Muslims in America and other hidden ethnic histories

Yves at Naked Capitalism cross-posted a wonderful Alternet piece by Lynn Parramore, eviscerating the idea that Islam is new or alien to America.  In truth, the Muslim faith has had a long (if lightly-populated) history in the United States.  Islam arrived in America so early, the Puritans hadn’t even burnt their first witch!!

While the 1620 voyage of The Mayflower is deeply mythologized in the American psyche, the 1630 arrival of devout Muslim Anthony Janszoon van Salee in the New Netherlands, gets a lot less attention.  Which is a pity, because he seems to’ve been a business magnate — he had the foresight to buy Manhattan real estate back when it was cheap!  (It seems he once owned the land on which Wall Street was built.)  On top of that, he winds up being an ancestor of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men of all time.  Why is this Horatio Alger-style “self-made man” not already an American legend??

(For those of you keeping track, van Salee arrived a short ten years after The Mayflower.  According to Wiki, New England executed its first “witch” seventeen years later, in 1647.  And the Salem witch trials occurred in 1692/1693.)


It’s deplorable that a fringe of American society wants to pretend the country is / should be Christian, on the flimsy and faulty premise that it was founded as such.  While the first pioneers in the 1600’s may have been passionately religious, by the late 1700’s the colonies were led by men whose intellect helped shape the Age of Enlightenment: or, as it was also known, the Age of Reason.  For many of them, the philosophy of choice was Deism — the atheism of its day, attacked by the righteous cacophony of religious conservatives.

One example is Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet Common Sense may have done more than any other document to galvanize the independence movement.  He was ostracized later in life for his scathing criticism of Christianity, his funeral attended by a mere six people.  The more potent case is Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, who created his own Gospel — commonly known as the “Jefferson Bible” — by literally cutting-and-pasting the four gospels of the New Testament into one combined, miracle-free, Resurrection-less narrative.  (Definitely not the behaviour of the faithfully devout, or one considering the text holy.)  To quote from the Wiki article:

[It] begins with an account of Jesus’s birth without references to angels (at that time), genealogy, or prophecy. Miracles, references to the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus, and Jesus’ resurrection are also absent from his collection.

With “Christians” like that, who needs atheists?



Holding a mirror to country and community reveals hidden ethnic histories of our own — and not just of the Aboriginal peoples, who have suffered seemingly-interminable injustices over the centuries.  In my home province of British Columbia, Vancouver and the surrounding suburbs has seen an influx of east Asians in recent decades.  (My wife among them.)

As of the 2006 census, 45% of residents in the suburb of Richmond claimed Chinese heritage.  Given that the Chinese population grew by 20% in the five years from 2001 to 2006, it’s possible that as I write this (2012) Chinese-Canadians are the majority in Richmond.  Delving further, we see that “visible minorities” in Richmond have a formidable 2/3 majority!  Which makes for some exceptional cuisine.  :)

Despite Canada’s historical success with multiculturalism — integrating new arrivals, while allowing them to celebrate their cultural identities — there are valid ongoing concerns about how well our immigration policies are serving both immigrants, and the communities welcoming them.

The Canadian experiment has soared when we have embraced our differences (English/French, Protestant/Catholic, European/Aboriginal, etc.) but has staggered when we have retreated into tribalism (the placing of First Nations in reserves, the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II, etc.).  It is important to concern ourselves with our new siblings’ well-being; we don’t want to create any disadvantaged slums or enclaves.  If new immigrants aren’t receiving the assistance they need, we may want to restrict it until we can do better.  On the other hand, if bureaucratic process is keeping families apart, we may want to increase it.

There are also invalid concerns about immigration, which play on that same ignorance of history evidenced in some Americans’ beliefs that Islam is new to America.  Here in British Columbia, they generally play on the idea that the Chinese are recent arrivals, flashing their wealth.  As for flashing their wealth, it may seem that the Chinese are an economically vibrant minority (much as Jews were in medieval Europe, Jains were in medieval India, and the ethnic Chinese are in south-east Asia today) but even if that’s even true, power to them!  We Caucasians can’t own the podium forever, eh?  :)  But the Chinese-Canadians have been in B.C. from the beginning.

This ancient UBC thesis cites B.C. population records for the late 1800’s, in one convenient place.  We see that in 1871, when British Columbia became a province of Canada, the Chinese already comprised almost 15% of the non-Native population.  By 1881, the Chinese got to 20% — though this may have been for the not-exactly-praiseworthy reason that the Trans Canada Railway was being built, and Chinese labour was in-demand for the most dangerous jobs.  By 2006, Chinese-Canadians in the province were down to a mere 9%.  (I exclude First Nations from these numbers to highlight the ratio of Chinese-Canadians and European-Canadians.)



All of which is to emphasize that a burgeoning Chinese community has been a feature of British Columbia since we joined Canada.  And our Chinese-Canadian siblings’ ethnic history here, is as often unknown or overlooked as the ethnic history of Muslims in the country of our southern cousins. :)

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