I read with some interest the articles in the last few issues of The American Muslim regarding Crescent University. I appreciate much of Robert Crane’s vision, and also Jeremy Henzell-Thomas’s response, however, perhaps another perspective might add something to this exchange.
We view the world through our respective experiences, backgrounds, nationalities, cultures, religions, spiritualities etc. These experiences and backgrounds form our particular lens through which we might view the world around us. So, Robert Crane’s views are a reflection of his lens, and that is presented in his views of what the United States’’ “founders” represent to him, and Jeremy Henzell-Thomas speaks of his lens when he says that he is a “cousin across the Atlantic"and “an Englishman.”
My own lens , specific to the USA, has formed through the communities that I have lived and worked in as a Social Worker, and with whom I have a sense of solidarity. These communities have included Native Americans, Mexicans, Central Americans, African Americans, South Asians, and the broader Caucasian or “White” communities - that have been, for the most part, disenfranchised, or lower middle class or working class.
I am also a Muslim - and while the experience of racism is nothing new in the US, in these times it is important to state that I am a Muslim with darker brown skin, of South Asian background (who is a US citizen, by the way).
Robert Crane describes one of the roles, or missions of Crescent University : “As an American university created to fulfill the vision of America’s founders, Crescent provides the traditionalist framework that led to the American Revolution and to the founders’ conviction that it is America’s destiny to become a moral model for the world.” And that “This university is primarily for the American-born who feel a calling to lead America back to its roots as a Great Experiment…” While Henzell-Thomas points to the lack of love, and gives examples on the absurdity of US moral superiority over the rest of the world, - he does not seem to take up what forms an important aspect of Crane’‘s vision - one that takes as its basis of how he views the “founders” : that they had a “vision” that needs to be “fulfilled,” and that the US needs to go “back to its roots as a Great Experiment.”
A closer examination of this ” vision” is needed to understand what might end up being “fulfilled.” Much has been written in recent years on the American Revolution, and on the “founders” from the perspective of “minorities.” I have provided references at the end for further reading, here, for the sake of brevity, I have provided three examples:
While the American Revolution is often looked as a great battle for freedom, its impact on Native Americans ultimately led to their losing whatever sovereignty they had left at the time. As Ray Raphael says in this book A People’‘s History of the American Revolution (p. 244) “The American Revolution, a fight for freedom from colonial rule, was also the most extensive and destructive “Indian war” in the nation’‘s history…. It killed people - primarily warriors, but others as well, It burned their houses and destroyed their food, making them cold and hungry. It took away their land, hindering their ability to produce more food for the future…Once the patriots had defeated the mightiest empire on earth, they assumed they could subdue a few scattered Indians… For the patriots, the War of Independence signified a new beginning; for Native Americans, it only hastened the demise of their sovereign status…”
And African - Americans, those who were slaves at the time?
Thomas Jefferson who is sometimes quoted as being one of the more enlightened of the “founding fathers” and it is true that he was someone who favored abolition of slavery. However, he also held the belief that former slaves should be expatriated; because of their “differences,” they were not to live side by side with Whites.
Jefferson, as is well known now, was a slave owner. He was also clear on his view on the property nature of slavery that made humans products of commerce to be traded and bred for profit: “The value of our lands and slaves, taken conjunctly, doubles in about twenty years,” ... This arises from the multiplication of our slaves, from the extension of culture, and increased demands for lands.” So, he complains of the loss of “5 little ones in four years” and that he considered “the labor of a breeding woman as no object, and that a child raised every two years is of more profit than the crop of the best laboring man.” And with regards to the “differences” - he says “the first difference which strikes us is that of color,” ... this difference is fixed in nature” ... and refers to black skin as “that immovable veil of black which covers the emotions…” (Takaki, p.68-69)
And how did African-Americans fare after the revolution? Again quoting from Ray Raphael’‘s book (p. 296) : “African Americans, like Native Americans, lost power when Euro-Americans ceased to fight against each other. Notwithstanding the rhetorical cries of “liberty,” the institution of slavery remained firmly entrenched. Despite the wartime exodus, and epidemics, the number of slaves increased from less than 500,000 in 1770 to 700,000 in 1790…Southern planters had waged war to preserve a basic Lockean principle: the protection of property as a prerequisite for liberty. Since property for them meant slaves, the Revolution, far from terminating slavery, rigidified it…”
Given this history, the call for “fulfilling” of the founder’‘s “vision” and the corresponding idealization of the American Revolution is dangerous, to say the least. If Henzell-Thomas expresses his concerns about the US’‘s role as a “moral leader” of the world -and about US’‘s sense of supremacy over the planet. I , as a person of color living in the US, wonder about the racism and classism that formed part of how the “founders” understood their world. And what the cost might be if we, at this juncture, ignore the multi-cultural, and multi-visionary nature of the peoples that have lived on this land?
So, one might respond by saying, “the founders were the product of their times, and their words should be read within the context of their times” and to an extent this might be a valid argument, but we cannot just ignore the reality of exclusion, we need to, as Howard Zinn suggests in his People’‘s History (p. 73) “... try to understand the way in which the Declaration (of Independence) functioned to mobilize certain groups of Americans, ignoring others. Surely, inspirational language to create a secure consensus is still used, in our time, to cover up serious conflicts of interest in that consensus, and to cover, also, the omission of large parts of the human race.”
However, even after saying this, I recognize that the history of the American Revolution is a complicated affair with many competing interests, and this complexity is reflected in some of the views of the “founders,” and I would not suggest that it be totally dismissed.
How then might a vision for a university for Muslims, that is “Islamic” and located in the US, be mindful of the reality of a multi-ethnic USA, and the wide diversity of backgrounds, thoughts, and visions that make up Muslims living in the US?
First, if there is to be a focus on the land that is now the US, and the struggle for freedom on this particular area of the world, then the “founders” and the American Revolution would form only one component of that struggle and vision. The other visions that would need to be included, co-considered, and co-existing at an equal footing with the US “founders” would be the struggles, the mothers and fathers, and the unrecognized and unnamed heroes of Native Americans, African-
Americans, Asian-Americans, Mexican-Americans, the propertyless/working class Caucasian/White/European Americans, women, - and any others that I might have left out. This history would recognize the sacred traditions, visions, and struggles of this land hundreds, and thousands of years before Columbus landed, way before the American Revolution, during the revolution, and after…Such a multi-cultural/ethnic understanding would both create, and celebrate the tapestry of what is now the US.
Second, if such a focus is part of the university, then those struggles, and their respective “visions” would need to be critically looked at through a lens of the Islamic spiritual tradition -the Qur’an. What is the vision of the Qur’an? How do we understand that vision? Are the visions compatible? Or are they at odds? How might a reconciliation take place, and how might Muslims co-exist when visions diverge? And if the vision is oppressive, then how might the struggle for justice take place? Thus, the “vision” that would form the core, explored, considered, contemplated, and researched, would be the one that is expressed by the Qur’an.
Third, the struggle for peace and justice does not take place in isolation. Muslims cannot simply go off and do “our own thing” and ignore what is taking place around us. Focusing on the US, the university might encourage building bridges, coalitions, and working with other social justice groups, who might not only be working on issues directly effecting Muslims, but also the country, and our planet as a whole. So, they might work on issues such as the sanctions on Iraq, and Palestine, and also with local groups who might be working on disability rights, or cultivating organic food gardens, and standing in picket lines in solidarity with the local union workers. At the global level the students might work to have a more comprehensive understanding of global capitalism, the harm that it is doing to people around the world and to US workers, as well as the anti-global capitalism, pro-democracy movement that is quickly becoming a truly international movement.
Fourth, given that we live on earth, and not only in the US - the concept of a university that is primarily for those born in the USA is outdated. Such an institution would only further the parochialism that can now be seen in masjids around the US that are divided according to their respective ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. An additional “born in the USA” institution is not needed to add to this mix, there is plenty of narrowness, if one is seeking that.
And finally, such an institute of higher learning that is progressive, social justice oriented, faith based, and Islamic might well be met with some resistance, if not outright hostility. As such the model for such a university could not possibly be the large Catholic, other Christian, or Jewish institutions. The model for such a university might be the smaller progressive colleges that are community based, and are integrated into their communities. An example might be the New College of California located in San Francisco, with branches in a couple of other cities in Northern California. The college has excellent programs on public interest law, and on environmental studies amongst others, and its students are often activists; living, learning, and working in their respective communities.
The land I live in is multi-ethnic, multi-visionary, and has both an ancient, and contemporary history. The Qur’an itself has a wide view of history, it is not a mere recording of the history of the Prophet’‘s times, and perhaps there is something to be learned: that we cannot simply focus on one period, and make that our destination, or “go back to…..” Rather, we might learn from varied periods, events, and peoples. And perhaps make some humble efforts to take some steps while remembering our Creator.
Visit Altaf’‘s site at Islam and Social Justice Page, http://www.mindspring.com/~altafb/altaf.html
References and Resources
Martinez, Elizabeth, “De Colores Means All of Us: Latina Views for a Multi-Colored Century,” (Boston, 1998)
Raphael, Ray, “A People’‘s History of the American Revolution” (New York, 2001)
Takaki, Ronald, “A Different Mirror - A History of Multicultural America” (New York, 1993)
Zinn, Howard, “A People’‘s History of the United States 1492 to the present” (New York, 2001)