HM - March 2017 - Backstory: Islam and the United States

Classroom Applications

Islam & the United States
Teacher Resource Set

by Joan Musbach


Background for Teachers
Religious dissenters and people certain of the rectitude of their religious orthodoxy founded America. Throughout the century of settlement and the decades of the founding of the nation, leaders sought accommodation of the variety of religious opinions and beliefs represented. In the course of helping students to “find the American way,” BackStory refers to the religious views of the founders. In this lesson, students examine references to non-Christian religions made by three of the nation’s founders and statements by Thomas Jefferson, author of the Virginia Acts for Religious Toleration. Are these attitudes about non-Christian religions, expressed by the Founders, precursors of “the American way” in regard to attitudes of the majority towards a religious minority in America?
During the Period of the Confederation, the newly minted United States of America lacked resources with which to deal with threats from foreign countries. This situation posed a serious problem for John Adams, U. S. Minister to Great Britain, and Thomas Jefferson, U. S. Minister to France. They were charged with securing the release of American citizens held hostage by Muslim countries on the Barbary Coast of North Africa. The four Barbary States demanded payment of $660,000 each. Adams and Jefferson received a budget of $40,000 for this task. Pirates who enjoyed sanctuary along the Barbary Coast had been capturing trading vessels and holding crewmembers hostage to ransom demands for decades. They justified hostage taking in the name of religion. American colonial trade encountered little difficulty in the Mediterranean Sea when Great Britain paid tribute to the pirates.  When the colonies became independent, the young nation was faced with difficult choices: pay tribute to the rulers of the Barbary States, pay ransom to obtain the release of Americans held hostage, or go to war against states such as Algiers, Tripoli, Tunis, and Morocco. In the late 1780s, Adams and Jefferson debated the options.
In the lesson material that follows, students will have the opportunity to develop and practice several of History’s Habits of Mind. The Habits of Mind provide life-long advantages. They help students build mature thought processes for both learning and living.
In learning about the Founding Fathers’ attitudes toward other religions and their acceptance and toleration of diverse religious beliefs, students can observe the impact made by individuals who have made a difference in history.  These men were forerunners of the American way toward a religiously accepting and diverse society. Reading statements of the Founders about religious diversity helps students understand the significance of the past in shaping the present.  Learning from primary sources gives authenticity to student learning.  But a look at the frustrations of Adams and Jefferson as they attempt to deal with the Barbary States also shows the limitations of individual action and underscores the complexity of historical causation. Adams and Jefferson were representing a weak, disunited country, trying to achieve diplomatic ends on a severely limited budget. These lessons also provide excellent opportunities for students to comprehend the interplay of change and continuity in history.  The dialogue between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson over whether military action or diplomatic activity is the best approach to dealing with the Barbary Pirates has echoes in our own time regarding the best approach to preventing a nuclear Iran.  The compare and contrast activity for the Barbary Wars and the Gulf Wars also develops this Habit of Mind, as well as helping students to appreciate the often tentative nature of judgments about the past. It is important for students of history to realize that historians disagree.  A variety of perspectives come into play as historians make judgments about the past. The research activity exposes students to a variety of secondary sources on the Barbary Wars. They will also develop independent research skills as they learn more about the Gulf Wars of our own time. In addition to developing History’s Habits of Mind and research skills, these lessons provide instruction in the Common Core competencies in reading and in writing arguments supported by evidence. Primary sources appear in both their original form and in modified versions to afford readers with various strengths the opportunity to read documents from the past. Students need guidance in learning how to frame an argument and express a position supported by evidence.  The discipline of history is particularly well-suited for developing these skills.


Procedures: Part 1—Attitudes of America’s Founders Toward Islam
Step 1:            Distribute and have students read Source 1, a portion of a January 5, 2007 article from the Washington Post, “Ellison Uses Thomas Jefferson’s Quran.” Consider the following questions to engage students in a discussion about the article: Should a Congressman be sworn in only on a Bible? Why would a fellow Congressman have a negative attitude toward Ellison being sworn in on a Quran? Predict what the Founding Fathers would say if interviewed about this controversy.
Step 2:            Distribute Sources 2-6, “What Did the Founders Say?” Draw students’ attention to the various ways to spell and refer to Islam and other non-Christian religions used in the late eighteenth century. After reading the source (using either the original or modified version), ask students to summarize in their notebooks the attitude toward religions expressed by each founder.
Step 3:            Debriefing Discussion: Consider the following questions after students have read Sources 2-6.

  1. What plans did Benjamin Franklin have for the use of the meetinghouse he arranged to be built in Philadelphia?
  2. What attitude does John Adams show toward Hindu beliefs? Are those beliefs in opposition to his beliefs? What does he see to be common among the various religions? In what way does Adams think these religions differ from the beliefs he shares with Jefferson?
  3. Jefferson does not speak specifically about non-Christian religions, but we do know that he owned a copy of the Quran. With this information and the statements you read, what would you expect Jefferson’s attitudes toward the practice of non-Christian religions to be?
  4. What does President Washington believe is the responsibility of all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs?
  5. Micah 4:4 (KJV) says: “But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and no one shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the Lord of hosts hath spoken it.”  Identify similar words in Washington’s letter.  Why do you think he chose to use these words, similar to those from a book of the Old Testament of the Bible, in his letter?  What does the use of these words tell you about President Washington?

Step 4:            Listen to or read the transcript of the segment, “Jefferson’s Quran,” on BackStory, “Islam & the United States”
Step 5:            Distribute the writing assignment outlined in Handout 1.


Procedures: Part 2—US Foreign Policy: The Barbary States
Step 1:            Remind students that throughout its history, the United States has weighed its options with respect to pursuing diplomatic action or taking military steps in foreign policy. For example, during the Obama Administration, the United States contemplated appropriate actions regarding the threat of a nuclear Iran. Would the US increase aggression against Iran? Encourage Israel to do so? Negotiate with Iran and sign a treaty that might have loopholes and not result in the security the US sought in the region? These considerations are not unique to the 21st Century. Explain to students that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson debated using diplomatic or military action when dealing with the Barbary States in the late 18th Century.
Step 2:            Listen to or read the transcript of the BackStory segment, “A Sea Change” in the show, “Islam & the United States.”
Step 3:            Distribute Handout 2 (How Should the United States Deal with Threats from Muslim Countries? John Adams and Thomas Jefferson Debate the Question), Sources 7-10, and Handouts 3-7.
Step 4:            Read Handout 2 as a class to set the context for reading Adams’ and Jefferson’s letters. Divide the class into pairs and instruct students to complete the questions that correspond with each source (Handouts 3-6). Upon completing the questions, have students complete Handout 7, comparing the arguments of Adams and Jefferson.
Step 5:            Ask students to use evidence to consider the question: Should the United States have engaged in military action against the Barbary Pirates in 1786 or should they have paid the tribute? Have students briefly share their evidence-based positions with the class.
Step 6:            Distribute Handout 8 and instruct students to complete the pre-writing assignment. Collect the pre-writing assignment or ask students to develop a complete essay, as appropriate.
Step 7:            Students will likely want to know what happened to the sailors on the Maria & the Dauphin. If time allows, explain to the class that the crewmembers remained in captivity and were used as slave labor for over a decade.  The crews of other captured ships joined them. Seven of the original twenty-one died of the plague.  In 1795, Algeria and the United States reached an agreement.  At a cost to the United States of over $1 million, 115 American sailors were released.


Procedures: Part 3—Evidence-Based Conclusions
Step 1:            Replay the BackStory segment, “A Sea Change,” if appropriate. Draw students’ attention to the words of historian Frank Cogliano:

“Since 2001, there’s been a spate of scholarship and publications and online commentary presenting the Barbary War and the First Barbary Wars as the first Wars on Terror, as though we get the antecedents to our contemporary conflict there. I just don’t think that’s the case. I think although religion is an element of these conflicts, as far as the Barbary States are concerned, this is a financial transaction.”

Step 2:            Lead a discussion addressing the following questions: Why might historians disagree about the past? What is meant by the phrase the “tentative nature of the past”? Why might historians be troubled by attempts to “use history” to explain or justify events of the present?
Step 3:            Provide students with Handout 9. Assign students to read one or more of the four selections listed on the handout. Then instruct students to complete the Venn Diagram (Handout 10), using what they read to complete the portion pertaining to the 18th and 19th Century Barbary Wars.
Step 4:            Instruct students to locate information about the Gulf Wars of the 20th and 21st Centuries and complete the remaining portions of the Venn Diagram.
Step 5:            Discuss the information students recorded and their reasoning for noting overlaps, etc.
Step 6:            Distribute Source 11. After reading the source with students, ask them to consider how this primary source might influence their understanding of the secondary sources they read.
Step 7:            Pose the question: Were the Barbary Wars the United States’ first war on terrorism? Student should use evidence from primary and secondary sources and the BackStory episode, “Islam & the United States” to construct their response. Distribute Handout 11 for students’ use to plan their response.
Step 8:            To extend the discussion, ask students to respond to the questions on Handout 12.


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Standards and Citations