Jefferson did not, despite Spellberg's claim, demonstrate a "marked interest" in the faith. As a 22-year-old law student in Williamsburg, Virginia, he bought a Qur'an, just as he bought many books on many subjects, ultimately leaving a library of 6,487 books. There is no evidence that Jefferson ever read his Qur'an. There are no notes he left about its contents, no marginalia written by Jefferson, no subsequent reference anywhere to his having read any part of the Qur'an. Spellberg surely knows that. But she is determined to endow that Qur'an purchase with significance. She claims that "the purchase is symbolic of a longer historical connection between American and Islamic worlds, and a more inclusive view of the nation's early, robust view of religious pluralism."
What "historical connection" was there between the "American and Islamic worlds" that she so casually alludes to, hoping we will not think too deeply about the claim? The main "connection" in our earliest days as a nation was that of warfare waged against us by the Muslim privateers — the "Barbary Pirates," as they were known — who attacked Christian shipping in the Mediterranean, including the ships of the young Republic. It was during his negotiations in London in 1786 over these attacks with the envoy from Tripoli, and in subsequent dealings with the Barbary Pirates, that Jefferson received his greatest lesson about Islam.
Although Jefferson did not leave any notes on his immediate reaction to the Qur'an, he did criticize Islam as "stifling free enquiry" in his early political debates in Virginia, a charge he also leveled against Catholicism. He thought both religions fused religion and the state at a time he wished to separate them in his commonwealth.
Note that Spellberg assumes, and wants us to assume, that Jefferson read the Qur'an, but "did not leave any notes on his immediate reaction." That implies he left some notes later on. But he did not ever leave any notes on the Qur'an. She should have written, to be accurate, that "although there is no evidence that Jefferson read the Qur'an he bought as a student, he did criticize Islam as 'stifling free enquiry.'"
Despite his criticism of Islam, Jefferson supported the rights of its adherents. Evidence exists that Jefferson had been thinking privately about Muslim inclusion in his new country since 1776. A few months after penning the Declaration of Independence, he returned to Virginia to draft legislation about religion for his native state, writing in his private notes a paraphrase of the English philosopher John Locke's 1689 "Letter on Toleration": "[he] says neither Pagan nor Mahometan [Muslim] nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion."
This is not "advocacy for" Islam, but advocacy for toleration of all faiths, including Islam. These are different things.
By the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted in 1786 (before his fateful encounter with the Tripolitanian envoy in London), Jefferson intended that religious liberty and political equality would not be exclusively Christian. For Jefferson asserted in his autobiography that his original legislative intent in the Virginia Statute had been "to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim], the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination." The final version of the Virginia Statute, as adopted, left out this explicit statement; not everyone was prepared to cast the net of toleration that wide.
By including Muslims as future citizens in the 18th century, Jefferson expanded his "universal" legislative scope to include every one of every faith.
Ideas about the nation's religiously plural character were tested also in Jefferson's presidential foreign policy with the Islamic powers of North Africa. President Jefferson welcomed the first Muslim ambassador, who hailed from Tunis, to the White House in 1805. Because it was Ramadan, the president moved the state dinner from 3:30 p.m. to be "precisely at sunset," a recognition of the Tunisian ambassador's religious beliefs, if not quite America's first official celebration of Ramadan.
There is a deliberate attempt here to make us believe — it is more explicit in some of Spellberg's other writings — that Jefferson was somehow recognizing Ramadan, and turning a state dinner into the "first Iftar dinner." Jefferson was neither recognizing Ramadan nor putting on an Iftar dinner. A little history will help: Sidi Soliman Mellimelli came to Washington as the envoy of the Bey of Tunis. The Americans had blockaded the port of Tunis in order to force the Bey to halt his attacks on American shipping. Mellimelli was sent to make an agreement that would end the blockade. Invited by Jefferson to a dinner at the White House set for 3:30 (dinners were earlier in those pre-Edison days of our existence), he requested that it be held after sundown, in accordance with his Muslim practice, and Jefferson, a courteous man, obliged him. There is no hint that the dinner had changed in any way; no one then called it, or thought of it, as an "Iftar dinner." Mellimelli himself never described it as an "Iftar dinner." There is no record of it being anything other than the exact same dinner, the same menu, with wine (no removal of alcohol, as would have been necessary had it been a real Iftar dinner), the only change being that of the three-hour delay until sunset.
Muslims once again provide a litmus test for the civil rights of all U.S. believers. Today, Muslims are fellow citizens and members of Congress, and their legal rights represent an American founding ideal still besieged by fear mongering, precedents [sic] at odds with the best of our ideals of universal religious freedom.
Denise Spellberg alludes to islamocritics who she claims are still "besieging American ideals" with "fear mongering." It is not, pace Spellberg, "fear mongering" to point out the 109 Qur'anic verses that command Muslims to engage in violent Jihad (such as 2:191-194, 4:89, 8:12, 8: 60, 9:5, 9:29, 47:4), that Muslims are told in those verses to "fight them [the Unbelievers] wherever they are," to "smite at their necks," and to "strike terror" in their hearts. It is not "fear mongering" to note that Muslims are taught that they are the "best of peoples" and Unbelievers "the most vile of created beings." It is not "fear mongering," but perfectly legitimate, to ask what we are to make of such comments by Muhammad in the Hadith as "war is deceit" and, still more significant, his claim that "I have been made victorious through terror." And if any "American ideals" are being besieged, it is not that of freedom of religion but rather, that of freedom of speech, at the hands of those who wish, like Spellberg, to impugn and drown out those well-informed islamocritics.
Had Jefferson been aware of Locke's four criteria for "exemptions" from religious toleration, I suspect he would have been in agreement. But even had he continued to believe that Islam was entitled to toleration, that never meant he approved of the faith. He was horrified by the explanation offered by the Tripolitanian envoy in 1786 for the attacks on Christian shipping; he understood that Islam discouraged free inquiry; he was determined to use force against the Barbary Pirates, which he did as soon as he became President in 1801, for he knew from both his experience, and his study of history, that Muslims would respond, and submit, only to such force. If Islam was, as Spellberg disingenuously insists, early on "part of America's story," it was, as Jefferson saw for himself, not a very good part.