President Barack Obama said jokingly in his speech at the Islamic Society of Baltimore yesterday that he and Thomas Jefferson share the distinction of having had political opponents suggest that they were Muslims.
“By the way, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim,” said Obama. “So, I was not the first. No, it’s true, it’s true. Look it up. I’m in good company.”
Denise A. Spellberg, a professor at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, discusses what Obama was alluding to in her book, “Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders.”
“After repeatedly defending the religious and political rights of Muslims, in 1696 [John] Locke would be accused in print of being one as well as a Socinian and a Deist,” wrote Spellberg.
“As we have seen, accusing a Christian theological or political adversary of being a Muslim (or a Turk) was by now a time-honored feature of Christian polemic,” she said.
“Thomas Jefferson, almost two centuries later, would suffer the same fate for his own defense of Muslim rights, only to find in John Locke’s thoughts about toleration his most powerful precedent,” she wrote.
Spellberg also made this point in a 2014 op-ed piece published by the Bradenton Herald and other papers.
“For centuries, it had been common in Europe for one Christian to defame another with references to Islam, a practice that crossed the Atlantic,” she wrote. “Jefferson, for his expansive views of religious liberty and political equality, would be attacked repeatedly as an ‘infidel,’ a word that in his time meant not just an ‘unbeliever,’ but a Muslim.”
Here are excerpts from Obama’s speech:
“And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.
"Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths. And I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now: 'the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.'
"Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that 'even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.' So this is not a new thing.…
"Now, we have to acknowledge that there have been times where we have fallen short of our ideals. By the way, Thomas Jefferson’s opponents tried to stir things up by suggesting he was a Muslim. So, I was not the first. No, it’s true, it’s true. Look it up. I’m in good company.”