11/27/2013 04:26 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2014

Muslims: WWJD (What Would Jefferson Do?)

Denise Spellberg's newly published Thomas Jefferson's Qur'an: Islam and the Founders (Alfred A. Knopf) offers a fascinating and timely corrective to American post-9/11 anti-Muslim bigotry. While there was a 1,500 percent bump in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the year after 9/11, subsequent years saw a return to "normal" levels of hate crimes. That all changed in 2011: After years of anti-Muslim propaganda (some related to the so-called "mosque at ground zero," which was neither a mosque nor at ground zero), anti-Muslim hate crimes dramatically increased. While most Americans wouldn't deign to harm a Muslim, American attitudes toward Muslim-Americans are a threat to religious liberty. It is a short step from being uncomfortable with a mosque being built in one's neighborhood, to a denial of religious liberty to Muslims. Awareness of anti-Muslim sentiment is not lost on Muslims who feel compelled to build mosques on the outskirts of towns, or to remove the signage from their mosques to prevent vandalism.

Spellberg's book reminds us of our founding fathers' grand conception of liberty, one in which every citizen -- not just white, Protestant, land-owning males -- would enjoy every right. Religious liberty thusly conceived was two-fold, including liberty of conscience (to believe as one chooses) and freedom from persecution (tolerance).

Denise Spellberg, an American scholar of Islamic history at the University of Texas at Austin, was intrigued when she learned that among the countless volumes in Jefferson's cavernous library was a Qur'an. Jefferson, who purchased his copy of the Qur'an more than a decade prior to penning the Declaration of Independence, was keenly interested in Islamic law and practice. While it's not clear exactly what Jefferson read of the Qur'an, his writings on liberty bear the marks of his having read the introduction by the book's translator.

Influenced by philosophers John Locke and Viscount Bolingbroke, Jefferson developed a principled religious liberty that commended free inquiry, opposed compulsion in religion, rejected a state religion, and tolerated a wide diversity of freely chosen beliefs and practices. Spellberg makes a strong case that religious liberty thusly conceived extended to Muslims who could, by all accounts, be U.S. citizens.

Spellberg concedes the difficulty of arguing that Jefferson was making more than a conceptual case. While he may have commended religious liberty for every citizen, there was, at the time, not a single Muslim citizen of the US, and it is unlikely that Jefferson had ever (knowingly) met a Muslim on US soil. I say "knowingly" because it was not unlikely that some of his slaves, perhaps even Sally Hemings (who historians believe bore him six children) was Muslim.

But freedom in concept and freedom in reality are horses of entirely different colors.

After adoption of the Declaration of Independence, it would take decades for religious freedom to extend to Catholics and even longer for it to include Jews. The legal institution of slavery would deprive blacks of their rights for a century, while Jim Crow laws would dispossess former slaves for another century. Women could not vote until 1920.

Even when liberty was granted in principle, it was often unrealized in practice; conceding liberty of conscience did not issue forth in freedom from persecution. Lacking support both in law and enforcement, the recently liberated seldom fully enjoyed their newfound liberty. And without a corresponding transformation of social conscience, lingering bigotry deprived many of their fragile hold on liberty. Turns out it is a lot easier to declare an abstract right to liberty than it is to realize, or even want to realize, all of the consequences of that right within the texture of the lives of individuals.

And yet, there it was, at the beginning: a radical concept of religious liberty, one that extends without reservation even unto Muslims.

Even unto Muslims??

Given that our mostly Protestant founding fathers had a hard time with Catholics, we should not underestimate the difficulty of conceiving (in the 18th century) of liberty for Muslims. Just as the majority Protestants were taught to detest the Papist mass, they were instructed in the evils of Islam. Islam was considered blasphemous (the Prophet was often alleged to be the anti-Christ), and Muslims were believed to be barbarian savages. Muslim empires were unfairly portrayed as intolerant of their Christian citizens and with designs on taking over the (Christian) world by sword. Who would have thought to defend the rights of ambitious, savage barbarians to their blasphemies?

What better way to proclaim religious liberty than to declare that it should extend even to the Muslim, which was far beyond what their Protestant mind could imagine, way beyond Catholics and Jews?

Jefferson, himself, was no friend of revealed religion and Islam was no exception. Yet, although not much a believer himself, he thought that religious liberty should be extended to everyone regardless of religious creed.

An even deeper yet: The persistence of slavery strikes a serious blow at the liberality of our founding fathers. How could they extend liberty, on the one hand, to Mhometans, Jews, and Catholics and yet deny liberty, on the other hand, to black Africans (who were likely to be Muslims)?

Jefferson's big religious freedom idea, it turns out, was much bigger than Jefferson himself.

Sometimes profound thinkers have ideas that are bigger than the thinkers themselves. St. Paul may have sent the runaway slave, Onesimus, back to his owner, but his insight that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:28) would inspire the Christian anti-slavery movement.

While Jefferson may not be the best personal model of religious liberty, or liberty simpliciter, we can be grateful to live in a society where his grand idea was planted (though it is taking centuries to blossom). It is now our task to turn Jefferson's promise into reality: to see American Muslims as full US citizens with the right to free conscience and freedom from persecution.