CEDAR FALLS | Faculty in University of Northern Iowa’s philosophy and world religions department were surprised to see a September poll showing 30 percent of Iowa Republicans didn’t believe that Islam should be legal in the United States.
It was that poll and other negative rhetoric about Muslims they’d heard in the lead-up to Iowa’s Feb. 1 caucuses that led them to launch a three-part lecture series on Islam and Iowa Politics. The series continued on Friday with the second lecture on Islam’s long history in the United States and Iowa in particular.
“Our consciousness about Islam in Iowa and in America might have been raised in 2001,” said Cara Burnidge, assistant professor of religion at UNI, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “But Islam is connected to the story of America itself.”
Burnidge said after the lecture she is most interested in dispelling the notion that Islam is new to the United States or Iowa.
In fact, Burnidge said the longest continually operating mosque in the United States is located in Cedar Rapids. The Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids has been serving Muslims since 1934; the oldest mosque in the United States dates back to 1929, but it was shuttered by World War II.
“It’s ironic when the oldest mosque in America being in Iowa, that any Iowans would be talking as if Muslims are not yet here and shouldn’t get here,” said Martha Reineke, professor of religion at UNI, who worked with faculty to launch the three-part lecture series.
About 1 percent of Iowans are Muslim, and about 1 percent of the United States population is Muslim.
Burnidge spent her hour-long lecture tracing the history of Islam in the United States, literally starting with explorer Christopher Columbus. She said people know the children’s rhyme about what Columbus was doing in 1492 but not the context for why.
The why, she said, was to find a water route to India, and the reason was to avoid the Muslim territories between India and the Christian empires in Europe.
Burnidge skipped over the Muslim connections in the founding of the United States -- it will be the topic of the third lecture at 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13, at Sabin Hall Room 2 at UNI -- but said one of the earliest United States treaties related to the friendly relationship with Muslim regions.
Burnidge also noted that the United States political campaign history also has a long and storied relationship with Islam.
In 1828, then-candidate Andrew Jackson, sought to defeat President John Quincy Adams in part by attacking a relationship he had with a well-known former slave whom the president toured the country with in opposition to slavery.
“I think it’s extremely important to know that well we before the Civil War we have a presidential election cycle where the the relative relationship between a president and Islam was a central campaign issue,” Burnidge said to a near capacity crowd of 200 at UNI. “The story of Islam and America is not new. The use of fear and the feeling of being threatened by the presence of Islam in America is, again, not new. It has a much larger history that, again, is not always told.”
Reineke said the political rhetoric during the past few months, particularly among Republican caucus-goers, suggested a “certain naivete” about the history and practice of Islam in the United States and worldwide.
Launched with the idea of tackling how Islam is an outgrowth of Judaism and Christianity, Islam’s long history in the United States and the country’s history regarding religious freedom, the aim of the lectures is to ensure “informed participation” in the caucuses, Reineke said.
“We’re hoping as a consequence of these three lectures that persons, when they’re in conversation with their friends and neighbors, and any of these topics come up, they’ll be able to say, ‘Well, I learned something about this,’ and they’ll be able to share information with others that will help them participate from an informed basis in the caucuses,” Reineke said.
The final lecture will be at 4 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13, at Sabin Hall Room 2 at UNI. It will be presented by UNI professor of philosophy William Clohesy, and he’ll discuss the Constitution’s secular promise of respect for both politics and religion.