There has been something missing from the debate over the Trump administration’s executive orders which are ostensibly country-targeted bans but obviously a Muslim ban. As the furor rages, especially after the first ban was issued in January, opponents of the ban proclaim that Muslims are “welcome” in the US, as numerous signs held aloft at protests read.  Supporters of the ban suggest that nationals of these seven countries (now only six in the new ban) pose a potential danger, indeed, even that they don’t “belong” here.

However, since both sides of this debate seem unaware of certain historical dimensions of this debate, they are both framing their position incorrectly.  Liberals don’t need to “welcome” Muslims to the U.S. nor can conservatives “keep out” Muslims—they have always been here.

The U.S. belongs to Muslims as much as it belongs to the Christian majority. These Muslim Americans were part of the commonly overlooked and underdocumented part of our history—African slaves.  We have to recognize that Muslims have been part of American society since the earliest colonial days in the form of African slaves, and thus a Muslim presence or Muslims coming to the U.S. are not new phenomena.  This is a country for, of, and by Muslims; they are not alien to American heritage.  This statement equally applies to Latin America.

Peter C Valenti

Even as Christopher Columbus and subsequent Spaniards claimed they were bringing Christianity to the New World, they brought Muslims with them.  Though by far the largest numbers of Muslims came as African slaves, they were preceded by Moriscos from Spain or “Moors.”  The earliest known example is Estevanico de Dorantes, originally from Morocco, who was with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca during his explorations of Mexico.

In 1607 the English of Jamestown imagined themselves as founding a Christian colony.  But that wishful thinking was forever altered when the first African slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619 (not to mention that the Jamestown colonists were ignoring the preexisting religion of the Native Americans).  From that point on in time, those African slaves, from various regions of Africa, brought with them a variety of religions; my point here is to highlight the Muslims among them.

Today we can and should “welcome” new Muslims to the US but also simultaneously recognize that they have always been here.

As a number of studies have found, by way of painstaking data mining from slave ship manifestos, slave registers, memoirs, and archival and oral research in parts of the US and Africa, as the slaves arrived in the Americas so did Islam.  In other words, just as Christian Europeans came from the 1500s onward to the Americas, so too did Muslim Africans.

Since most European Americans were either ignorant of Africans’ rich religious diversity or were hostile to Islamic practice specifically, they didn’t often recognize Muslim Africans as anything worthy of serious comment.

A number of African Muslims voices did, however, manage to be heard by white ears and thus pull themselves out of obscurity—Ayuba ibn Sulayman (known as Job Ben Solomon) whose life story was recorded by Thomas Bluett in 1744, ‘Umar ibn Said who left us a manuscript in 1819, the celebrated “Moor” Ibrahima ‘Abdul Rahman who was brought to the attention of the John Quincy Adams administration.  Many more nameless Muslim slaves were mentioned in an off-handed fashion by white writers in newspapers, slave documents, and memoirs.

As Denise A. Spellberg’s engaging 2013 book Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an points out, in all likelihood both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had Muslim slaves on their plantations.  As recent scholarship has focused intensely on Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s concubine of nearly 40 years, it has come to light that she probably had a Muslim grandmother.  Given that Jefferson fathered seven children (four survived to adulthood) with Hemings, this means these children and their descendants represent an intermingling of Founding Father and Islamic ancestry.

As Gomez and other scholars have demonstrated, an estimated 20-30% of African slaves shipped to the Americas was Muslim, in the early centuries the majority coming from West Africa such as the region of Senegambia.  We can never be exact with this percentage because many slave ship manifestos just record numbers of individuals and not names, religion, or place of origin.  According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, approximately 12.5 million Africans were shipped to the Americas between the 16th-19th centuries (though some scholars put this number higher).  Those Africans shipped to what eventually became the US have been tabulated at nearly 400,000.  Based on these numbers, a conservative estimate would then mean that at least 80,000 African slaves brought to the US were Muslim.  This means a significant amount of African Americans today could have Islamic ancestry; these numbers are probably much higher for Black Latinos in Latin America.

In addition to the many Muslim Africans, when we add the waves of Muslim immigrants to the US and Americas more broadly throughout the 19th century and into the 20th (long before the most recent influx), then we begin to realize the rich depth and breadth of Muslim Americans.  No other Muslim community is as diverse as that in the US, with the exception of the community of Muslims living in Mecca today (Mecca being an international city, par excellence).

We should oppose the Trump ban not only because it is an unconstitutional Muslim ban in disguise but also because it is derived from and reinforces a false narrative, both about a supposed “clash of civilizations” but also about U.S. history.

Peter C. Valenti is a clinical assistant professor, Liberal Studies, at New York University.