Muslims and the Making of America


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This article is a transcript of Professor and author, Dr. Amir Hussain's interview by Tavis Smily at PBS.

Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

President-elect Donald Trump made some controversial remarks about Muslims throughout the campaign for the White House. Now as the nation prepares for him to take office, many Muslim Americans are worried about what his administration will mean for their community. Tonight Professor and author, Amir Hussain, joins us to discuss Trump’s tough rhetoric and the surprising contributions of Muslim Americans.

 

Tavis: Dr. Amir Hussain is a scholar of religion who specializes in the study of Islam at Loyola Marymount here in Los Angeles. Born in Pakistan, he was raised in Canada before coming to the U.S. His most recent text is called “Muslims and the Making of America”. Professor Hussain, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Amir Hussain: Pleasure to be here, sir. Thank you.

Tavis: When you say Muslims and the making of America, what do Muslims have to do with the making of this country?

Hussain: Well, that’s precisely the point of the book, to say Muslims have been here for hundreds of years. The first line of the book, there’s never been an America without Muslims and Muslims have contributed to what it means to be American.

So we think last year, we lost the greatest of all time, Muhammad Ali, my great hero as a kid. You know, the most famous American, the most famous person who’s an American Muslim. And we start peeling back those layers and start looking at what is it that American Muslims have contributed to what it means to be American.

Tavis: How knowledgeable other than a person like Ali–we just saw Malcolm X in the picture alongside him. It was onscreen a second ago. There are a handful of people that we know, of course, in the culture that were Muslims. But how ignorant do you think most of us are about what Muslims have done to help weave the fabric that is America?

Hussain: I think most of us aren’t aware of that, you know, and it’s out of ignorance, not negatively. We just simply don’t know about these things. So you know about Ali. You know about my other great hero, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Everyone knows that Kareem last year got the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but do we think about the music? Do we think about Atlantic Records? The guy that co-founded Atlantic Records?

Tavis: Ahmet Ertegun, yeah.

Hussain: Ahmet Ertegun, Turkish Muslim, you know. And can you imagine America without Atlantic Records? Do you think about Fazlur R. Khan, the guy who’s a structural engineer who basically created the skyscrapers in Chicago, the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Tower. You know, can you imagine Chicago without those buildings?

You start looking at those kinds of folks. and then you go back literally to the making or the building of America. 10% of the slaves that are brought over from West Africa were Muslim and we know how much slave labor has gone into literally building this country.

So I think when we start from that point, from the slaves moving forward, there’s surprising contributions here. Not in any way to say that Muslims have done the most to create America. That would be ridiculous, but we’ve been part of that, part of that construction of what it means to be America and what it means to be American.

Tavis: And yet all of these years later, President-elect Donald Trump, if he has his way, will start having those Muslims register themselves to be in the country. What do you make of that? How afraid ought we be of that very notion?

Hussain: It’s a really scary thought. You know, we had that a decade ago, the NSEERS, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System that, thankfully, President Obama abolished at the end of last year finally. They stopped doing it in 2011.

They abolished it formally last year to say let’s sign up the 82,000–at that point, it wasn’t citizens. It was people who were here on visas–82,000 people who were here. Not one of them was charged with any kind of terrorism sort of thing, and that becomes scary.

You know, we lived through that 70 years ago with Pearl Harbor and the Japanese internment. That doesn’t make our country stronger interning our citizens. What makes our country stronger is our citizens working together here.

So I think, going back to your original question, there is that fear here amongst American Muslims because people don’t know that history, don’t know the contributions. If you’re going to intern us, are you going to intern the 20,000 or so Muslim doctors? Are you going to intern the 6,000 or so Muslims who serve in the Armed Forces?

Tavis: How palpable is that fear in the Muslim community or do people see this as Trump rhetoric, but don’t really expect public policy to follow?

Hussain: Yeah. I think there’s a couple of things there. I think, for some folks, it really is quite palpable. You know, I’m an American citizen, so I’ve got certain protections as a citizen. If I was here on a visa, if I was here as a student, you know, there would worries here.

The students at my university who are international students are worried. You know, what would this mean for their education? So there’s that part.

Part of it is that sense of, you know, is this just simply rhetoric or is the fact that the man, Kris Kobach, who created that NSEERS system, is advising President Trump and is that something that’s going to continue? So there are real worries there about what might happen.

Tavis: There is movement in the Senate. Cory Booker, Senator out of New Jersey, and others have signed on to try to advance legislation to stop President Trump–soon to be–from doing that.

I guess the question is what is your sense of what kind of response President Trump will in fact be met with in the House, in the Senate, given they’re both Republican controlled if and when he really does advance this notion?

Hussain: And you hope that he’s met with a strong response to it. You know, we have two Muslims in Congress. Both of them are Democrats. André Carson and…

Tavis: Keith Ellison, sure.

Hussain: Keith Ellison, absolutely. So you have those folks there. Are you going to round up those folks? Those folks, obviously not. So you hope that Americans stand up as Americans and say, look, we’re citizens. We’re all in this together. That’s what makes this such a great country that we look out for each other, we protect each other. We don’t start singling each other out.

That becomes the real fear because we’re a small community as Americans. We’re not a huge community, but we’re a successful community. You know, we’re academics, we’re professionals, we’re doctors, we’re engineers. We’re exactly the kind of people that make this country what it is.

Tavis: Sometimes the greater damage, as you well know, is done not necessarily by the person like Mr. Trump in this instance who advances this sort of bizarre notion, but the rest of us who remain silent. So I wonder what your honest–not that you’d lie to me anyway.

But I wonder what your real feeling is about whether or not the American people writ large would galvanize, would come together, to stop something like this from happening so long as it continues to be framed in this way that to not do this puts all the rest of us in danger in this era of terrorism.

I mean, what’s your confidence level on a scale of 1 to 10 how the American people would confront a president trying to do that?

Hussain: I have great faith in the American people, you know, as an American citizen. So I would put that in about an eight or a nine, not a 10, but an eight or nine. Part of that for me comes from the fact that I live here in Los Angeles and where I’m going with that is L.A. law enforcement, the people that are dealing with this on the ground level.

You look at our Sheriff. You look at our Chief of Police. They’ve both said that they need that cooperation from the Muslim community. So law enforcement wants to work with Muslims, not to alienate Muslims, not to isolate Muslims in that kind of way. So there’s that kind of thing that comes out. Part of it comes out from the fact that at least a quarter of American Muslims are African Americans.

People have no doubt about who they are as Americans. People have a long, long history of standing up for their rights, and knowing that painful history of what it means to stand up for those civil rights there. So you’re hopeful there for people.

Tavis: For young people, young Muslims, what is the lesson in this for them for them to even see where this potentially is headed?

Hussain: I think the lesson is that every generation really has to fight those kinds of struggles. It’s not enough to say that, you know, well, civil rights, that was 50 years ago. We won that, we’re fine. We’re not fine.

There’s huge issues with civil rights, women’s rights. We can’t say, oh, we fought that battle, we won. LGBTQ rights, you know, we can’t say we fought that battle, we won. So for young Muslims today, I think it’s that opportunity to do that kind of work, to stand for justice, to stand for American freedoms in the way that our ancestors did.

And in many ways, I think that’s where I’m hopeful is that it’s going to be easier for us precisely because of the civil rights movement precisely because the Japanese, for example, were interned post-Pearl Harbor.

I think that’s why we as American Muslims weren’t interned post-9/11. We make those kinds of connections, and we make those connections so that, for example, you see a rise in Islamophobia, a rise in hate crimes against Muslims this past year.

But the number one hate crime against a religious group is against Jewish communities, so you see that. You can’t just say, well, you know, anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, anti-Semitism is a thing of the last century. That’s now.

That’s happening, so you see connections between American Jews and American Muslims. That’s one of the things I love about my university, Loyola Marymount University, where you’re seeing not just the Muslim kids, but the Muslim kids and the Jewish kids and the Christian kids working together.

Tavis: Gives you reason to believe.

Hussain: Absolutely, sir.

Tavis: The book is called “Muslims and the Making of America” by Amir Hussain, professor here at LMU. Professor, good to have you on the program. Thanks for your time, sir.

Hussain: Thank you, sir. Appreciate it.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

Watch the Interview at PBS

Dr. Amir Hussain is Professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.  He is the author of Muslims and the Making of America.  


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