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The Four Waves of Muslim Immigration to America

The concept of the Muslim in America is perceived to be a relatively new phenomena. The idea of the bearded man or the hijab-wearing woman prostrating en mass in a mosque to Allah (swt), instead of singing a hymn to Jesus in a church, is an image that has seemingly only really crept into the collective conscious of the American mind after September 11, 2001.

The Muslim in America has been juxtaposed over the silhouette of the 'Other'. That vague being whose existence is a threat to your existence. The one who societies all over the world need when they wake up to their reality. For some, it is the 'White Man', for others it's the 'corporations', or the 'capitalists', or the 'West'. Sometimes the juxtaposed figure is more clear and specific; the 'Jews', the 'Americans', the 'Iranians', etc. In America, it seems for now the target is the Muslims. I would think this stems from the events of September 11, and the greater realization that the threat of violence from a foreign entity leaves no one immune, followed, hopefully, by an equal realization, if not greater that everyone has some blood on their hands.

If having awoken to such a reality that one, warm September morning, one must understand that the image that has been painted of the Muslim in America is nothing like the image that has been blown up and muralized by the Glenn Becks and Anne Coulters of the world.

There is a face behind that beard and behind that hijab that is shrouded in the American immigrant experience, not unlike the Irsh or Italians. And just like the Irish and Italians, Muslims have been landing on the shores of the United States for over a century.

In fact, the number of Muslims in America has risen dramatically in the last half-century through immigration, procreation, and conversion. Of the 3.6 million who call America their home, about two-thirds of the total are immigrants from countries where the majority of the population is Muslim. The vast majority of the rest are converts.

This increasing presence of Muslims, as well as the accompanying awareness of their existence by the American media, media pundits, and other television and radio personalities, it is only fair to observe the origins of their arrival.

As such, I've compiled the 4 waves of immigration responsible for bringing Muslims to the shores of Ellis Island and beyond.

First Wave - Pre-World Wars (1875 to 1908)
Muslims from the Middle East began to migrate to the United States in approximately 1875. The first wave came primarily from what was known as Syria, which was later divided into modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine. Most of the arrivals were labourers, 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. Lacking proficiency in English, many became peddlers. Others found employment in factories and mines, or became grocers and shopkeepers. Their willingness to work hard often brought not only capital but improved social status and living conditions. Many who had intended temporary stay soon knew they would not leave. Those who did return to their homelands encouraged others to venture forth for a similar experience.

Second Wave - Post World Wars (1909 to 1946)
Historic events periodically interrupted this flow of immigration and changed its character. The First World War ended the first major wave; the second, which peaked in the 1930s, was brought to a halt by World War II. During much of this time, immigration laws were blatantly discriminatory. Some hopeful immigrants were blatantly 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 of officials, using the criteria of colour and shape of nose could not determine which race they belonged to. Restrictive laws limited the number of who were allowed to enter, with preference given to relatives of earlier immigrants.

Third Wave - Post-War (1947 to mid-1960s)
The Third Wave of immigration, which took place between 1947 and the mid-1960s, effected 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 Gamel Abdul Nasser; Iraqi's 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.

Fourth Wave - (mid-1960s to present)
The Fourth Wave, which began in 1967 and continues to the present, 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 displaced refugees from war-torn countries like Palestine, Iraq, etc.

Muslim immigrants have adapted their religious practices to the requirements of American society in varying ways. The earlier immigrants tended to settle with fellow Muslims, if possible with those of similar ethnic backgrounds, but were generally too busy with economic survival to make much attempt to promote Islam on a community level. This factor, plus their relatively small numbers and the fact that many of them saw their American residence as only temporary, inhibited the establishment of Islamic organizations. But as the number of permanent immigrants increased, so did the awareness that the practitioners of their faith could only be maintained by the initiation of new, native-born generations into the fold. Those who intended to stay, thus began gradually to develop the organizations and institutions required to preserve the faith.

Conversions gradually became a normative experience for the Muslim communities in America. Remnants of which we see in the effluence of Islam among Black Americans.

So while the media, its pundits, and the general population continue to see visuals of American Muslims, the idea of the Muslim-American itself is over 100 years old, and representative of an experience as American as any other.

At its present rate, by the year 2015, Islam will be the second-largest religion in the United States. And as wars continue to wage in their homelands, it's only natural that many more Muslims will immigrate. So rather than stigmatize and stereotype Muslims as monolithic and as an entity objectified as the 'Other', it would be much easier and much more progressive to accept and celebrate the diversity that Muslims bring to the American experience and have been bringing for generations.

A Century of Islam in America by Syed Dr. Yvonne Y. Haddad
Hamdard Islamicus Vol. XXI No. 4. 1997.

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