After More Than a Century of Presence, Muslims are Still Considered as Outsiders
Trump’s retweeting three inflammatory videos from a British far-right group, showing violence being committed by “Muslims” became a highly debated issue worldwide. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders defended Trump’s retweets, said it didn’t matter whether the anti-Muslim videos Donald Trump retweeted on Wednesday morning were real because “the threat is real.” Trump also had previously warned that immigration from Muslim-majority nations threatens European and US security. But are Muslims not a part of the US? Are they a new phenomenon in the Western countries or is there a deliberate attempt on ignoring the presence of Muslim communities despite their being a part of the US for more than a century? In fact, it is disheartening especially for historians like me, who work on Muslim/Middle Eastern communities in the US, to see that Muslims/Middle Easterners are still being considered as outsiders and as a “real threat”.
Once I was talking to Professor Rhoads Murphey about my time in the US and research on the early Turkish communities. I told him, when my friends were thinking that I was sitting in a library, I was actually hanging around in the graveyards where Turkish immigrants from the Ottoman Empire were buried. His comment was: “In fact, graveyards are one of the best places to observe the diversity of a town”. He was right, these Muslim graves in Massachusetts, with crescents and stars, and also some with American flags, were perhaps the best proof showing Muslim immigrants as an integral part of the American society for more than a hundred years; they were among those who fought for America and who made America!
Previously, I had written about the New York Imam Mehmed Ali and his work when he was appointed as an attaché to the Ottoman consulate in New York. When he arrived the country, he in fact was assigned with the task of assisting the religious needs of the Muslim immigrants who migrated from the Ottoman lands and also overseeing their adaptation to the US. Who were these Muslims? What were their stories? And why did they decide to migrate to the US?
Let’s hear it from Halil Zekeriya Coşkun, a United States Social Security retiree living in a small village in Elazığ in 1971 when a journalist interviewed him:
I was 20 years of age, strong, even powerful in the view of some of my
friends. I longed for work, but there was none. We were all desperate.
Today in Turkey this would be difficult to understand; now most of us
are wealthy by the living standards in 1912. At our most desperate hour
we heard there was a country called America where jobs were
abundant; workers were needed since the country was under populated.
One was assured work if he wasn’t blind, crippled or sickly. We felt
that America was opening its arms to everyone and beckoning all to her
shores regardless of nationality. We don’t know who first brought this
word to our village, but it was all we talked about. It was always a part
of our conversations and dreams. America became our hopes – it was
our hope for living.
In fact, when Turkish immigrants started their journey to the US, many of them were not aware how far America was nor how long the journey would take. But this was a journey to hope, to the land of opportunities, whose streets were paved with gold. This “American fever”, as used to be called by some of the US immigration officials, was also experienced by various ethnic and religious groups living in the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Their migration had been in part fostered by American missionary work in regions with a considerable Christian population. The circulation of information about life and opportunities in the United States started the process of an Ottoman migration. The first departures were seen among Armenians who made their way to America with missionaries. Immigrant networks, letters to friends, and immigrants going back and forth would provide rich sources of practical information about jobs and opportunities in American industries, and lead immigrants to the American cities where members of their groups had already established themselves. Those letters attracted not only other Armenians but also other Ottoman peoples, both Muslim and Christian, living in close proximity to one another in Anatolian villages.
Additionally, a number of Ottoman migration agents, fostering and coordinating the migration process for profit had been established in Turkish and European ports of departures. Consequently, immigrants from Anatolia, many of whom migrated from eastern Anatolian provinces, would settle in industrial U.S. cities and towns. Among the cities with a considerable Muslim Ottoman population was Providence, New York, Peabody, Salem, Worcester, and Detroit. They were composed of only males as, like many of their European counterparts, their intention was returning to their homeland after making and saving money enough to buy a land and live comfortably for the rest of their lives. Many of them were particularly from eastern Anatolia, including today’s Harput, Elazığ, Malatya, Diyarbakır, Tunceli and Erzurum. Perhaps none of them had never seen anywhere before outside the boundaries of their villages. Today, their gravestones are standing as the silent witnesses in various US towns and cities, proving that Muslims were also among those who helped to build the United States; they are contributors to the American industries and institutions, not threats…
1] Frank Ahmed, Turks in America: The Ottoman Turk’s Immigrant Experience (Columbia: Columbia International, 1993).