
Therefore, while the Christian and Jewish religious identities of immigrants survived assimilation, for Muslim immigrants this was largely not the case. Today, shifts in demographics are challenging this reality. According to a Pew demographic study on the future of world religions, Islam is projected to be the second largest non-Christian religion in the United States by 2050, surpassed only by those who identify as religiously unaffiliated. Considering these trends and the exclusionary ethos it challenges – namely, that Islam is somehow an innately un-American religious identity – many American Muslims are left wondering how and where they fit into this so-called American Way of Life. Perhaps President Eisenhower said it best all along:
“As I stand beneath these graceful arches, surrounded on every side by friends from far and near, I am convinced that our common goals are both right and promising. Faithful to the demands of justice and of brotherhood, each working according to the lights of his own conscience, our world must advance along the paths of peace.”
The wisdom of President Eisenhower’s words at the Washington mosque over half a century ago are a reminder of the core religious freedoms enshrined in our Constitution and a warning to those today who would deny American Muslims their ability to practice their faith freely and without prejudice. Indeed, foreshadowed President Eisenhower, those who do so will turn America into “something else than what we are.”