Becoming US Citizens: Muslims and Christians From the Middle East in US Official Records

At the level of naturalization – the process through which an immigrant becomes an American – there was no discrimination against Muslims as a matter of official policy. Jews, Armenians, Christians, and Muslims who were Ottoman subjects became US citizens between 1880-1920, a pivotal time period of discrimination against non-European immigrants within the Naturalization Era (1790-1952). Yet, immigrants and naturalization applicants who professed belief in polygamy were refused entry into the country and later US citizenship, since it was a question on the naturalization application. At the time, there was an association of Islam with polygamy that went against the grain of US gendered and family norms that prejudiced perceptions of the viability of Muslims as US citizens. This conclusion highlights how aspects of Islam were historically perceived to be foreign to a US national imaginary, and that Muslim acceptance into the American social fabric was conditional.

This article is based on post-doctoral research in the records of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia (DC) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC from 2014-16. These records are a goldmine of information for genealogists tracking the journeys of immigrants from embarkation at US ports of entry, to naturalization as citizens through to the application for passports to travel. Examining the treatment of Muslims at the border and on the threshold of citizenship in the early twentieth-century is not a linear or even history, as this paper will show. An additional biography with narratives of an individual Muslim’s naturalization was found to supplement the rather dry records of NARA. Below, I show that contemporary debates on the entry of Muslims have historical precedents in the immigration laws and naturalization policies of the early twentieth-century United States.

Processes and Networks for Naturalization

Naturalization records at NARA and US passports held tightly by living generations of ancestors stand testament to the reality of Middle Eastern Muslims becoming American, like their fellow Christian and Jewish co-nationalists, and other non-Europeans from various backgrounds. The official records provide clues about how citizenship was achieved on the local level before quotas were established to limit the number of immigrants from the Middle East, and other regions, into the United States from 1924-1965. In the time period of 1880-1920, there were three stages in the naturalization process in the courts, each of which was witnessed by two people, and recorded by the court clerk in DC.

“In the time period of 1880-1920, there were three stages in the naturalization process in the courts, each of which was witnessed by two people, and recorded by the court clerk in DC.”
The first stage was a declaration of intention to naturalize in which the applicant had to give proof of residence and declare their intention to become a US citizen, renouncing allegiance to foreign sovereignties – in this case to the Ottoman Empire. After 1906, immigrants had to sign a document outlining their personal details, including their name, age, birthplace, color, physical descriptions, address, where they emigrated from, the vessel of their transportation and last foreign residence.[i] Two or more years later, after meeting residency requirements, these immigrants filed naturalization petitions, again proving that they had resided in the United States for a continuous period. Sometimes witnesses provided naturalization depositions, which were formal statements made by witnesses in support of the applicant’s petition. At the same time, or a little later, the immigrants swore an oath of allegiance to the United States, abjuring fidelity to “any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty,” which, for most Middle Easterners at the time, was the Sultan of Turkey. After the courts granted the applicant US citizenship, they could apply for a passport that would ensure their re-entry into the United States upon return. The process literally took years and required a substantial effort on the part of the immigrants to understand, conform, and record personal and travel details before representatives of the US government.

There was a clear hierarchy of power in the bureaucratic system that favored the government but the immigrants did have agency and were able to navigate the system, often forming co-ethnic networks to succeed in becoming US citizens. One example of Middle Eastern immigrants navigating the immigration and naturalization processes in DC occurred in 1881 and 1886 when a Syrian and an Egyptian filed their declaration of intent and then their petition for naturalization. The two immigrants were Elias Hallage, aged 40, from “Beyrout, Syria,” perhaps Christian, and Aboud Abd el-Salam, 24 years old, from “Damiette, Egypt,” who was probably Muslim.[ii] From the timing of the files, similar handwriting on the forms and the same witnesses, it seems that they went through the naturalization process together and one might speculate that they were friends, perhaps united by a common language, Arabic. Both had to abjure allegiance to the “Empire of Turkey,” handwritten onto the declarations, in order to become citizens. Origins in the Ottoman Empire clearly defined both Elias and Aboud as an Ottoman subjects, regardless of their provincial origins or religious affiliations. Since the Ottoman Empire was closely associated with an Islamic identity, there was an affiliation with Islam for both applicants, regardless of religion.

“Origins in the Ottoman Empire clearly defined both Elias and Aboud as an Ottoman subjects, regardless of their provincial origins or religious affiliations. Since the Ottoman Empire was closely associated with an Islamic identity, there was an affiliation with Islam for both applicants, regardless of religion. “
 Yet, their origins were less politically significant than in later years when the US and Ottoman tensions escalated on the eve of World War I.

In 1905 and 1906, two Syrian men, Youssef Hageage and Petras Rattal filed an intention and petition for naturalization as US citizens. Rattal was 57 and arrived in the US in 1893; Hageage was 29 and arrived in 1900 into the Port of New York but by 1905/6, they were residing in DC.[iii] Both identified their birthplaces and places of emigration as “Syria” and had to solemnly swear that they had no fidelity to the “Sultan and Empire of Turkey.” In this case, and in the naturalization papers of other Syrian men, the same names appeared as witnesses, indicating that there were networks of Arabic-speaking men that accompanied each other to the courts and assisted each other through the legal processes.

One of the men who was part of this DC network was Abraham Joseph Howar. In a commissioned biography written in 1987, the author recounted that Howar was concerned about his lack of a birth certificate before his 1907 Intent to Naturalize application. His Palestinian parents had deliberately not recorded his birth in order to delay or avoid the military draft of all young boys into the Ottoman army, hence he had no documentation of his birth. (Sweeney, 1987: 7) The biographer casts the narrative of this moment eighty years earlier in the present tense for dramatic effect:

‘The Judge asked how old I was,’ Joe remembered, ‘and when I tried to explain, he said, ‘No Birth Certificate or proof of birth, no citizenship.’ My God I thought, he’ll throw me out of the country. I ran out of the courthouse, and I found an Arabic friend and I said, ‘Look, you’ve got to come to the lawyer with me right away to swear that you’re from my village, and that you know when I was born. Otherwise, I’ll lose everything I’ve worked for. The fellow agreed. That’s why my birthdate was set as the 15th of June, and my papers say I was 25 years old when I became a citizen.’ (Ibid., p. 28)

Joe turned to someone who would vouch for him, “an Arabic friend”, perhaps John Refouq, the court clerk, who witnessed and filed his intent to naturalize. When one was lacking in documentation or in need of witnesses, the network of Arabic-speakers in DC worked together across lines of religious affiliations to secure naturalization for each other. Securing citizenship gave these immigrants many rights, including an ability to sponsor family members or a bride to join them in the United States, and the ability to travel and return home with the assurance that they would be re-admitted.

A Christian-sounding Name Ensured Less Discrimination

While names such as John, Abraham, George and Joseph may seem to indicate a Christian identity, in this time period there was flexibility with names and their spellings. Despite his Christian-sounding name, Abraham Joseph Howar was actually a Sunni Muslim from Tur in Palestine, born with the name Mohammed Issa Abu Al Hawa. When he came to Ellis Island in 1904, he told the immigration officer that his name was Abraham Joseph Hawa. The immigration officer recorded his name as “Howar.” (Ibid. 18) His biographer recounted that Howar was afraid of being discriminated against: “During one shipboard conversation, Mohammed was told that Moslems were not allowed to enter America. He decided immediately to take no chances. He selected two names that were easily Anglicized – Ibrahim and Yussef, Abraham and Joseph. From that moment on, he stopped using the name Mohammed and, when asked his name, he responded Abraham Joseph Hawa. (Ibid.)”

Howar docWith the name Mohammed, he would have been perceived definitively to be Muslim because Muslims were referred to as “Mohammedans” in the NARA records, and in popular culture at the time.[iv] Howar preempted the potentiality of anti-Muslim discrimination by the US immigration officer by spontaneously transforming from Mohammed into Joe. Mohammed felt the need to cloak himself in Christian names and identity to gain entry at Ellis Island in New York City in 1904 because he had heard the news that Ottoman Muslim subjects had been rejected at US ports of entry and sent back to the Empire on boats.

And indeed, records show that a number of Ottoman Muslims had been excluded for many reasons, most prominently at this time because they were (subjectively) perceived to be “likely to become a public charge” to the State. A few years later the reason for rejection was increasingly cited as a “belief in the practice of polygamy.” After 1907, Section 2 of the revised Immigration Act was used to exclude Muslims from entry if they were deemed to be a person who was not a polygamist but held a belief in the practice of polygamy. While the full story of the developments and anti-Muslim biases of US official immigration policy is beyond the scope of this article, on an individual level Howar had clearly understood the importance of renouncing any belief in the practice of polygamy in front of US officials. Commenting on his intent to naturalize petition, his biographer wrote that Howar remembered “some of the words” on the intent to naturalize form verbatim: “‘I am not an anarchist; I am not a polygamist nor a believer in polygamy it is my intention in good faith to become a citizen.’” (Ibid., p.28) This emphasis in the narrative of his life was because immigration authorities and courts had barred Middle Eastern Muslims from admittance and naturalization on that basis. Howar’s biographer and perhaps Howar himself wanted to portray him as a “good” Muslim — meaning, one who did not practice or believe in polygamy and one who subscribed to US nuclear family and gender norms.

Brief Conclusion

Some (though not all) Muslim Ottoman subjects performed “good Muslim” by changing their names at the ports of entry and by signing that they did not believe in polygamy in the subsequent naturalization processes. For Howar, the cost of admittance to the United States was presenting himself as Christian at Ellis Island in 1904. By 1907, the naturalization process began with a refutation of any belief in the practice of polygamy. While their Christian and Jewish counterparts may have changed their names upon arrival and signed the same forms, US bureaucrats put Muslim Ottomans under greater scrutiny. Officials held an imaginary of an American citizen that excluded men with the name of Mohammed, and men who held a belief in the practice of polygamy. There were clearly conditions that Ottoman Muslim subjects had to adhere to in order to prove that they were not in the category of undesired alien and non-citizen.

However, the case study on Washington, DC gestures to the fact that hundreds of Turkish and Arabic-speaking Muslims were probably naturalized as US citizens from 1880-1920, despite increasing anti-Muslim tone in policies and among officials on the eve of World War I. The immigrants learned to navigate the systems and used co-ethnic networks that crossed religious lines and so were successful in overcoming the bureaucratic hurdles to US citizenship. However, the Muslims among them well understood that there were conditions and beliefs required of bonafide US citizens.

[i] This stage was not required “if the person had been honorably discharged from certain military service or had entered the country when a minor or was married to a citizen of the United States.” Bruner Eales and Kvasnicka, eds. 2000. Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives of the United States (NARA: Washington DC), 3rd edition, 86.

[ii] NARA, Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. Supreme Court for DC; Naturalization Record, Entry 101, July 10 1886, Volume 3, p. 104 (Hallage and el Salam)

[iii] NARA, Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. Supreme Court for DC; Naturalization Record, Entry 101, Dec 15, 1905, Volume 6, p. 425 (Rattal) & NARA, Record Group 21, Records of the U.S. Supreme Court for DC; Naturalization Records, Entry 101, Mar 2, 1906, Volume 6, p. 460 (Hageage)

[iv] This is a term that Muslims of today find offensive. The reason for this is that “Mohammedanism” implies worship or religion of Mohammed whereas Islam is a monotheistic faith with God or the Arabic word for God, Allah, at the center of the religion and Mohammed is his Prophet.