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Presidents and Islam

Islam is the third largest religion in the United States after Christianity and Judaism. In 2010, it was estimated that 0.9% of the population were followers of Islam, compared to 70.6% who follow Christianity, 22.8% unaffiliated, 1.9% Judaism, 0.7% Buddhism, and 0.7% Hinduism. A more recent estimate from last year, places the number of Muslims living in the United States at 3.3 million, about 1% of the total U.S. population.



Records from the American Revolutionary War indicate that a small number of Muslims fought on the American side. The first country to recognize the United States as an independent nation was the Sultanate of Morocco in 1777. Its ruler, Mohammed ben Abdallah, maintained a correspondences with President George Washington. On December 9, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson hosted an Iftar dinner at the White House for his guest Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, an envoy from Tunis.

Immigration to the U.S. by Muslims began in small numbers in 1840, with the arrival of Yemenis and Turks. It continued through to World War I, with most of these immigrants coming from Arab areas of the Ottoman Empire. These immigrants settled primarily in Dearborn, Michigan; Quincy, Massachusetts; and Ross, North Dakota. Ross is the site of the first documented mosque and Muslim Cemetery.

In 1957, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first sitting president to speak at an American mosque at the inauguration ceremony of the same Islamic center that would later be visited by President George W. Bush in 2001. In speaking to those assembled, President Eisenhower gave his assurance to his audience that the United States “would fight with her whole strength” for Muslims’ right to worship according to their conscience.

In 1974, Gerald R. Ford became the first president to send an official message to Muslim-Americans for Eid al-Fitr, the festival that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. Ford said in his message that America’s diversity had been “greatly enhanced” by the “religious heritage” of Muslim-Americans. In 1981, Ronald Reagan nominated America’s first Muslim ambassador, Robert Dickson Crane, an American who had converted to Islam.

In 2002, President George W. Bush became the first president to visit an American mosque on the Eid festival. Bush had previously made statements in which he made it clear that the September 11th attacks were perpetrated by terrorists and that Islam was not the enemy. Speaking just days after the September 11th attacks, Bush said:

"Like the good folks standing with me, the American people were appalled and outraged at last Tuesday's attacks. And so were Muslims all across the world. Both Americans and Muslim friends and citizens, tax-paying citizens, and Muslims in nations were just appalled and could not believe what we saw on our TV screens. These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that.

"The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: 'In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.' The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war.

"When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race. America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect."


On a number of occasions, Bush took the position that demonizing Muslims and depicting Islam as the enemy only served to fuel Al Qaeda’s narrative. Even before his presidency, he adopted an inclusive view of Muslim-Americans, prompting journalist Suhail Khan to write, "If Clinton was, as the author Toni Morrison once quipped, America’s first black president, Bush was, at least momentarily, the country’s first Muslim president." For example in 1999, candidate Bush hosted a series of meetings between Muslim and Republican leaders, and visited an Islamic center in Michigan, making him the first major presidential candidate to do so. The 2000 Republican convention in Philadelphia was the first in either national party’s history to include a Muslim prayer. On the campaign trail, Bush regularly spoke about the faith of Americans who regularly attended a “church, synagogue, or mosque.” After Muslim community leaders brought to him their civil liberties concerns over a piece of 1996 immigration enforcement legislation signed into law by Bill Clinton, Bush criticized that law in one of his presidential debates against Vice President Al Gore.



In the same speech made in the week after the September 11th attacks, Bush spoke out against acts of violence perpetrated against Muslims in supposed relaliation for the attacks. He said:

"I've been told that some fear to leave; some don't want to go shopping for their families; some don't want to go about their ordinary daily routines because, by wearing cover, they're afraid they'll be intimidated. That should not and that will not stand in America. Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don't represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind, and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior. This is a great country. It's a great country because we share the same values of respect and dignity and human worth. And it is my honor to be meeting with leaders who feel just the same way I do. They're outraged, they're sad. They love America just as much as I do."
Tags: bill clinton, dwight d. eisenhower, george w. bush, george washington, gerald ford, immigration, ronald reagan, thomas jefferson
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