PITTSFORD — Like the stories of the Catholics and Jews who preceded them as marginalized minorities in a mostly Protestant United States, the stories of today’s U.S. Muslims are on their way to becoming another chapter in American history, according to Sulayman Nyang, professor of African studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
“Muslims are graduating from being footnotes to being part of the main text,” he said during a Sept. 7 speech at Nazareth College.
Nyang’s speech was titled “Development of Abrahamic Religions in the United States: Challenges and Prospects” and addressed the impact the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had on religious dialogue. He noted that the term “Abrahamic” points to the fact that Jews, Christians and Muslims have a common patriarch in Abraham.
“Abraham becomes the glue that can unite Jews, Christians and Muslims,” said Nyang, himself a Muslim from the African nation of Ghana.
The term “Abrahamic” has become increasingly popular in recent years, he added, likening its use to “Judeo-Christian,” a term that was popularized during the 1950s as a way to unite faith traditions — Jewish, Protestant and Catholic — that once were seen as completely separate from one another.
The post-war improvement in relations between Protestant, Catholics and Jews was one in a series of developments that have marked the growth of an America where ancient religious quarrels have taken a back seat to an acceptance of different faiths, he noted.
When it was founded, Nyang said, America was primarily a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation. However, the Civil War sacrifices of Irish, German and other ethnic Catholics paved the way for the acceptance of Catholics, he said, noting other ethnic and religious groups have followed similar patterns of initial rejection and then acceptance by their fellow Americans.
Of course, it’s been a bumpy ride to the pluralistic America that exists today, Nyang noted, pointing out that America has experienced waves of prejudice against various groups. For example, he said, German was widely spoken in the United States at one time, but anti-German prejudice during World War I killed off German-language schools and compelled many German-Americans to change their names to ones that sounded English.
On the other hand, America has accepted groups that were virtually nonexistent in the United States at one time, he said. For example, prior to World War II, there only were a small group of Vietnamese in America, whereas the end of the Vietnam War brought thousands to U.S. shores.
Indeed, Nyang said, no nation on earth has the kind of ethnic and religious diversity that the United States has. Virtually every ethnic and religious group has some members living here, he said, adding that his own city of Washington, D.C., is a “Noah’s Ark” of humanity. In part, he credited America’s separation of church and state for allowing such diversity to flourish.
Nyang’s speech was sponsored by Nazareth’s Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue. On that note, Nyang said interfaith dialogue has been made all the more important by the Sept. 11 attacks. The attacks highlighted the need for U.S. Muslims to enter into interfaith dialogue with others, Nyang said.
“Many Muslims who did not support interfaith dialogue came to see the utility and importance of interfaith dialogue,” he said.