This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.
Part 9: Asians, Arabs and Changes in US Immigration Policy
So far I’ve talked almost exclusively about the experience of European Americans and African Americans when it comes to Islam in America. We’ve seen that nearly all Muslim Africans brought over as part of the slave trade either converted to Christianity or had to suppress their faith, thus failing to pass it on to the next generation.
We’ve also seen that Americans of European extraction almost never embraced Islam.
You’re probably wondering why I haven’t spoken more about Arab-Americans or Asian-Americans. In short, it’s because of the way American immigration policy evolved from the beginning of the Republic through the middle of the 20thcentury.
From the ratification of the Constitution in 1788 until after the Civil War, full citizenship and full participation in political life was limited to free white men. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited citizenship to “free white persons” of good character. Further laws and refinements were passed in 1795, 1798 and 1803, but they still only applied to free whites. The 14thAmendment granted citizenship to anyone born within the United States, regardless of race, but it had little effect on Asians and Arabs because there were so few living in America in the 1860s.
The Naturalization Act of 1870 extended to “aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent.” This applied not just to sub-Saharan Africa, but to the Mediterranean coast as well, which was populated mostly by Muslim Arabs and related ethnic groups.
This Act was not without controversy. In opposing it, Senator Lyman Trumbull complained that “it opens the whole continent of Africa, where are to be found the most degraded examples of man that exist on the face of the earth, pagans, cannibals, men who worship beasts, who do not compare in intelligence at all with the Chinese.”
In 1898, the Supreme Court ruled in United States vs Wong Kim Ark that a child born to Chinese parents was a citizen by birthright under the Constitution. This precedent has been the source of considerable controversy to the present day, but for our purposes here it created an environment whereby any child born in America of parents from any race, or from any religion—including Islam—was automatically a citizen. Later courts ruled that this protection includes even children of illegal immigrants.
The complete history of US immigration policy and its effect on the Muslim world is a complex and interesting topic all by itself, but I can’t go into all the details here today. Arab immigration to the United States was barely a trickle from the 1870s.
One antebellum Muslim of note is Ali al-Hajaya, an Ottoman of Greek and Syrian origins who was brought in in 1856 by the US Army as part of an ultimately failed attempt to introduce camels into the American West. His name–Ali al-Hajaya–was Americanized to “Hi Jolly.” The US Camel Corps met with mixed success, but with the outbreak of the Civil War the Army was too distracted to continue the experiment. Hi Jolly eventually married, had two sons, and died in Arizona in 1902.
The trickle of Arab immigration became a steady stream beginning in the 1870s when over 100,000 Arabs from the Ottoman Empire (mostly Syrians, and mostly Christians) came to the US. This flow was staunched with the Immigration Act of 1917, which barred entry to persons from vast swaths of territory, including Indonesia, the Philippines, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, the Arabian Peninsula, the Middle East and Turkey.
People from Mediterranean Africa were still allowed, but they still faced unofficial and official discrimination. In 1942, a Yemeni Muslim named Ahmed Hassan was denied citizenship on the basis that, being of dark complexion, he was not considered white under the Naturalization Act of 1790. However, in 1944, a judge in Massachusetts ruled that an Arab named Mohamed Mohriez was eligible for citizenship, agreeing that Arabs should be considered an offshoot of the white race.
Things changed dramatically with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which abolished the race-based immigration quota system and replaced it with a system that prioritized refugees, people with special skills, and those with family members living in the United States. It also forbade discrimination in the issuance of immigrant visas on the basis of race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence.)
From the mid-20thcentury forward, the number of Muslims coming to the United States increased significantly. Before 1900, the total number of Muslims in American was easily less that .01%. By 1951 there were about 200,000, or about 0.1%. Today there are an estimated 3.3 million Muslims in the United States, or about 1% of the population.
The first purpose-built mosque in the United States was erected in 1929 by a small group of Syrian-Lebanese homesteaders in Ross, North Dakota (current population: 97). The oldest standing purpose-built mosque is the Mother Mosque of America, erected in 1934 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and still operational.
By the 1950s there were around 20 active mosques in America, including in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dearborn, Michigan, where many Muslims settled to work for Henry Ford. Today about 40,000 of Dearborn’s 94,000 residents are Arab Americans. The Arab American National Museum, which opened in 2005, is located in Dearborn. And in 2010 Lebanese-born Dearborn resident Rima Fakih became the first Muslim Miss USA. In a supreme irony, the Miss USA pageant was owned at the time by a businessman named Donald J. Trump. (As a footnote, Miss Fakih converted to Christianity in 2016.)
Today, Muslims in America are even more demographically diverse than their Christian counterparts. About one-third are from the Indian subcontinent; about one-fourth are from the Middle East, and about one-fourth are of African or African-American origin. Three-quarters of American Muslims today are either immigrants or the children of immigrants.