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Justice for ALL

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San Francisco demonstration against pending deportation of 13,000 Muslims - June 2003

”Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.



Online Magzine

Muslim immigration to the USA

By Abdus Sattar Ghazali

Historically, Muslims have been a part of American society since the late 1800s when people from the Middle East immigrated. However, according to Yvonne Y. Haddad the author of A Century of Islam in America, the 20th century witnessed four waves of immigrants from various parts of the Muslim world, most notably Palestine, Lebanon and Pakistan.

In the first wave, from 1875-1912, Syrian, Lebanese and Jordanian laborers migrated and became factory workers and peddlers. The first wave ended with the First World War.

The first wave came primarily from what was known as Syria, which was later divided into Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Most were migrant laborers, uneducated, unskilled, and from peasant backgrounds. Motivated by success stories brought back from Lebanese Christians who had preceded them, they expected to achieve a degree of financial prosperity and then return to their native countries. Historic events periodically interrupted this flow of immigration and changed its character.

By 1920, Arab immigrants worshiped in a rented hall in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and they built a mosque of their own fifteen years later. Lebanese-Syrian communities did the same in Ross, North Dakota, and later in Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Michigan City, Indiana. Islam had come to America's heartland.

The Muslim immigration virtually stopped in 1924, when the Asian Exclusion Act and the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act allowed only a trickle of "Asians," as Arabs were designated, to enter the nation.

In the second wave, from 1930-1938, Arabs from across the Middle East arrive as laborers. The second wave was brought to a halt by the Second World War.

During much of this time, immigration laws were blatantly discriminatory. Some hopeful immigrants were turned back at Ellis Island, and in many cases Middle Easterners found it difficult to obtain citizenship. At one point, they were denied citizenship because officials, using the criteria of color and shape of nose could not determine which race they belonged to. Restrictive laws limited the number who were allowed to enter, with preference given to relatives of earlier immigrants.

The third wave from 1947-1960: Palestinians, Egyptians and Eastern European Muslims arrive. Palestinian refugees arrived after the creation of Israel in 1948. The McCarran-Walter Act of 1952 relaxed the quota system established in 1924, thereby allowing greater Muslim immigration.

The third wave of immigration affected changing circumstances in Muslim countries. Many who left their homes during this period did so to escape political oppression. Unlike the earlier immigrants, they were often well-educated and from influential families. The largest group consisted of Palestinians displaced by Israel, but there were many from other lands, such as Egyptians whose property had been nationalized by Naser; Iraqis fleeing their country after the 1958 revolution; Syrians of position who had been excluded from government participation; and East European Muslims from countries like Yugoslavia, Albania and the Soviet Union, escaping from communist rule.

Then, beginning in the 1950's, an influx of Muslim professionals, many of them physicians, finding conditions in their homelands inhospitable, settled in this country after completing their studies. The black movements, the back-to-Africa groups, had come into flower by this time. Great numbers of Muslim students from all parts of the world also began to arrive in this country.

This was the period which saw the formation of the early Muslim communities and mosques in such places as Detroit, Ann Arbor, Gary (Indiana), Sacramento and the like. Visiting scholars and missionary groups from the Middle East and the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent also began to arrive. Islam began, in a very slow manner, to gain adherents among white Americans.

This period which also witnessed the formation of national Islamic groups, such as the Muslim Students Association (MSA) of the United States and Canada (1963). The MSA later led to the formation of the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA).

The fourth wave from 1967-Present: The 1965 the Johnson Administration introduced many changes in the immigration laws that initiated the fourth wave of immigration, which continues to the present. Muslims from Asia (primarily the Indian subcontinent), the Arab world and Africa arrive. Most are educated professionals or come as students and remain. The number of Muslims in America was estimated at a quarter million by 1960, but it was only after the liberalization of immigration laws in 1965 that their numbers really increased.

According to the many changes in the immigration laws, the requirements of the U.S. labor market and a potential immigrant's ability to fill established need became major determinants of the would-be immigrants admissibility. Thus, the fourth wave, consists mainly of those who are educated, fluid in English, and Westernized. They came from a wide variety of countries, including many beyond the Middle East. These Muslims have not come to make a fortune and return home, but to settle, to participate in American affluence, and to obtain higher education and advanced technical training for specialized work opportunities. Many are also seeking freedom from what they see as oppressive ideologies in their places of origin. There are of course some exceptions such as some of the Lebanese Shi'ahs and Palestinians displaced by the conflict in Lebanon, most of whom are illiterate and unskilled. Hence during this period Muslim immigration to America had a direct relationship with the political turmoil in many countries of the Muslim world such as exodus of Palestinians, revolution in Iran, the pro-Soviet coup in Afghanistan and the Lebanese civil war.

The Muslims from the first two waves were rapidly assimilated, and nothing is left of their presence save a few town names and mosques in scattered places. The third wave built many of the older mosques that are still in use in the great urban centers of the US and Canada. The fourth wave has been active in political and social affairs in their communities and in the nation at large. Most of the mosques and Islamic parochial schools on this continent were built as a result of their efforts.

At present, the number of Muslims in the United States is estimated at about 8 million. It is the fastest growing faith in this country. American Muslims outnumber Episcopalians, Quakers, and Disciples of Christ. The ten states with the highest concentration of Muslims are California, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, Virginia, Texas, Ohio and Maryland (listed in order of population). This represents 3.3 million of the Muslim population in the United States.

Most Muslim Americans are first generation immigrants. This new ethnic group, because of modern transportation and communication, has the ability to stay in touch with the “old world” in a way that was not possible for the traditional ethnic groups of America who migrated from Europe. Muslim immigrant groups, then, are living in two worlds. Their children, however, are fast acquiring effort to socialize them as Muslim Americans as they grow up, so that they will retain their religious and cultural identity.

Today, American Muslims are very young, with 74% under age 50; highly educated, with 58% holding college degrees; extremely successful, with 50% earning more than $50,000 annually; and involved, in the political process with nearly 80% registered to vote.

There are over 1,200 mosques in the United States, and around 2 million Muslims are associated with them. Demonstrating the rapid growth of the Muslim faith in the United States, over 60% of the Mosques were founded after 1980, and 25% since 1994. A recent independent survey conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research showed that almost one-third of U.S. Muslims are converts (30%) and that the mosques are rarely places attended by just one ethnic group. The vast majority of American mosques are places where people of vastly different backgrounds come together, united by their faith.

January 1, 2004