Green Chair lecturer bridges the wisdom of the founding fathers and 21st Century Islam
by Caroline Collier
More from Spring 2015
More in Campus News: Alma Matters, Research + Discovery
Topics: Heard on campus
by Caroline Collier
Aminah McCloud revisited an 18th century statement by James Madison to discuss American attitudes about Muslims today. The original American notions of freedom of religion are critical to examining tolerance — or lack thereof — for today’s diverging worldviews, she said.
McCloud, the first Cecil H. and Ida Green Honors Chair in Religion, gave an hour-long talk in January about Islam in America. The professor of religious studies from DePaul University connected perceptions of Muslims to ideas about the separation of church and state.
The conflict with religious values and the values prized by the dominant culture is one of the recurring themes in our historyAminah McCloud
James Madison, the Virginian who became the country’s fourth president, was a key figure in establishing the still-pertinent notions of religious freedom, she said. He and fellow Virginia statesman Patrick Henry debated about whether the Anglican Church could levy taxes on the settlers.
Many of the 18th century migrants came to the new world to flee religious persecution in Europe. They wanted to establish a new way of conducting political and religious affairs – one in which the church was not an agent of the state.
“They fought the American revolution in part over these issues,” McCloud said. As an independent nation, the U.S. continued to evolve, but the practice of religious freedom, even among Christian sects, remained a contentious one.
“The conflict with religious values and the values prized by the dominant culture is one of the recurring themes in our history,” she said.
While the American government may not collect taxes on behalf of a church, widespread acceptance of all faiths is not always the norm.
McCloud cited examples of religious intolerance in America’s civic history: a reluctance to vote for Catholics in federal elections, and the refusal of entry to asylum-seeking Jewish people at the dawn of World War II.
The intolerance persists today’s multicultural America, McCloud said. The influx of immigrants from unfamiliar places has caused “profound doubts about who exactly are among the ‘we,’ and who are among the ‘they.’”
But Madison’s notion of freedom of religion must apply to all faiths for it to have meaning, she said.
At the end of the talk, McCloud played a clip from the ABC television show Primetime: What Would You Do? The segment showed an actor in West, Texas refusing to sell pastries to an actress wearing a hijab because he believed the woman was not an American. In the experiment, several customers stood up to the injustice, but the majority either vocally agreed with the cashier or stood by and said nothing about the discrimination.
The Muslim religion has caused “many Americans intolerable anxiety,” McCloud said. “But fortunately not all Americans have given in to the anxiety.”
She discussed some reasons Islam has caused such emotional response in people unfamiliar with the faith. One was mass media’s uniform portrayal of American Muslims, who come from more than 80 countries in addition to the U.S.-born believers. She said Muslims are as diverse as the larger society in America.
McCloud reminded the roughly 150 people in attendance that conflict over certain religions is nothing new, merely a repeating occurrence of an old debate. “We forget,” she said, “until we are reminded of history and our precious experiment.”
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Aminah Beverly McCloud shows that African American Islamic expressions are movements well within the 1,400-year-old Islamic traditions. She also looks at what “becoming Muslim” means and how African American Muslims negotiate space in the religious landscape of America.
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