More American than apple pie, Muslims have been migrating to the US for centuries

Muslims have been coming to the US for centuries, but you wouldn’t know it by the intense debates that continue to surround the movement of Muslims across international borders.

Republican presidential candidates Sen. Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have called for the US to effectively ban Syrian refugees from entering the country. The South Carolina Senate passed a bill that would require all refugees to register with the state, subjecting themselves to surveillance. On social media, the hashtag #StopIslam trended internationally in the hours after the Mar. 22 terrorist attack in Brussels.

Together, these reactions contribute to the idea that Muslim migration to the US is somehow distinct from America’s history as a “nation of immigrants.” Columnist Mark Nuckols summarized the sentiment when he wrote in Townhall about “problematic immigrants” to the US.

The “most problematic,” he writes, are Muslims from the Middle East and Africa. “This most recent wave of immigrants are often more resistant to easy assimilation and more reluctant to accept this country as truly their own,” he says.

In truth, Muslims have been part of this country since before the thirteen original colonies even declared their independence and became a nation. The examples below offer a glimpse of the long history of their migration and contributions to the US.

Muslims were among the first to explore the “New World”

A circular map in black and white lines

In his book Meadows of Gold, published around 950 CE, Muslim geographer Al-Musudi described the experiences of Khashkhash Ibn Saeed Ibn Aswad, a Muslim explorer who he claims sailed across the Atlantic in 889 CE. This reconstruction of a world map from Meadows of Gold depicts a world before Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Individuals like Christopher Columbus are often recognized as among the first to “discover” the Americas (despite, of course, the long presence of the indigenous).

But those explorations would not have been possible without Muslims.

Historian Leslie Brout Jr. notes in his book The African Experience in Spanish America: 1502 to the Present Day that many Muslim men accompanied European travelers clamoring to “discover” the Americas in the 1500s. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Hernán Cortés, Pánfilo de Narváez, Pedro de Alvarado, Francisco de Montejo, and other conquistadors all brought Muslims with them to aid in their early expeditions in the Western Hemisphere.

For example, a Muslim man named Estevanico was sold into slavery in the 1520s and brought to the Americas to aid Spain’s exploration of present-day Florida. Although he was a slave until his death, Brout writes that Estevanico became famous for completing an eight-year journey on foot from Florida to Mexico City.

The labor of enslaved Muslims helped build the United States

As historian Sylviane A. Diouf writes in her book Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas, Muslim men, women, and children were among the first people taken by force from their homes in West Africa in the Atlantic slave trade.

It’s estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of all Africans forced into bondage in the United States were Muslims. These individuals, many of whom were among the most educated and renowned in their homelands, were forced to work as slaves in the Americas. Several of them published narratives about their time in captivity.

A framed portrait of an elderly man on one side; a stately oil painting on the other

Left: Omar Ibn Sayyid, a Muslim slave in the United States, published his autobiography in 1831. Right: The first known portrait of an African man by a British portraitist was completed shortly after Job Ben Solomon’s arrival in London in 1733.

Omar Ibn Sayyid, for example, was taken from his home in present day Senegal and forced into slavery in South Carolina around the year 1770. In 1831 he published his autobiography in Arabic, which was later translated into English.

Sayyid’s autobiography reveals in his own words his experiences being taken from his home, his life under slavery in the United States and his devotion to Islam. Today, a mosque in Fayetteville, North Carolina is named in his honor.

In his book Muslims in America, historian Edward Curtis describes the experience of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, who became known as Job Ben Solomon after he was taken from West Africa in 1731 and sold into slavery to a tobacco farmer in Annapolis, Maryland.

Solomon was able to escape slavery after less than three years of bondage. He could read and write in Arabic, so he wrote a letter to his father with the hopes that he might send money to ransom his freedom. His father never received the letter. However, the letter did finds its way to the hands of James Oglethorpe, the founder of Georgia, who had it translated into English.

Oglethorpe was so impressed with Solomon that he purchased the freedom bond himself.

Slavery ends, Muslim influence continues

Historian Edward Curtis writes in his book Muslims in America that Alexander Russell Webb used Islam in America to “promote Islam as a religion that expressed some of America’s most deeply held values, especially those of rationality, human equality, broadmindedness, and acceptance of religious diversity.”

Muslims played important roles in securing a Northern victory in the United States Civil War and bringing about the end of slavery. Curtis’s Encyclopedia of Muslim-American History explains that nearly 300 people with Muslim last names fought in the Civil War.

Several became officers, including Moses Osman, a captain in the 104th Illinois Infantry. After being subjected to slavery in Turkey, Russia, and the US when he was forced to serve a European traveler who crossed the Atlantic, Mohammed Ali ben Said fought in the Civil War from 1863 to 1865 and earned the rank of sergeant in the Union Army. After his emancipation, Said went on to travel the world before settling in Alabama. He  published his autobiography in 1873 before passing away in 1882.

While emancipation allowed former Muslim slaves to practice their religion more freely, they were not the only ones who practiced Islam in the US after the Civil War.

Alexander Russell Webb, born in 1846, was a middle class white Protestant who converted to Islam in 1887 after traveling the world in his capacity as the US Consul to the Philippines. When he returned to the US in 1893, he started a newspaper called “The Moslem World,” published a book called Islam in America and was selected to be a representative of Islam at the Chicago World Fair.

Nativism and exclusionary immigration laws took hold in the early 1900s, but Muslims lived all over the country

Mother Mosque in Iowa, white building with green roof

By the 1930s, Muslims established mosques in Maine, North Dakota, Michigan, Indiana and Iowa. The Mother Mosque of America, built in 1934 by Lebanese and Syrian immigrants and their ancestors in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, remains the oldest surviving mosque in the US.

Credit: RifeIdeas/CC BY-SA 3.0

With the turn of the 20th century came the rise of anti-immigrant feelings among Americans. Nevertheless, Muslim American communities continued to grow. In North Dakota, for example, Syrian and Lebanese Muslim immigrants worked as farmers in the Great Plains.

As part of the New Deal, the Works Progress Administration interviewed Mike Abdullah, a Syrian native, about life in North Dakota. Abdullah and his fellow community members in North Dakota were practicing Muslims whose experiences mirrored those of many farmers who worked the land in the American heartland from the 1900s through the middle of the century.

The Dillingham Commission formed in 1907 out of growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the US. The “Dictionary of Races or Peoples,” included in the 41-volume report that the Commission published in 1911, tried to legitimize ideas about racial difference, which were often intertwined with religion. The Commission’s report helped create laws that curtailed immigration from countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Southern and Eastern Europe.

Credit: University of California Libraries via archive.org

Muslims lived and worked across the US. Historian Vivek Bald writes in Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian Americans that Muslims labored not only as farmers but also as industrial and service workers. They immersed themselves in Creole, African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore and New York City. The growth of these diverse communities continued despite the passing of laws that didn’t bode well for Muslims hoping to come to the US.

The Immigration Act of 1917 barred immigration from Asia, and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 introduced numerical quotas that restricted the entry of immigrants according to their country of origin. Many countries with sizeable Muslim populations received low quotas and Muslims from Asian countries were excluded outright.

The Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 eventually eliminated national origins quotas and made it easier for Muslims — at least those who were skilled and professional workers — to migrate to the US. This landmark legislation was just part of the continuation of Muslim migration to the US — not the beginning.

The Boston Bombings Have Nothing to Do With Immigration Reform

A day after the Boston Marathon bombings, the New York Post falsely reported that law enforcement suspected a Saudi national may have been responsible. Republican Congressman Steve King of Iowa responded with predictable outrage. “If we can’t background-check people that are coming from Saudi Arabia, how do we think we are going to background-check the 11 million to 20 million people that are here from who knows where?” he told the National Review. King, a leading opponent of efforts to reform the nation’s immigration laws, was one of several conservatives—including Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and talk show host Laura Ingraham—who are straining to draw a line from the Boston attack to the immigration bill.

Now the question is whether the Gang of Eight senators who authored the bill, and particularly the Republicans in the group, can wrest back the narrative from these doubters. On CNN’s State of the Union show Sunday, South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham argued that the bombings strengthen the case for reform. It’s better to improve the immigration system than to keep it as is, he said, so authorities have a better idea of who is coming and who isn’t. Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Arizona Senator John McCain made similar statements this weekend.

Obama presses for urgent action on immigration during meeting with faith leaders

WASHINGTON — Projecting urgency, President Barack Obama said Friday he wants the Senate to pass a comprehensive immigration bill in the next three months, though he is willing to be patient if that timeline slips slightly.

Obama spoke during a meeting with faith leaders, an increasingly powerful part of the coalition seeking to overhaul the nation’s patchwork immigration laws. The private meeting occurred as the White House tries to show it is focused on more than just fiscal issues following Washington’s inability to avert billions in budget cuts and a looming deadline for keeping the government running.

Immigration shot to the forefront of Washington’s agenda — both for Obama and some Republicans — following the November election. Hispanic voters made up 10 percent of the electorate and Obama carried more than two-thirds of their voters, raising concerns among Republicans about their ability to appeal to the increasingly powerful voting bloc.

Overhauling immigration laws is also a top priority for the fast-growing number of Asians in the U.S., who also voted overwhelmingly for Obama but make up a far smaller percentage of the electorate — 3 percent, according to exit polls from the November election.

Among the 14 participants in the meeting were representatives of the Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Mormon faiths.

 

Positioning Dutch Immigration Policy

30 June 2011

Radio Netherlands Worldwide provides a feature commentary on proposals by the leader of the Freedom Party (PVV), Geert Wilders, to cut immigration by 30% over the next four years. The article considers whether the country is leading the way as pioneer in restrictive immigration laws as a part of the European vanguard, or whether, as EU Commissioner Malmstrom suggests, it is a ‘lone wolf’ choosing a populist policy at the expense of EU norms.

The Securitization of Islam in Europe

This paper summarises the main hypotheses and results of the research on the securitisation of Islam. It posits that the securitisation of Islam is not only a speech act but also a policymaking process that affects the making of immigration laws, multicultural policies, antidiscrimination measures and security policies. The paper deconstructs and analyses the premises of such policies as well as their consequences on the civic and political participation of Muslims. The behaviour of Muslims was studied through 50 focus groups conducted in Paris, London, Berlin and Amsterdam over the year 2007-08. The results show a great discrepancy between the assumptions of policy-makers and the political and social reality of Muslims across Europe. The paper presents recommendations to facilitate the greater inclusion of Muslims within European public spheres.

Legal experts say feds are resorting to immigration laws to keep Youssef Megahed detained

Youssef Megahed, a legal, permanent resident of the United States, has been re-arrested just three days after a federal jury found him not guilty of explosives charges. Legal experts cite Megahed’s detention as part of a federal government tendency to use immigration law when federal prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to convict persons in the criminal court. “They lost the case criminally because they don’t have a good case, and they turn around and prosecute him in immigration where the standards are lower and where you can keep somebody mandatorily detained simply by alleging he’s a terrorist,” said Miami immigration lawyer Ira Kurzban.

Megahed has lived in the United States with his family for more than 11 years, and is being held without bail as immigration authorities attempt to move deport him based on similar facts for which he was prosecutes in federal court. “The real problem is a complete fiction in immigration law,” Kurzban said. “On the one hand they say it’s not a criminal proceeding; it’s only a civil proceeding. That gives them the right to detain people forever, to abbreviate their constitutional rights, even though detention is clearly a punishment.”

Italian police target foreigners in crackdown on illegal immigration

Italy’s police arrested hundreds of illegal immigrants last week in a sweep of migrant shantytowns in major Italian urban areas across the country. Nearly 400 people were arrested, and 100 were immediately expelled – most of who were Moroccans and Romanians who violated immigration laws, were involved in theft and prostitution, or drug dealing. The anti-immigrant sweep was a positive thing because that’s what people want… people ask us for safety and we must give it to them, said Minister of Institutional Reforms and Federalism Umberto Rossi.

Italy Debates New Immigration Law as Illegal Immigration Attempts Soar

Despite a decrease in the number of migrants arriving illegally via the Mediterranean, the number of migrants attempting to reach Italy from war-ravaged African countries such as Somalia, Eritrea, and Ethiopia show no signs of easing. Marcella Lucidi, the interior ministry official responsible for immigrations, says that the most recent arrivals are coming from Egyptian ports claiming to be Palestinian. Italy is debating new immigration laws, as it seeks to find long-lasting solutions towards dealing the transnational challenges of human migration.

Muslim Politician Is Messenger of Change

By Manfred Ertel In Denmark of all places — the country with Europe’s toughest immigration laws — a Muslim member of parliament has become a rising star on the political scene. Now he wants to shake up traditional Danish politics with his new party. Is this the kind of man Danish voters are pinning their hopes on? The sort of man who is causing an upheaval in the calcified political atmosphere between _rhus and Copenhagen? He is casually dressed, and his black hair and bronze skin reveal his Arab roots. He also happens to be a Muslim. Naser Khader, 43, sits in his makeshift office in Copenhagen’s old town surrounded by boxes, laptops and loose cables. “It was so boring here, with absolutely nothing going on,” he says. “I am very pleased that we have managed to get some movement into politics.” He is putting it mildly. Since Khader announced the establishment of his party, the New Alliance, more than two weeks ago, a debate has erupted of the sort that Denmark hasn’t seen in years. Some of the issues on the new political agenda in Copenhagen include a radical 15-percent tax cut (a proposal that was quickly discarded) and a relaxation of the country’s stringent immigration policies.

Chirac Pays Homage To Muslim War Veterans

President Jacques Chirac paid homage Sunday to the hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers from former colonies who fought for France in World War I, unveiling a memorial on the site of the battle of Verdun. “The Verdun army was the army of the people, and all the people took part,” Chirac said, inaugurating a white-walled Moorish-style monument. “It was France in all its diversity.” The commemoration has come at a time of turbulence in France’s relations with its ethnic minorities. A senior Muslim leader said he hoped the belated recognition of his community’s war dead would help ease the tensions. Chirac himself looked back almost with nostalgia at the way France rallied in 1916 to fight the Germans. “This ceremony reminds us how in that moment of history, at Verdun and for Verdun, the French nation knew how to unite,” he said after laying a wreath at the monument. Separate memorials already stand for the Christians and Jews who died in the mud and misery of the trenches, but up until Sunday the Muslims only had a small plaque dedicated to them. France mobilized close to 600,000 colonial subjects in World War I, including many from Muslim territories like Algeria and Tunisia, and 78,000 were killed. Total French dead numbered 1.2 million. Some of France’s former colonies have complained that France has been ungrateful to its colonial troops, arguing that without their efforts, Paris would have fallen to the Germans. Dalil Boubakeur, head of the French Muslim Council, told reporters he hoped the new memorial would help close old wounds. He said he hoped it would provide “an impulse for the future for a closer integration of all of France’s Muslim communities,” adding that they are “completely French communities, thanks in no small part to the blood they have shed.” A wave of rioting in mainly poor, immigrant suburbs rocked France last autumn, laying bare the difficulties the country faces in integrating its multi- ethnic society. The government has responded with a mix of tough immigration laws and increased efforts to recognize minority groups. In May, France marked its first annual commemoration day for victims of the slave trade and last week Chirac opened a major new museum celebrating ethnic art from around the world. Verdun, where more than 300,000 troops died, lends itself to the task of reconciliation and was the setting for a memorable gesture of friendship between France and Germany, which fought three disastrous wars in less than a century. President Fran_ois Mitterrand of France and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany stood together in Verdun in 1984 to display the new ties between their two countries.