A lot of these tired and exaggerated parables about Islam in early America are not particularly new, by the way. They all reared their misrepresenting heads back in the early post-9/11 era, as part of a liberal scheme to try to paint acceptance of Muslims as some sort of foundational thing that makes you a patriotic American.
Now, the reality of course is people should be accepting (at least to the point of giving them the protection of the law / freedoms / respect) of other religious groups. It is probably noble to try to leverage revered American like Jefferson in this effort. But it just isn’t representative of factual reality. If you actually read many early American comments on the “Mahometans” they are clearly speaking from a place of ignorance, these were people who had probably never met a Muslim, or if they had it was in passing while overseas in Europe briefly, and they were amazed by how exotic they looked.
They had little real practical experience with it, and it doesn’t hurt to write a few flowery passages about people you never have to deal with. Bigotry tends to rear its head more visibly when confronted with the realities of cultural pluralism. It’s easy to be nice to other cultures when you aren’t around them, or to respect them as “oriental and exotic.” The very same white Westerners who for centuries wrote about the glories of the Orient, the mystique of the mysterious and treasury-filled lands of China and India, once in more direct contact with these people…did not quite treat them like people they respected and found interesting and mysterious. They treated them like the “other” and subjugated and exploited them. When some of them tried to emigrate to the West, they were often viciously opposed and the few that got through were viciously mistreated as second and third class persons.
That is why attempting to put a lot of importance to “words” written in a time of Lockean ideals and flowery prose, isn’t good history. If you only judged some of the early Founding Fathers on the words they wrote you might find it surprising how they actually treated their black slaves, for example. Or how they actually treated Native Americans etc. The number of early American leaders who wrote praises of the Native Americans with their pen, while supporting their genocide in deed, is a long list.
It’s also intellectually dishonest to write articles like the Aeon author, where he starts off by saying “there were Muslims in America before Protestantism existed.” If he was talking about the American continent, okay. But his article is clearly talking about the United States of America, the country. While it is true that some Muslims from Iberia, some in the form of slaves and some free people, were present in New Spain prior to Martin Luther kicking off the Protestant reformation in the early 16th century, it is worth noting that the country the United States of America was formed from Thirteen specific British colonies. It was not formed from Spanish colonies. The first of these permanent colonies did not exist for another 100 years, and for the next four hundred years after that the majority population of those colonies and the country they ultimately became was overwhelmingly Protestant. Acting like some Muslims living in the Spanish possession 100 years before America even in its most embryonic form existed, is somehow some secret part of American history is…incredibly disingenuous. The history of the Spanish colonies in the New World is not the history of America the country. Interesting? Sure. But conflating them is weird and suggests strange ideological motivations.