Much has happened since Denise Spellberg’s Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an came out in 2013. When I first read it, I treasured it for challenging grand narratives of Islam vs. “the West.” But now, sadly, I take away a different lesson: Rather than focusing on the tolerance espoused by some of our Founding Fathers, I am instead struck by Spellberg’s insights into the intolerance in our history and how easily attacks against a perceived Other can lead to vitriol aimed at religious and ethnic minorities more widely. Today we often refer to “Judeo-Christian civilization” but, as Spellberg points out, this term excludes Muslims from that shared history. Spellberg’s book reminds us of the strong tradition of tolerance in the United States, but also of how it is easy to fall short of that goal.
Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an revealed how our Founding Fathers considered Islam and Muslims during their debates on American identity. As I learned in a graduate seminar at the University of Texas taught by Professor Spellberg, our ideas of Islam in United States history tend to be far too simplistic: The first Muslims in America were not eighteenth-century immigrants from the Ottoman Empire, but enslaved peoples. We have evidence of Muslims living in America from before the American Revolution. Further, early Americans were neither completely ignorant of Islam nor universally hostile to it. As the title of Spellberg’s book indicates, our third president, Thomas Jefferson, owned multiple copies of the Qur’an (he replaced his first, which was destroyed in a fire) and had spent some time and effort considering its words.
Thus, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an has proven incredibly valuable for teaching. It provides students with concrete evidence against a simplistic narrative of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and the West. As Spellberg points out, while Jefferson may have personally held some bigoted views about Muslims, he retained his curiosity about Islam and opposed any kind of religious test for American citizenship or political office; Jefferson supported the possibility of a future Muslim president. Even more striking is that while ambassador to Paris, Jefferson even told the Muslim ambassador from Tripoli that he understood that Muslims and Christians worshiped the same God.
However, as Spellberg shows, while we might be able to discover the “ideal” of tolerance in Thomas Jefferson’s ownership of the Qur’an and openness to the possibility of a future Muslim president, we have oft fallen short of that ideal. Even in the twentieth century, Muslim, Jewish, and non-Protestant immigrants to the United States often changed their names to hide their religion in an attempt to avoid persecution. The phrase “Judeo-Christian” itself can only be dated back to 1899 and was not commonly used until the 1950s. Since the 2016 presidential election, we have experienced a rising wave of intolerance and hate-crimes in the United States: vandalism at Jewish cemeteries and threats against Jewish community centers, arsons at mosques, and violence aimed at already marginalized communities. Our new president, only in his third month in office, has suggested that Jews themselves could be responsible for the anti-Semitic attacks against them and has already signed two separate executive orders limiting Muslim immigration to the United States.
Spellberg’s book also raises important questions about the meaning of tolerance more broadly—both in our history and today. Recently, paralleling the dramatic increase in hate crimes nationwide, we have also begun a national debate about free speech and its limits. Conservative students who felt silenced by anti-Trump protests planned free speech events on many university campuses. At the University of California-Berkeley, large protests in January shut down such an event: a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, the incendiary former Brietbart News editor known for his criticism of Islam, feminism, social justice, and “P.C. culture” who has called himself a “free speech fundamentalist.” In large part, this debate has centered on attacking progressives for failing to be tolerant when it comes to views that they find abhorrent, such as white nationalism, anti-feminism, homophobia, anti-semitism, and Islamophobia. The New York Times published an article discussing the limits of free speech after the white supremacist Richard Spencer was punched in the face while he being interviewed during Trump’s inauguration.
Hannah Arendt, the Jewish political theorist who fled Nazi Germany and wrote The Origins of Totalitarianism, argued that, in part, the rise of Nazism could be attributed to the fact that we had associated human rights too closely with citizenship within a particular nation state. In other words, when they were coined in the eighteenth century, the Rights of Man were seen as universal, but eventually the nation state became the protector of those rights. Thus, the problem arose: If our citizenship guaranteed our rights, did we still have those rights outside of the framework of citizenship? During World War II, the universal rights of man broke down. Religious and ethnic minorities who were seen as outside the protection of the nation state had no “right” to protection, resulting in horrible atrocities. The 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights arose from that failure.
In my own classroom, I am tolerant of a wide variety of points of view. I teach students, in part, that, when we debate controversial topics, the goal is not to win or to get everyone in the class to agree. The goal is to listen to differing perspectives and understand that it is possible for well-informed individuals to come to different conclusions. I certainly do not expect students to agree with me. But accepting a wide variety of perspectives and valuing tolerance does not mean tolerating everything. Following from Arendt’s insights, I teach students that human rights are universal—they may hold most any opinion, but viewing any group as “subhuman” is not a matter of opinion.
We do not need to tolerate intolerance. In fact, we must actively fight it. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an highlighted the important legacy of tolerance toward religious minorities in our history. In 1783, President George Washington sent letters both to recent Irish Catholic immigrants and Jewish communities in the United States, insisting that “’the bosom of America’ was open to receive the oppressed and the persecuted of all Nations and Religions; whom we shall welcome to a participation of all our rights and privileges.” In 1783 when Washington wrote his letters to these minority communities, it’s estimated that there were about twenty-five thousand Catholics living in New York and only approximately two-thousand Jews living in the United States overall. Even though, as Spellberg noted, we were still struggling to define our national identity, our first president made clear that these minority communities should be an important part of that identity.
As Spellberg argues, the very decision by our Founding Fathers to include imagined Muslims in our concept of citizenship represented “a decided resistance to the idea of what some would still imagine America to be: a Christian nation.” Rereading Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an during the Trump administration highlights the continuing need to fight for this vision of an inclusive American identity.