Students would not make the trek to Muskie Archives on a rainy Thursday night for just anything. But on November 1, they did just that for a talk by Edward E. Curtis IV titled “The Long History of Muslims in the United States.”
Curtis was this year’s speaker for the Bertha May Bell Andrews Lecture, an annual talk sponsored by the Multifaith Chaplaincy that was first established in 1975 by Dr. Carl Andrews. His aim was to honor his mother, who not only created the first physical education program for women at Bates, but also had a deep conviction that education without morality was useless.
The lecture highlighted this conviction of involving morality in teaching, discussing the misconception that Muslim heritage can only be traced back to as recently as 1965, and the effect this has both on Muslim families and on the recent rise of Islamophobia. Curtis described this phenomenon through the language of misremembering; he said, “There has been a forgetting, a forgetting that is useful to those who say that Muslims are foreign to America.” His goal of the lecture was to correct this misconception and emphasize the various contributions of Muslims, who have been in this country from its very beginning.
Muslims have served in legislatures, saved corporations, played for sports teams, won a Nobel Prize, held the Olympic Torch, and built skyscrapers. Probably most commonly known to students would be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a retired professional basketball player who still remains the all-time leader in points scored and career wins, and Muhammad Ali, a professional boxer and activist. As described by Curtis, “Muslims have changed the way America looks, the way it plays, the way it is heard.”
Perhaps less famous but just as important are Muslim politicians, who are becoming increasingly numerous in today’s political environment. Ninety Muslim candidates are running for federal, state, and local office in this year’s midterm elections, significantly more than in any other year.
Although Curtis focused primarily on the history of Muslims, when asked about how to have conversations about Islamophobia, he responded with the necessity of people respecting the dead. He called for Muslims to put their differences behind them and stop focusing on their disagreements over past activists, a lesson relevant to everyone regardless of religion. In approaching religious discussion, he also offered the advice for students to move past preaching – attempting to convince others that Muslims are peaceful and hate terrorists – and into deeper conversation.
Nahida Moradi ’22, a member of the Muslim Student Association and an attendant of the lecture, described the importance of students being educated about this history and having conversations about Islamophobia, explaining, “At a school like Bates, where religion is generally not very present in students’ lives, Islam is often seen as strange and maybe even threatening. You could see that level of threat by looking at the vandalism of the Muslim prayer room in Chase Hall. Inviting Dr. Curtis to talk about the History of Muslims in America is a step in the right direction for Bates to do its job right.”
Curtis’ lecture on the history of Muslims in the United States was especially relevant in today’s world of Islamophobia. His talk helped to identify the misconceptions in Muslim history and to offer guidance on how Bates students can approach difficult religious conversations.