Legally White

Muslim immigrants vie for citizenship in the early twentieth century.

John Mohammad Ali's struggle to keep his American citizenship, which he received on May 26, 1921, illuminates the precarious position Muslims found themselves in at this time. In 1921, when Ali was given his certificate of citizenship, his eligibility was determined based on the immigration officials' belief that he was a “high-caste Hindu.” At that time, Indians who could demonstrate that they were “high-caste Hindus” were still considered eligible for citizenship as members of the Caucasian race, and since the “high-caste Hindu” label worked to Ali's advantage, he did not deny it. However, after the Immigration Act of 1924 made “Asians” ineligible for citizenship, Ali sought to reclaim his Muslim identity. He told the court that “he is not a ‘Hindu' of full Indian blood, but … an Arabian of full Arabian blood. While admitting that he is a native of India, as his ancestors for several centuries had also been, he contends that originally his ancestors were Arabians, who invaded the territory now known as India, and settled and remained there, but have been careful not to intermarry with ‘the native stock of India,' and have ‘kept their Arabian blood line clear and pure by intermarriage within the family.'?” The “Arabian” invasion of India to which Ali referred was in actuality a Muslim invasion of northern India by the Turkish Saljuqs. Ali seems to have conflated his Muslim identity with an Arab identity because Arabic-speaking Syrians, as Semites who have lighter skin, had not had their citizenship status challenged in courts since Dow v. United States declared them legally “white” in 1915. Tellingly, Ali seems to have not told the court that he was Muslim and that his alleged connection with Arabs was established through Islam. District Judge Tuttle was consequently confused:


I am unable to follow the argument thus sought to be made. No reason has been suggested, and I can discover none, why the mere fact that the early ancestors of the defendant came to India from Arabia, where they had been called Arabians, renders the defendant a white person. His skin is certainly not white, but unmistakably dark, like that of the other members of his race. He is a native of the continent of Asia, specifically of the country of India, and more specifically of the province of Punjab, the place of the nativity of the alien held, in the case of United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, supra, not to be a white person. (United States v. Ali)


One presumes that Ali did not divulge his religion because he felt that it would hurt rather than help his case, given the popular prejudices against Islam. His intuition was apparently correct. When in 1942 District Judge Tuttle, who had heard Ali's case, received a petition from a Yemeni Muslim named Ahmed Hassan, he denied the petition. In that case, Tuttle argued that neither skin color nor religion could legally bar one from citizenship, given that there could be a dark-skinned Anglo-Saxon or light-skinned Chinese, but


when one seeking citizenship is in fact clearly not white of skin a strong burden of proof devolves upon him to establish that he is a white person within the meaning of the act. … Apart from the dark skin of the Arabs, it is well known that they are a part of the Mohammedan world and that a wide gulf separates their culture from that of the predominantly Christian peoples of Europe. It cannot be expected that as a class they would readily intermarry with our population and be assimilated into our civilization. The small amount of immigration of these peoples to the United States is in itself evidence of that fact. (In re Ahmed Hassan)


Ultimately, Tuttle decided that Hassan was not eligible for citizenship because he “is an Arab and … Arabs are not white persons within the meaning of the act.” Regardless of what ethnological racial classification suggested, Tuttle argued, dark-skinned Muslims from Yemen were not among the people living the United States whom Congress recognized as “white persons” when it first passed the citizenship act in 1790.

The courts' and immigration officials' estimation of Arab Muslims' race, however, remained inconsistent well into the 1940s. Two years after Tuttle received Hassan's petition in the East District Court of Michigan, Massachusetts District Court Judge Wyzanski permitted the naturalization of Mohamed Mohriez, “an Arab born in Sanhy, Badan, Arabia.” Wyzanski had been told by local immigration officials that it is their practice “to regard Arabs … born outside of the barred zone, as white persons.” Wyzanski rejected Tuttle's assertion that Arab Muslims are culturally distinct from Europeans and thus unassimilable.


As every schoolboy knows, the Arabs have at various time inhabited parts of Europe, lived along the Mediterranean, been contiguous to European nations and been assimilated culturally and otherwise, by them. For the Battle of Tours to the capitulation of Granada, history records the wars waged in Europe by the Arabs. The names of Avicenna and Averroes, the sciences of algebra and medicine, the population and the architecture of Spain and of Sicily, the very words of the English language, remind us as they would have reminded the Founding Fathers of the action and interaction of Arabic and non-Arabic element of our culture. Indeed to earlier centuries as to the twentieth century, the Arab people stand as one of the chief channels by which the traditions of white Europe, especially the ancient Greek traditions, have been carried into the present.


Wyzanski's emphasis on the cultural and scientific achievements of non-Europeans reflects in part his own political beliefs. He found the “policies of rigid exclusion” “false to our profession of democratic liberalism” and “repugnant to our vital interests as a world power” (Ex parte Mohriez). However, the conflation of race, religion, and progress, itself, as a predominant means of making sense of racial and religious diversity in the United States, also became indefensible in American public discourse after the United States entered World War II in December 1941 and more and more Americans became aware of the racist atrocities the Nazis had committed in the name of Aryan superiority.

Outside of the courts, there were numerous other attempts at gaining inclusion into the matrix of American identity created by the conflation of whiteness, Christianity, and progress. Elizabeth Boosahda, for example, reports in Arab-American Faces and Voices: The Origins of an Immigrant Community, an oft-told story among Syrians in Worcester, Massachusetts, about how Mitchell K. Maykel persuaded the Republican Senator Pehr G. Holmes (who served from 1931 until 1947) to help Syrians become legally classified as whites:


They were going to classify us, the Arab people, as Asian, but Mr. Maykel visited Congressman Peh G. Holmes and asked him to fight this thing and make sure we are classified as white and not Asian. I'm as white as anybody who claims to be white is! Our people were going to be considered not of the white race but the senator made sure that we were classified correctly (emphasis added).


Alixa Naff in Becoming American mentions that some of her informants indicated that Syrians who were friendly with African Americans were disliked by others in the community at the turn of the twentieth century, presumably because of the consequences that such an association would have had for the public image of their community. An ethnographic study of Palestinian Muslims in the 1940s by Lawrence Oschinsky concluded that “they consider themselves much superior to the Negro although a few treat them kindly.” A study of Indian emigrants in the 1920s completed by an Indian emigrant lecturer in economics at New York University, Rajani Kanta Das, similarly concluded that Indians consciously avoided associating with African Americans, “partly due to their feeling of racial superiority and partly due to the fact that the negroes are socially ostracized by the Americans themselves and they do not like to be a party to the racial problem.”

Whatever ambivalence Muslim and non-Muslim immigrants from Syria and India had about the loss of traditional identities and practices, legal challenges to their citizenship spurred them to argue for their right to naturalization based not on their accomplishments and merits as individuals, but as members of an ethnic community that could be “scientifically” classified as Caucasian. The institutional prejudices against Syrians and Indians led them to unite under the banner of ethnicity despite their differences in religion, tribe, class, and caste. These markers of identity did not fully disappear within the community. There were still, for example, instances of Muslim parents objecting to their children marrying non-Muslim co-ethnics and vice versa, as cited by several researchers. Nonetheless, religious identities became secondary. As Philip Hitti, a Syrian American who was a pioneering professor of Semitic Literature at Princeton University (1926–1954), observed in Syrians in America, the people of Mount Lebanon self identified not through ethnicity or nationality but through “love for family and sect.” Once their eligibility for U.S. citizenship was challenged, however, they reacted by putting aside their religious differences and organizing multireligious ethnic associations, such as the Association for Syrian Unity and the Society of Syrian National Defense, to raise funds and rally support. . . . Christians, however, much more than Muslims served as leaders of these organizations not only because of their greater numbers and longer years of residence in the United States but also because of the stigmatization of Muslim identity.


America, Belonging, History, Race


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The Image and Act of Communion

Uprockin' the Rose City

That Public Thing

Legally White

The Olde Towne Team

Second-Chance Family

Unimaginable Riches