Last month, I accompanied our LMU women’s basketball team on a trip to Europe, visiting the Netherlands and France. It wasn’t just an athletic experience for the team, although they did play four exhibition games. It was also an educational experience, as nine of the women on the team were enrolled in my “Religion, Culture, and Conflict in Europe” class. In preparation for the trip and as part of the course, they read the Diary of a Young Girl, and visited the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles to learn more about the Holocaust and the life and death of Anne Frank. This helped them to understand what they would see at the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam.
One of the most moving parts of that visit came before we were able to go into the Secret Annex, when we heard a lecture from our tour guide, a young German woman. She spoke about coming from a region in Germany where family members had been Nazis, and where neo-Nazi movements were again raising their ugly heads. She also spoke about the education that she had received about the Holocaust, and how she wanted to learn more by working at the Anne Frank House.
Coming back home to America, I thought about her—and about German education around the Holocaust—when I heard the news about Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand for the national anthem. The Germans owned up to the horrors they committed, apologized, began the work of reparations, and taught their young people about what their elders had done. We don’t do anything like that when it comes to teaching about slavery and racism in America, so when a young man takes a principled stand, we are often at a loss to understand.
I’ve had my own interesting relationship with the national anthem. I’ve lived in America for almost two decades, for most of that time as a Canadian citizen. I would stand out of respect for the anthem when I heard it, but I wouldn’t sing along because it wasn’t my anthem. In 2013, however, I became an American citizen. A few days after my citizenship ceremony, I was in Annapolis, giving a lecture at the U.S. Naval Academy about American Muslims. I happened to be walking across the Yard a few minutes before sunset, when a trumpet player sounded “Colors” and then “Retreat” as the flag-lowering ceremony took place. I stood still as the ceremony took place, and for the first time, in a moment of great emotion, watched my flag being lowered. The flag and the anthem have had great significance for me ever since.
My new book, ‘Muslims and the Making of America,’ talks about the contributions that American Muslims have made to what it means to be American. I discuss the Greatest of All Time, Muhammad Ali, and his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Vietnam War. In 1967, it wasn’t popular stance to be against the war. The following year, the greatest basketball player of all time, another American Muslim, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, took part in meetings for the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Although there was no wholesale boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (and Kareem never played for the US team), Tommie Smith and John Carlos made their black-gloved salute on the medal stand, and were promptly sent home.
Twenty years ago, another American Muslim, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, was at the center of controversy when he refused to stand for the anthem for one game as a member of the Denver Nuggets. His issue, like Colin Kaepernick’s, was that he made his refusal to stand public, and didn’t keep it private as athletes who are Jehovah’s Witnesses do, who refuse to stand out of religious reasons that connect nationalism to idolatry.
As an American Muslim, I was delighted to see Colin Kaepernick take his stand by not standing, and so be able to freely express himself. That freedom of expression which is enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution is one of the main reasons I decided to become an American citizen. I also applaud what he is doing, standing up for his beliefs without thought to the economic consequences. Gary Smith wrote one of his magisterial columns for Sports Illustrated a few years ago, asking why so few modern athletes took a stand, while so many athletes had done so in the past.
One hopes that Mr. Kaepernick’s actions continue the conversation about race and racism in America, issues that affect all Americans. That’s a conversation that is long overdue. To take only one example, this month sees the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in Washington, DC. While that’s a great development, it is important to remember that the first requests for such a museum began over a century ago, in 1915. This fall, I’m privileged to be part of a fellowship at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies where I can study the intersections of race, faith and violence, and add to our national conversation. Perhaps one day we too will educate our children about our painful history of slavery, and the legacy of racism that it has left for us.
Amir Hussain is a professor of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and is currently serving as one of three visiting scholars in the “Race, Faith & Violence” program at USC, co-sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC and the USC Caruso Catholic Center. His most recent book, Muslims and the Making of America, comes out next month from Baylor University Press.