Immigration, Assimilation, and Integration in the United States: A Historical Examination
I. Origins and Motives
There have been at least three primary motives for European immigration to the United States that seems to have compelled many of our nation’s original immigrant groups to leave their places of origin and to seek their fortunes here. One of these, and perhaps the most common cause, was the breakdown of agrarian societies due to population pressures, unemployment and natural disasters in home countries.
Contrary to what many might believe, most European immigration to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s was what is called “Birds of Passage Immigration.” This phrase is used to describe, “immigrants who never intended to make the United States their home.” Many immigrants migrated to the United States simply because they could not earn a livelihood in their home countries. They never rejected their home countries, but rather came to the United States hoping to work there and to send money home to care for family members left behind. Originally, European immigrants were mostly male teenagers and men in their 20s, who came to the United States planning to work, save money, and return home. In the case of the Italians, who made up 78% of migrant workers in the United States in the decades prior to 1900, these men would travel to the United States in spring, work until late fall, and then return to their warmer climates for the winter. Twenty to 30% of these immigrants would never return to the United States. Most immigrants, however, though they may have viewed themselves as sojourners, remained in the United States.
Once the industrial revolution began in the United States, and since the slave trade had ended, there was a need for labor to build the railroads that followed the migration of Americans from East to West. News of the Western Gold strike spread throughout the world, and many people came to the United States not only to try their luck in the Gold mines, but also to work on the railroads. Most of the Asian and many European immigrants came to the United States as a result of the Gold rush. Most Irish immigrants, like Italians, came to the United States fleeing tragedy and natural disasters. In the 1840s and 50s the Irish fled to America to escape the Great Hunger that left nearly 1.5 million people dead. In Italy, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the town of Naples, and in 1908 an earthquake and tidal wave hit the Straight of Messina, which lies between Sicily and the Italian mainland, killing more than 100,000 people in the city of Messina alone.
It seems that to a large extent, it was their own cultures and the behavior of peoples within their own groups that shaped the experiences of immigrants in the United States, more so than U.S. policies or the rules or laws of local governments. The Italians were perhaps the most obvious example of this phenomenon. The first Italian immigrants to the United States were from the north of Italy, and these immigrants usually became prominent fruit merchants in New York or winegrowers in California. In the 1870s, the Italian birthrate rose, while the number of deaths in Italy fell. This created hardships in the Southern portion of Italy. The illiteracy rate in Southern Italy was nearly 70%. Since the government of Italy was mostly northerners, and the people of Southern Italy lacked political representation, they suffered from government policies such as high taxes and high protective tariffs on northern industrial goods. Land erosion, deforestation, and other problems associated with the agrarian lifestyle of most Southern Italians also contributed to the hardships that drove southern Italian immigration to the United States. That the Italians were two distinct cultural groups, northern and southern, meant that there was very little cooperation between the two groups. Unlike Irish Catholic immigrants, who stuck together in defense of their culture and other Irish émigrés, other Italians often exploited Italians. This lack of solidarity among Italians led to reliance upon family and the rules of family life in the southern villages known as l’ordine della famiglia, or “the rules of family life, and the establishment of institutions that served the community depending on family ties and place of birth.”
In the early 1900s, up to 70 percent of Italian immigrants returned to their home country. Whereas most European immigrants to the United States wanted to work on farms, Italians settled in the urban areas where civil service jobs were easy to get and paid relatively high salaries. Since most of the Italians, as mentioned earlier, did not plan to remain permanently in the United States, they saved their money and lived under very harsh living conditions. Italians usually held the heavy construction jobs. They dug tunnels, laid railroad tracks, constructed bridges and roads, and erected the first skyscrapers. Italian women worked, but usually worked from home where they could care for children and protect the strong Italian concentration on family and tradition.
Irish immigration, on the other hand, was caused mostly by the difficult economic times brought on by the failure of the agrarian economy that was based upon potato farming. The Great Hunger resulted from a fungus that had infected the crops and caused them to rot in the fields. Potatos were the sole subsistence for poor Irish farmers, and “the rot,” as it is called, caused starvation that compelled the Irish people to emigrate.
Nearly 2.6 million Irishmen and women came to the United States after 1860, with a total of approximately 3.5 million immigrating between 1820-1880. Half of all immigrants to the United States in 1840 were Irish, and by 1950 one fifth of all foreign born in the country were Irish. The Irish settled mostly in already established Irish communities in areas where Catholic churches existed. According to an article published by Thinkquest.com, most of the Irish peasants arrived in the United States without resources. Yet, they arrived at a time when the country was building its transportation system. The article “Ethnic America” written by Gilder Lehrman for Thinkquest, says, “the expansion of the American economy created heavy demands for muscle grunt. The national transportation system was still being dug in the 1820s and 1830s and in the time between 1830 and 1880, thousands of miles of rail were being laid. With no bulldozers existing at the time, the pick and the shovel were the only earth moving equipment. Irish immigrants became the mainstay of the construction gangs that did this grueling work.” The article says that groups of Irish people established communities along the perimeters of the job sites. It also says, that “by the end of the 19th century, as American cities were undergoing rapid growth and beginning to develop an infrastructure and creating the governmental machinery and personnel necessary to run it, the Irish and their children got their first foot hold on the ground floor.” Lehrman adds, “Irish policemen and firemen are not just stereotypes. … Irish all but monopolized those jobs when they were being created in the post Civil War years, and even today Irish names are clearly over represented in those occupations (Daniels 1990). The Irish are credited with laying the horse car and streetcar tracks and were some of the first drivers and conductors. The first generation of Irish immigrants, according to Lehrman, “worked largely at unskilled and semi-skilled occupations, but their children found themselves working at increasingly skilled trades.” In 1900, the Irish made up about a thirteenth of the male workforce in the United States, and were one third of all plumbers, boilermakers, and steamfitters, rising in the ranks to become bosses and straw bosses.
Irish success might be attributed to their strong religious and traditional culture. Though they were extremely poor, they were rich in cultural resources. Lehrman reports that “developing institutions that helped them face hardships without despair was one of the primary strengths of the Irish immigration experience. Cultural celebrations such as the St. Patrick’s Day parade were regarded by most Americans as evidence of the separateness of these immigrants, but helped hold the Irish culture together. Their desire for self-expression showed that the Irish understood their group identity. Poor as they were, they drew strength from a culture that explained their situation to the world and provided spiritual resources to face, if not solve, the problem.”
The Church was no doubt the most important of all Irish institutions and played a major role in their immigration experience. Irish people also used the press and the stage or entertainment not only to tell their story to the world and to the nation. Lehrman addresses this issue by reporting that, “All Irish newspapers had either a nationalistic or religious base. Some published Church organs, others drawing support from patriotic societies. Their newspapers interpreted news, accommodated information, and printed popular stories and poems. The stage was even more appealing because it did not require literacy, presenting to attentive audiences real life dramas, but not as painful as real life.” Lehrman adds that by the late 1800s the painful part of the Irish migration had ended and second and third generations have continued the Irish tradition of church, family patriotism and faith even under hardships.
Steam powered engines in ships had shortened the trip to the United States by the late 1800s and immigrants flocked to the country from all over the world. After 1892, most entered the country through Ellis Island. People from the Middle East, Mediterranean, Southern and Eastern Europe, and even from Canada came to the United States. In the 1880s, 9% of the total population of Norway emigrated to the United States. The reasons for immigration and each group’s experiences as stated earlier varied, but there are commonalties shared by most groups, regardless of their ethnicity. Unfortunately for many, the common experiences were at first rejection and then subjection to various forms of prejudice and discrimination.
Husbands and wives often immigrated together. In other situations, the men would immigrate and later send for wives and other family members. In 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Act severely restricted immigration from China. Most Chinese immigrants were “bachelor” immigrants, since most immigrants from China were men, who did not bring or send for wives. In 1907, another law called “The Gentleman’s Agreement” caused increased hostility between the United States and the Asian countries such as Japan, since immigrants from these countries, even though they would reach the Angel Island immigration station in San Francisco, would be turned back to their native countries.
Mexicans fleeing the revolution in Mexico, and Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Russia, along with Armenians escaping the massacre in Turkey, and others all sought refuge and were granted sanctuary in the United States. Twenty-seven million immigrants entered the United States from 1880-1930, with 20 million entering through New York’s Ellis Island. After the First World War broke out, the attitude of American people toward immigration and immigrants began to change. After the war began, people began to be suspicious of foreigners and to question the patriotism of immigrant groups. As a result of this change of attitude, the 1920s saw the passage of laws designed to limit immigration.
Once the Great Depression began, many immigrants returned to their countries of origin. Due to the 1920 immigration laws, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans returned to Mexico from the United States. After the beginning of the Second World War, the immigrants from the Axis-Power countries, Germany and Italy, were detained, while Japanese immigrants as well as people of Japanese descent were interned. The War ended, yet the attitudes of the American people toward immigrants did not change. President Truman asked Congress to address the issue of immigration, saying, “I urge the Congress to turn its attention to this world problem in an effort to find ways whereby we can fulfill our responsibilities to these thousands of homeless and suffering refugees of all faiths.” People fleeing Nazis and other atrocities that occurred as a result of the war were being turned back from U.S. borders. In response to the president’s plea, the Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948. Between 1956 and 1957, the United States admitted 38,000 Hungarians, which began the migration of the Cold War refugees to the United States.
Most immigrants to the United States came to escape political or economic hardships, yet there is one group whose experience is often overlooked, and who migrated to the United States seeking relief from religious persecution. These people are known as Mennonites. They first migrated to the United States in the 16th century, in an attempt to escape the religious persecution that marked the reformation of the Roman Catholic Church. Menno Simons, a priest from Zurich, Switzerland, founded the Mennonite theology, his followers breaking away from the Catholic Church in 1536. The Mennonites did not believe in infant baptism, and so became known as Anabaptists. This sect spread throughout the northern German states and the Netherlands. The Church of Rome began to persecute Mennonite priests, suspending them in cages outside the Church walls, and later resorted to actual torture and executions. It was the Dutch-North German Mennonites who escaped Europe and came to the United States.
II. Jewish and Arab Immigrations Compared
Jewish immigration to the United States, according to the Jewish museum.net, (www.jewishmuseum.net/American.htm), was also unique in many ways. There were three different waves of significant Jewish immigration, carried out by three distinctly different Jewish groups and for varying reasons. The first documented Jewish immigration to the United States is said to have taken place in 1654 when Jews came to the United States from Portuguese Brazil. Twenty-three adult Sephardic Jews are said to have immigrated to the United States in 1655 from Holland. The first American colonies are also said to have included Jews who settled along the Atlantic coast. Only Rhode Island was allowed a permanent Jewish community, which was established in the 1700s in Newport where the Touro synagogue was built in 1773. Several Spanish Portuguese Jewish settlements were later established in South Carolina and Savannah, Georgia. In Philadelphia, Congregation Mikveh Israel was established in 1745. A community of Jews was also established in Richmond, Virginia, following the American Revolution.
German Jews initiated the next wave of Jewish immigration to the United States. Scarcity of land, poverty, and laws that prevented or limited rights to marry, housing, and employment for Jews caused many Jews to flee Germany in the early 19th century. German Jews became the predominant Jewish American immigrant group, settling mostly in the Midwest along the trail of the Erie Canal. Following the failure of the second German revolution in 1848, another wave of German Jewish immigration took place, but, unlike the first wave, these immigrants were older and better educated. They became peddlers and took up petty trades and established businesses that required small outlays of cash to get started. This is when most of the Jewish communal and fraternal organizations where established in the United States. It is important to note that most of these Jewish immigrants were part of the Reform movement of Jews founded originally in Hamburg, Germany. Reform Judaism is considered an activist’s type of Judaism that focuses primarily upon winning Jewish civic equality and social acceptance.
In 1904, Jews fleeing the pogroms of Russia and Poland became the third wave of Jewish immigration. These Jews differed from their Russian counterparts since they were mostly urbanized and they immigrated as entire family groups, whereas the first Jewish immigrants came mostly as single men. Most of the Russian Jewish immigrants were Hasidic Jews, who settled in the urban areas and maintained a strict orthodox religious way of life. This last great wave of Russian Jewry is accredited with preserving the Yiddish culture.
As mentioned, the different groups of Jewish immigrants differed significantly. The Russian Jews, who considered themselves the “industrialist proletariat,” brought with them a very rich culture of theatre and poetry. They formed very close-knit communities and placed a strong emphasis on communal life and Jewish or Yiddish culture. The German Jews were considered better assimilated and were considered more “American” than other Jewish groups. Following the wave of Russian immigration, Jewish immigration slowed down. Following the tragic events of the Second World War, Jews again began to immigrate in larger numbers to the United States. Increasingly, Eastern Jews are migrating to the United States from Iran and Syria. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union there has also been another sizable influx of Russian Jews, yet, unlike earlier Russian Jewish immigrants, these immigrants are very secular and seldom demonstrate Jewish customs, nor do they speak Hebrew.
In some ways, Arab immigration to America is unique, especially because of opposition by Jews rooted in the Zionist enterprise in the Middle East. The Arab/Israeli conflict has seriously impacted attitudes about Muslims, who make up a large portion of the Arab immigrant population. It has been stated that one cannot easily determine which is wagging which. It is difficult to determine whether prejudice against Islam is coloring Arab immigration, or prejudice against Arabs is coloring the Muslim immigrant experience. Clearly, the Arab/Muslim immigration experience is greatly complicated by the politics surrounding the Arab/Israeli crisis and the United State’s almost unconditional support for Israel, and also by the recent attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., carried out by political extremists.
Arab and African immigration to the United States began, according to some historians, before Christopher Columbus made his infamous journey to the New World. According to a book written by a group of people known now as Melungeons, these people have been identified as tri-racial isolates, who lived in communities in South Carolina, Virginia, the Appalachian Mountains, and Tennessee. These people are reportedly the descendants of Arabs, Algerian Berbers, and Sephardic Jews who had been held in captivity in Portugal, brought to the New World on ships as slave labor, and subsequently escaped into the hills. Arab immigrants came to the United States in 1875 from Syria, which was at that time Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Most came as unskilled and uneducated laborers. In the 1930s, another wave of Arab immigration took place, but it was halted after the Second World War began. The immigration laws during the 1930s were extremely prejudiced against Muslims (Marty 1986). The third wave of immigration took place roughly between 1947 and the 1960s, and the fourth wave has been from 1967 until today.
Arabs immigrated to the United States for various reasons. The reasons for the first and second waves of Arab immigration were not different from reasons that compelled the immigration of most other ethnic groups who came to the United States seeking economic opportunity. Later waves of Arab immigration were arguably more the result of religious and political persecution than economics. One of the other reasons for immigration was education. This has had an impressive impact on the Arab-American community in the United States, which is recognized as one of the country’s best-educated and most affluent communities.
The immigration experience of Arabs has been noticeably different from other groups. Jews and others were persecuted by the older better established groups who fended off competition for jobs and housing by refusing to include new groups, monopolizing certain trades and sectors of employment, and resorting to sometimes hateful, violent, and illegal tactics to prevent their inclusion. Arabs, on the other hand, have experienced a type of political persecution that has perhaps surpassed the experience of Catholics and others who faced real challenges while attempting to assimilate in the United States. Prejudice against Arabs and Muslims was previously attributed to the politics surrounding the Arab/Israeli conflict, but is now attributed mostly to a backlash associated with the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.
III. The Irish and the role of a Major Sponsoring Religion
No doubt each group that sought a piece of the American pie faced unique and perhaps some common challenges that made their journey from immigrant to citizen difficult. It is likely that the most colorful assimilation story by almost any estimation would be the story of the Irish. The Irish are unique in that they were an immigrant group that had both very strong nationalistic or patriotic leanings, yet were also quite religious.
Before delving too deeply into the impact this cleavage between faiths had upon the newly immigrated Irish community, some important insights into the Irish experience should be noted. Irish success in the United States might be due mostly to the fact that the Irish took to American politics very easily. It has been said that, “no other immigrant group has ever taken so quickly and completely to the American political system, especially as it functioned through the machine politics of larger American cities. By nature, the Irishman seems to have possessed many of the qualities that make for a successful politician.” These traits have been recognized as a gift of oratory and friendliness. The Irish almost immediately established community and church newspapers that covered events in the Irish community, as well as the politics of the nation. Whereas many immigrant groups took up agriculture and established communities in the Midwest and other farm areas, the Irish stayed mostly around the large cities, since as one non-Irishman is quoted to have said, “the Irish American voters would not leave the city for the farm for fear they would lose the glory of having a ‘Paddy O’ Bluster’ in one office and a ‘Rory McWhackem’ in another and a ‘Tearaway Batterscull’ in a third.” About the Irish worker it was said, “He slowly moves his rake, and swings his pick with easy sweep, seeming to be not quite awake, and yet not sound asleep. We gazed upon the dreamy scene, and of its beauty wrote, and could not help but realize the power of the vote.”
Whereas there is no proof that immigrant voting prior to the mid- 1800s had any real impact on elections in the United States, there has not been a campaign since 1852, according to The Molly McGuires, where the immigrant vote has not been solicited by candidates. This is done, “by playing up either the pride or prejudices of immigrant groups.”
According to an article published by The Molly McGuires, “The Story of Irish Immigration, The Final Installment,” the importance of the Irish in the Roman Catholic Church of America and the role of the Church in the life of Irish Americans are so generally recognized that the statement that the Catholic Church in America became essentially an immigrant church in the 1840s and continued for decades to receive its strongest additions from abroad will hardly be challenged by anyone familiar with the facts.”
Irish politics played a significant part in U.S. history, and there are many colorful stories about the Irish and their political positions and squabbles that allow us to understand how a group like the Irish can impact societies through organization and utilization of available skills, which sometimes includes natural skills such as artistry or even colorful character and speech. The Irish are more noted for these attributes than for most anything else. Of course, the America that greeted the majority of Irish immigrants was far different from the United States that greets immigrants today. Education and a certain amount of political sophistication are required simply to understand what is being said and what it means in real terms.
The Irish have been loyal Democrats, and remained loyal even when many other groups were shifting their political alliances in the 1850s. This is perhaps somewhat due to the fact that they disliked the newly formed Republican Party, and were against the abolition of slavery, since they feared to compete with freedmen who would take on the physical labor jobs that the Irish had usually monopolized. In an article that appeared in the New York Tribune, it was said that Irish dislike for the Negroes was strange, since the Irish, “had just escaped from a galling degrading bondage.” The article went on to say that, “by voting down every proposal to give equal rights to the colored race, and coming to the polls shouting, “Down with the Nagurs! Let them go back to Africa where they belong!, the Irishman opposed the emancipation of the Negro in large part because he feared his competition in the labor market.”
Irish political success might also be attributed to the fact that they were strict constitutionalists and stood by the rule of law. This stand against what was then called “radicalism” and which was feared as European socialism was pushed by the Catholic Church, which had grown wealthy and powerful in the United States due to Irish loyalty. The Church felt that European radicalism threatened the power of the Clergy, and so the Irish usually supported strict adherence to the laws of the United States and its constitution as a way to fend off foreign idealism, most specifically socialism and Communism.
IV: Social Darwinism as a Cause of Ethnic and Racial Prejudice
Many researchers have attributed the hardships suffered by various immigrant groups in the United States to the ethnocentrism of American whites. Ethnocentrism is defined as “the unquestioned belief in the superiority of one’s own ethnic group and the consequent inferiority of other groups” (Pettigrew 1980). Regardless of the individual experience of the numerous ethnic groups that immigrated to the United States, the underlying cause of most challenges seems to originate in racism and the immigrants’ competition for survival through assimilation. The racism for the most part stems from the ideas held by the Anglo Saxons of Europe toward the African tribes and Native Americans, two groups that been observed by European explorers as savage and not Christian and so not civilized. Unfortunately, most of the groups of immigrants that migrated to the United States were seen as inferior to the Anglo Saxon whites who first settled here (Fredrickson & Dale, 1980). Anti-Semitism is also seen as a form of this same racism. According to Fredrickson and Dale, Europeans who were not of Anglo Saxon origin were considered “members of sub-cultures” and “failures in their own countries,” who had come to take jobs from Anglo-Saxon whites here in the United States.
Racism was a strong impediment to immigrant assimilation as stated earlier, but another impediment is the harsh competition for jobs and housing and other resources. In this respect, researchers credit Social Darwinism for the racial prejudice used to substantiate the ethnic competition carried out according to the terms of “natural selection” and theories of “survival of the fittes.t Psychologist Oscar Handlin argues in Race and Nationality in American Life that racial prejudice has played a major role in the establishment of most American institutions, and Social Darwinism is the model for the structure and operation of most U.S. institutions.
Looking at the various experiences of the numerous ethnic groups that have assembled over the years in the United States, one thing becomes starkly evident. Little will discourage competition between immigrant groups and already assimilated groups. It seems that the only way that change could be accomplished is if there were significant changes in our ideas about survival and competition. We must move from the adversarial model for survival presented by Darwin, and exchange it for a model of success that is based upon cooperation. A natural drive for power and survival are the compelling attitudes that foster racism, political and religious persecution, and group hatred and persecution in our society. We must find ways to reeducate ourselves if we are to exchange these attitudes for new approaches to multicultural existence. These attitudes are taught to us not only in the United States, but throughout the world, particularly in Europe, where some of the most brutal attempts at ethnic cleansing have resulted in mass genocide and fueled one of the largest waves of European immigration to the United States.
Without doubt the United States is a melting pot of people of various races, religions, colors, and nationalities. Each group has its own unique story and set of experiences that make its immigration and assimilation unique. What is common between all groups is that no matter how hard they have struggled to be accepted and respected in the United States, none have been so embittered by their experiences as immigrants that it prevented them from loving their new country and their fellow countrymen.
:: PART TWO ::
Facing the Future
Integration: A Proactive Solution
Arabs, South Asians, and Muslims generally have three basic options as immigrants to America in the twenty-first century. First, they can assimilate in the sense of losing their religious and cultural identity in order to be accepted. Second, they can retreat into ghettos and refuse to participate in the social and political life of the country they have chosen as their home. But, both of these options must be rejected by all religious people.
Or, thirdly, they can integrate in the sense of becoming one with the higher aspirations of their fellow citizens, so that they can bring their own wisdom to enrich the American experience and strengthen the common societal commitment to the traditionalist values of America’s founders. At a time when American society shows signs of fracturing, Muslims with an enlightened understanding of their own and other religions can be a powerful voice to maintain America’s threatened identity and overcome the current crisis.
The lessons to be learned are five: 1) learn the practical processes of governance in America; 2) learn the ideals that shape and drive U.S. interests and policies; 3) seek long-term and not short term gains; 4) learn coalition building and making friends, the “how” and the “who; and 5) work for the betterment of all of society and not only for parochial Muslim interests.
Since Muslim and Arab immigration has been complicated by the events of 9/11, it is very important that steps be taken to distance the communities from these criminal acts and to restore the image of Arabs, South Asians, and Islam. This can perhaps be accomplished by working in coalition with other groups, religious and civic, to contribute to worthy causes that do not simply benefit Muslims and partisan interests.
One group that has mastered the use of the media in shaping its image and identity in the United States has been the Jewish community. They accomplished this by investing in media outlets. Whereas this opportunity may be less now than before, there is an opportunity to utilize the media, making it possible for relationships to be constructed where Muslims are given equal time on talk shows. This might happen more frequently if Muslims and Arabs become advertisers and investors in those networks and other media that are publicly traded.
One of the most important things that Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians can do to make the transition from a marginal and negatively stigmatized community to the mainstream will be to find its voice again, and its voice must resonate with all Americans and not simply with Muslims or Arabs.
Another Option: Establishing a Geographic Base
The Irish experience of establishing a base in Boston and New York to maintain access to the center of political power in America might suggest that Muslims could do the same. But how? One creative Muslim, Akhtar H. Emon, has suggested an answer.
The Kennedys have either dominated or strongly influenced politics in both Massachusetts and New York, and have used this to gain acceptance of issues important to the Irish. It is quite natural for the Honorable Senator Ted Kennedy to favor and focus on Irish freedom since his ancestry is originally from Ireland. He has been very sensitive to Irish causes and has been able to bring positive changes in the Irish economy via U.S. foreign policy by virtue of his presence in the U.S. Senate.
The well-known British writer and philosopher George Bernard Shaw always referred to America as “The New Europe.” This mindset has been prevalent on both sides of the Atlantic. As a result, the European economy has been fine-tuned by Americans not only in Ireland, but in many other countries on the European continent. The Italians were able to get rid of the Sicilian Mafia with the assistance of America, and as late as the 1940s America was able to eradicate the Nazis from Germany and Eastern Europe. Similarly, due to the Reagan buildup, we saw the demise of the Soviet Union’s “Evil Empire,” followed by the slow rebuilding of the Russian economy and the rapid growth of the People’s Republic of China.
To address terrorism in the Middle East we need to evolve from Euro-centrism in the U.S. Senate and House and move toward inclusiveness and pluralism, focused on overcoming the economic and political causes of violent alienation. This type of change need not burden the U.S. treasury. Middle Eastern Muslims and Arabs do not need a handout, as long as U.S. foreign policy does not undermine them. This means that the people of the Middle East need to be accorded more importance and more respect than is the oil under their lands. The transfer of technology and industry to Middle Eastern countries can also be accomplished without burdening the taxpayers.
Therefore, we need “Muslim and Arab Kennedys” in Congress. They, in turn, can legislate policies to help transfer technology and industry to the Middle East, so that rebuilding of the Middle East will be similar to the past rebuilding of Europe, recognizing that political democracy and economic democracy must go hand in hand.
The loss of important seats by Senators James Abourezk from South Dakota and Chuck Percy from Illinois, as well as Congresspersons Paul Findley from Illinois, Pete McCloskey from California, and Cynthia McKinney and Hilliard, both from Georgia, resulted primarily because of their fairness in demanding justice in the Middle East. Once the powerful lobbies opposing them made sure that they were gone from Washington, there was hardly anyone left to maintain checks and balances in U.S. foreign policy. As a consequence, the self-dignity and self-esteem of the population in the Middle East kept declining year by year, exceeded only by the rise of radicalism.
In the absence of “Muslim and Arab Kennedys” in Congress, the Honorable Paul Findley and Pete McCloskey were watching the store and trying to maintain some sanity and balance in U.S. foreign policy. It is quite understandable that it takes an Irish American senator to carry the cross for Ireland. Similarly, it will take Muslim American and Arab American senators to carry the crescent for the Middle East.
How can one organize to assure reliable representatives in Congress for peace through justice? One model may be the Mormons. At the beginning of their journey to establish the new faith, Mormons were subjected to rejection and discrimination, especially in the large metropolitan areas of America. They came very close to losing their human self-esteem and self-dignity and almost reached the below zero threshold. Had they not decided to migrate en masse to Utah in 1846, quite possibly the Mormons could have turned their frustrations into terrorist activities.
Mormons have their own version of Silicon Valley and hi-tech operations in Ogden/Brigham, Utah. One can drive mile after mile in Utah and not see a single liquor store, which reflects on the lifestyle and beliefs of the majority of the residents. In February, 2002, Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, was in a position to host the Winter Olympics.
Based on the above example, the American Muslim theoretically could pick one state out of fifty states in America and concentrate their energies on cultivating representation in the Senate and House as well as in the local government of that state. The estimated population of Muslims in America in 2003 is close to eight million. It may take the migration of approximately one million Muslim Americans to a state such as Montana, Delaware, Vermont, the Dakotas, Wyoming, or Alaska to make a significant difference. These states have a small population base, and a million Muslims moving to one of these states could help bring a demographic change in favor of Muslim political influence.
The migration of one million Muslims out of a total U.S. population of 8,000,000 Muslims represents a 12% impact, which is quite manageable. After the partition of the Indian sub-continent in 1947, Muslims migrated in much larger numbers than this.
Those Muslims who chose to live in the secular country of India still had to concentrate demographically and strategically in order to preserve their culture, religion, and heritage, while living as an overall minority. As a result, Muslims in India have much greater clout than the Muslims in America.
It would take a lot of clout for U.S. Muslims to make a difference in U.S. foreign policy and help bring democracy and human rights in the Middle East. Establishing a single geographic base might be one approach. This would be a struggle for a higher cause than a manipulation to serve self-interest, because countering the causes of terrorism is in America’s enlightened national interest.
The Challenge to Muslim Activist Organizations
After 9/11, it is fard kifayah or an obligation for the umma to project current trends, forecast possible alternative futures, and prepare appropriate plans of action to counter the growing threats to immigrant Muslims in America.
A year ago, for example, perhaps it was acceptable for the major national Muslim organizations to refrain from coordinated action in support of Professor Sami al Arien, because this might have jeopardized other priorities. Good strategy requires a proper ordering of goals based on the study of challenges and opportunities. Our failure to weigh in on Sami’s behalf, however, other than by reporting on the campaign by enemies of Islam against him, bore its likely fruit on February 20th, 2003, when the FBI led him away in handcuffs, together with several people in America and abroad as part of a dragnet operation.
If the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003 is passed by Congress, even without legislative scrutiny, as was the original Act of 2001, Sami al Arien may be joined by hundreds or thousands of other Muslims, including even the native born, in American jails without constitutional rights. And these victims of America’s unrestrained police power both at home and abroad will have been imprisoned based on unconstitutional violations of basic human rights, without any judicial authorization or review.
One option for action is not to act. This would fit into the option of assimilation by adopting a low profile. Another option is to attack the American system as an enemy of everything Islamic. This rejectionist option would accomplish nothing except to make the crisis worse.
The third option for Muslims fully integrated into American life is to join other non-Muslim organizations in lobbying to introduce alternative legislation designed to protect American security while avoiding the extremes that now threaten to run rampant. This requires close cooperation with non-Muslim think-tanks that are already active in this regard, and making alliances with them in order to reach out to other think-tanks that need to study all sides of such important issues. Washington politics is the politics of alliances.
Policy and its legislative expression result not only from the executive and legislative branches of government directly, but also indirectly from the media and the think-tank community, which are considered to be the fourth and fifth “estates” of the American governmental system. Both of these “estates” have enormous influence in setting the agenda for policy and legislation. Whoever shapes the agenda controls policy.
The media and think-tank communities in turn are highly influenced by intellectuals in academia. Muslim intellectuals and intellectual/activists must work together with other intellectuals in academia to shape the premises of thought, because in the long run whoever controls these premises and both factual and value assumptions controls the political agenda.
Muslims and Arabs, and now the Indo-Pakistanis, are threatened as no other immigrant groups ever have been in American history. We are unique because we are uniquely threatened in our very rights as American citizens and in our right even to live here. And for that very reason, we have a unique responsibility to defend America’s freedoms not only in our own self-interest, but in the enlightened interests of all Americans.
Muslim immigrants in recent decades have come to America because of its freedoms and economic opportunities, which sadly are lacking in so many Muslim countries with governments supported by American policy. We came to America as our salvation from oppression, and now we find that even here rogue policies are beginning to oppress us again. In our countries of origin, one could argue that the fight for freedom is not worth the risks. But, now with our backs against the wall, we can no longer afford to indulge in cowardly submission induced by a paralysis of paranoia.
We must work with other concerned Americans, but we cannot rely on them for rescue. We have no alternative but to lead the campaign for domestic civil rights, as well as the campaign for justice everywhere in the world. Perhaps this is why Allah placed us here in America. America needs us so that the vision on which America was founded can survive and prosper. Our current existential crisis is not merely a challenge but a God-given opportunity to fulfill our responsibility as Muslims in alliance with like-minded people of other faiths.
We have a common vision for America, as did America’s founders, and we must work courageously as a team to fulfill it. This is the responsibility of the members and leadership of MAS, ISNA, ICNA, AMA, MPAC, AMC, CAIR, and others who right now hold in their hands more than anyone else the future of Muslims in America and throughout the world, and even, to some extent, the future of the world itself.
Throughout American history, newly arrived minorities have faced off in economic rivalry against each other in a Darwinian struggle for survival. The only exception is the community of Arabs and Muslims. Its past experience and future prospects in America differ from those of all other minorities because its principal rival is motivated not by domestic concerns of survival but by a foreign causus belli.
After the rise within the American Jewish community of secular Zionism during and after World War Two, the American Zionists were motivated by a single overriding issue, namely, how to build a Jewish state in the Arab lands of Palestine. The Arabs in America had never had any problems or rivalry with Jews, but the emergence of rivalry between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land spilled over into their relations in America. Henceforth, a powerful domestic special interest group, whose ultimate identity was rooted in a foreign country, was committed to a campaign against Arabs and Muslims in America, who were larger in population but incomparably weaker in domestic clout.
The stronger the confrontation abroad, the more determined were the American Zionists to confront, reduce, and even eliminate the threat of rising Arab and Muslim political power in America. For this purpose, Arabs and Muslims both in Palestine and America were demonized, unlike any other ethnic or religious group has ever been before in American history.
After 9/11, the Zionists attempted to join their war against resistance to occupation in Palestine with the American global war against evil and terrorism, even to the extent of testing the possibility of applying the doctrine of “transfer” or ethnic cleansing to Arabs and Muslims in America.
Shortly after September 11th, 2002, the Director of National Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, Stephen Steinlight, highlighted the “problem” of Muslims in America in his position paper, “The Jewish Stake in America’s Changing Demography: Reconsidering a Misguided Immigration Policy.” He concludes, “Apart from the loss of political power that will inevitably result over time from the sweeping demographic reconfiguration of the American social landscape, undoubtedly the greatest immediate threat to the well being of the American Jewish community and its interests stems from large-scale immigration from the Muslim world.”
A few months later, on June 5, 2002, on a panel of The American Jewish Congress in Philadelphia, Steinlight developed this theme a little further: “I think the organized Jewish community has a great deal of power. And I think that we are watching the high noon of American Jewish power in the United States, and it’s moving downwards. We have 52 percent intermarriage. We have young people by every record who do not identify with Israel. We have a community that is assimilating to a remarkable degree.
“At the same time we have the influx of a large Muslim community with an extremely strong etiological identity and religious identity which is founded on antipathy to us. The Muslim community is not like any other community. Every single one of their national organizations, with the exception of the Islamic supreme Council, is an Islamist organization.”
The term Islamist is a synonym for politically active and committed to higher principles of justice. To the extent that Muslims can successfully appeal to principles of justice, Zionists face a greater challenge in trying to do the same. Perhaps Dr. Steinlight is saying that his side may be fighting a losing battle.
If the Jews in America assimilate, but the Muslims in America integrate, he will be correct. The real question may be whether the secular religion of Zionism can compete with the spiritual religion of Islam or any other of the world religions. The past history of humanity argues in the negative.
Those who worship the false god of material power eventually lose out to changing historical conditions. Those whose highest purposes in life are material always end up on the down side or ebb in the ebb and flow of historical tides. Those who worship a transcendent power, including all spiritually enlightened Jews, Muslims, and Christians, may be part of the rising tide or flow of history, both in America and worldwide. But, only God knows.
[i] Ethnic America, “Italian Immigration,” The Glider Lehrman Institute of American History, 2001
[iii] Akhtar H. Emon, “Terrorism versus American Muslims: Root Causes of Some American Politics,” presented at the AMSS Annual Convention, October 25-27th, 2002, in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Ahmed Yousef is Director of United Association for Studies and Research (UASR) and Editor-in-Chief, Middle East Affairs Journal.