As many on the right preach the irreconcilability of Islam with their misinformed idea of “Western democracy” and play into the hands of ISIS with their idle talk of a “clash of civilizations,” it is worth remembering that our founding fathers, whose ideals of America as a land of freedom and opportunity conservatives are making a mockery of, in fact specifically advocated protecting the rights of Muslims.
While it is often mentioned that Thomas Jefferson owned a Qur’an, which is still preserved in the Library of Congress, it is often forgotten that this was not merely an object of curiosity or study to Jefferson but a representation of his active interest in Islam and the rights of Muslims. Defending a religious pluralism that many more conservative founders wished to limit to Protestantism, Jefferson wrote, “neither Pagan nor Muhammadan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth due to his religion.” This was a sentiment that Jefferson often repeated, drawing inspiration from one of his intellectual heroes, the seventeenth-century English philosopher John Locke, who also frequently invoked the rights and equality of Muslims.
Locke was among the most progressive thinkers of the European Enlightenment, who took the ideas of toleration and pluralism that had been festering in Europe since the Renaissance to their most extreme, with Jefferson of course taking them even farther by actually building a government upon the foundation of these Enlightenment ideals. After more than a thousand years of conflict between Christian Europe and the Muslim world, the vast majority of Europeans – and, in Jefferson’s time, Americans – knew almost nothing about Muslims and viewed them as sub-human barbarians. Locke’s and Jefferson’s inclusion of Muslims within the confines of a pluralist society was thus a radical departure from common belief and an indication of the universality of freedom in these men’s minds. While the founding fathers were not aware of the large Muslim population in colonial America and their endorsement of the rights of Muslims were thus purely hypothetical, it is nonetheless clear that Jefferson imagined Muslims as being future citizens of the United States, and citizens with equal rights. This is something that conservatives, in their racist hatred, still haven’t reconciled themselves to in an America that is home to millions of Muslim citizens.
George Washington expressed similar sentiments of tolerance towards Muslims, saying of potential Americans, “they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mohammedans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any sect, or they may be Atheists.” Such an expression of universal freedom, no matter how theoretical or hypocritical, is nothing short of remarkable in the eighteenth-century Western world, and is a representation of how remarkable the American vision of freedom and equality, when properly implemented, truly is. Unfortunately, Republicans today are trouncing those ideals at every turn and have become a disgrace to Jeffersonian ideals. Indeed it is a telling demonstration of both the bigoted depravity of the modern Republican party that the founding fathers had more respect for the rights of Muslims in America 250 years ago than the leading Republican presidential candidate does today.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.