Monday, April 8, 2019

A Tale of Two Museums (Part One) - Hugh Fitzgerald

by Hugh Fitzgerald

Much ado about [almost] nothing

“What you don’t know about America’s Islamic heritage” is what USA Today purports to tell us in a feature story published some time ago that remains relevant as one example of a growing chorus.

One of the greatest stories rarely told about the long history of Muslim immigration to the United States stretching back hundreds of years is actually being told most days by Amir Muhammad, the founder and chief curator of America’s Islamic Heritage Museum, a tiny institution with a do-it-yourself collector’s vibe and a modest entrance fee that sits in an out of the way corner of southeast Washington, D.C.
But, in an age of American political sectarianism when immigrant and minority-rights groups and U.S. lawmakers have blasted President Donald Trump’s incendiary comments, not many people are paying attention to the story Muhammad is revealing about the Muslim experience.
“American Muslims haven’t been great at explaining our side, at engaging with folks — you know? Not too many Americans come out here. We get some schools and international guests,” said Muhammad, 64, in a recent interview.
As Muhammad spoke in one of the museum’s small airless hallways, the lights kept flickering. Nearby, a smoke alarm chirped in need of batteries. Dusty glass displays featured Korans from around the world. Outside, the run-down front entrance was framed by a sign in a blue font: America’s Islamic Heritage Museum. Orangey-yellow streaks of rust ran down the face of it.
“Once, a French documentary crew stopped by,” he added. “It’s like that.”
Small airless hallways, flickering lights, a smoke alarm that needs batteries, “dusty glass displays” of “Korans from around the world.” A sign outside this tiny place, rust-streaked in orangey-yellow. A general air of inattention and decay. Once a French film crew stopped by. Sounds as if they didn’t do any filming. Still, for Amir Muhammad, it’s a living: he’s the founder, and the sole employee, who sets his own salary, solicits donations, and can only be fired by himself.

America’s Islamic Heritage Museum started in 1996 as a traveling exhibition called Collections and Stories of American Muslims. Since moving, in 2011, to its current location on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue, the museum, according to its website, has introduced and entertained about 18,000 people with artifacts, documents and photographs that explore and reveal the contributions and legacies of American Muslims. That’s about 2,600 visitors per year, a figure far from the more than 30 million visits made last year to the 19 museums, galleries and National Zoological Park that comprise the Smithsonian Institution four miles away.
If this Islamic Heritage Museum has 2,600 visitors each year, that’s about 8 people a day. Is this “museum” which has exactly one employee, who just happens to also have been the provider of its unprepossessing exhibits (what do Qur’ans from different lands have to do with America’s Islamic heritage?), and also the collector and keeper of the entrance fees to the museum, as well as the beneficiary of any grants this “non-profit” enterprise might receive, really to be taken seriously?

“This area’s kind of the hood of the hood,” said Muhammad, using slang to describe an economically deprived area, and also to justify why some Americans may deliberately choose to give his museum a wide berth.
Could it be that this down-at-heels vest-pocket museum is simply not very impressive? Could it be that the story of America’s “Islamic Heritage” on display is neither broad nor deep, and that much of the museum’s offerings consist of thousands of photographs of sports and movie stars, and posters with potted biographies of the same handful of Muslim slaves who are unfailingly trotted out by propagandists eager to show that “Islam has always been part of America’s story” — Omar ibn Said, Ibrahim abd al-Rahman, Ayyub bin Sulayman, Bilal Muhammad, and Yarrow Mamout?

Then there are the claims made by Amir Muhammad, in his museum’s exhibits, for the presence of Islam in America even before the arrival of Muslim slaves. These claims, made about Muslims accompanying Columbus on his voyages, do not stand up to inspection, as we shall see. Similarly, there are claims about the “respect” the Founding Fathers supposedly felt for Islam. Thomas Jefferson bought a Qur’an, but it was not out of any putative respect for Islam. Jefferson was simply a man of wide-ranging learning. We have, in fact, evidence that Jefferson was not fond of Islam. He gave testimony to Congress about what the Tripolitanian emissary, with whom he, and John Adams, had been negotiating  in London, told him was the reason for the attacks by North African corsairs — the “Barbary pirates” — on American ships. Here is what Jefferson reported as the envoy’s answer:

He said that the attacks by the North Africans  were “founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Amir Muhammad mentions his continuing to find more evidence for early American mosques. but what that evidence is remains unknown, and to date neither Amir Muhammad, nor anyone else, has yet shown that any mosque was built in this country prior to that one-room structure put up in Ross, North Dakota, in 1929.

Hugh Fitzgerald


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