Opinion

30 Firsts for Muslims in America, from Jefferson’s Ramadan Dinner to Ali’s Oscar

BY STEVE FRIESS 

09/01/21

NEWSWEEK

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Before the 19th century, most Muslims came to the New World as enslaved Africans and were forced to abandon their faith upon their arrival on plantations. There are records that show people with Arabic names fighting on the American side of the Revolution, and the prospect that a Muslim could become president was one reason cited in 1788 for opposition to Article VI of the Constitution, which states that “no religious test shall ever be required” of any elected official in the U.S. The Founding Fathers kept that in.

Some other key moments:

1778: Morocco, a Muslim theocracy, is among the first foreign nations to recognize the independence of the United States.

1805: President Thomas Jefferson hosts a Ramadan celebration at the White House while welcoming a Tunisian envoy.

1930: Wallace Fard Muhammad founds the Nation of Islam, a Muslim sect for Black Americans.

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Since 9/11, US Muslims have gained unprecedented political, cultural influenceREAD MORESince 9/11, US Muslims have gained unprecedented political, cultural influence

1934: The Mother Mosque of America, the oldest continuously operating purpose-built mosque in the U.S., opens in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

1957: Dwight Eisenhower is the first sitting president to visit an American mosque when he attended the dedication ceremony for the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C.

1962: Omar Sharif is the first Muslim actor nominated for an Academy Award, for his supporting performance in Lawrence of Arabia. (He lost to Ed Begley of Sweet Bird of Youth.)

1964: Muhammad Ali, under the mentorship of Malcolm X, announces his conversion to Islam.

1965: President Lyndon Johnson signs the Immigration and Nationality Act, which significantly expanded the ability of people from Muslim-majority nations to emigrate to the U.S.

1967: Muhammad Ali refuses to be inducted into the U.S. Army, citing religious objections, and is stripped of his heavyweight title.

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In 1967, Black athletes meet to hear Muhammed Ali talk about his reason for rejecting Army induction.BETTMANN/GETTY

1991: Charles Bilal is elected mayor of Kountze, Texas, a town of about 2,000 residents, becoming the first Muslim elected to run an American municipality.

1996: First Lady Hillary Clinton hosts the first iftar, the dinner to begin Ramadan. Presidents Bush and Obama carried on the tradition. Trump skipped 2017 and 2020 but held Iftars in 2018 and 2019.

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In 1996, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton hosted the first iftar at the White, the dinner that begins Ramadan.GERALD MARTINEAU/THE WASHINGTON POST/GETTY

September 11, 2001: Nineteen members of the Islamic terrorist group Al-Qaeda crash four planes in New York, Pennsylvania and the Pentagon.

September 17, 2001: President George W. Bush visits the Islamic Center in Washington, D.C. to urge Americans not to blame all Muslims for the 9/11 attacks.

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U.S. President George W. Bush meets with Muslim leaders September 17, 2001 after touring the Islamic Center of Washington, DC.PAUL MORSE/WHITE HOUSE/GETTY

2003: The U.S. invades Iraq and overthrows Saddam Hussein on grounds, later debunked, that he had an illicit chemical weapons factory and connections to Al-Qaeda.

2005: The Islamic Center of America, at 120,000 square feet the largest mosque in North America, opens in Dearborn, Michigan.

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Islamic Center Of America on July 17, 2014 in Dearborn, Michigan.RAYMOND BOYD/GETTY

2007: Keith Ellison of Minnesota is sworn in on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran as the first Muslim member of Congress.

2009: Zaytuna College, the first accredited Muslim liberal arts college in the U.S., opens in Berkeley, California.

2011: The Learning Channel airs All-American Muslim, a reality show centered around Muslims in Dearborn, Michigan.

2014: Farhan Zaidi is hired as the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the first Muslim in that role in any American sports franchise.

2015: Presidential candidate Donald Trump calls for a “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”

August 2016: At the Summer Olympics in Rio, runner Dalilah Muhammad became the first Muslim American woman to win a gold medal. Bronze medalist fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first U.S. Olympian to compete wearing a hijab.

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Gold medalist, Dalilah Muhammad of the United States, poses on the podium during the medal ceremony for the Women’s 400m Hurdles on Day 14 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Olympic Stadium on August 19, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.DAVID RAMOS/GETTY

September 2016: Riz Ahmed is the first Muslim to win an Emmy in a lead acting category, for the HBO series The Night Of.

January 2017: President Donald Trump imposes a ban on travel from Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, Iran, Syria and Yemen, all Muslim-majority nations. His successor, Joe Biden, revoked the bans on his first day in office in 2021.

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People protest the Muslim travel ban outside of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC on June 26, 2018.MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY

April 2017: Mahershala Ali becomes the first Muslim actor to win an Academy Award, for his supporting performance in Moonlight.

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Actor and Executive Producer Mahershala Ali speaks onstage before the premiere of “We Are The Dream” on February 11, 2020 in Oakland, California.HBO/GETTY

November 2018: Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan become the first Muslim women elected to Congress. Also, Keith Ellison is elected Minnesota’s attorney general, the first Muslim to win statewide elected office.

2019: Sadaf Jaffer is sworn in as mayor of Montgomery Township, New Jersey, making her the female Muslim mayor in the U.S.A Muslim Writer on Finding Her Voice in Post-9/11, Post-Trump AmericaREAD MOREA Muslim Writer on Finding Her Voice in Post-9/11, Post-Trump America

January 2020: Ramy Youssef, creator and star of the Hulu dramedy Ramy, wins the Golden Globe for Best Actor and opens his acceptance speech by saying, “I would like to thank my God. Allahu akbar.”

November 2020: Candidates in five states—Colorado, Florida, Delaware, Oklahoma and Wisconsin—become the first Muslims elected to their states’ legislatures.

January 2021: Robert Saleh is hired as head coach of the New York Jets, the first Muslim in that position in the NFL.

June 2021: Judge Zaidi Quraishi is the first Muslim confirmed by the Senate for a seat on the federal judiciary. Also, Lina Khan is confirmed as chair of the Federal Trade Commission, becoming the first Muslim to run any federal regulatory agency.

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