Deirdre M. Moloney: The Muslim Ban of 1910

UNC Press Authors Off the Page - Expert Commentary on the Issues of the Day - Roundtable 1: #immigration

Today’s essay on #immigration comes from Deirdre M. Moloney, historian and author of National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy Since 1882 (University of North Carolina Press, 2012).

The Muslim Ban of 1910

Anti-Muslim sentiment and policies in the United States have intensified since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, culminating in President Donald Trump’s two successive 2017 Executive Orders, each subjected to injunctions by federal judges.

This presidential election, like others since 9/11, was characterized by anti-Muslim rhetoric, much of it virulent. Trump first stoked the “birther” controversy over President Obama’s birthplace and religious identity in the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, and those embers continued to burn in this race. Then, in November 2015, when two people sympathetic to radical Islamic groups murdered 14 people in San Bernardino, California, Trump advocated that all Muslims be barred from entering the United States. In 2016, on the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly insulted the religious beliefs and cultural practices of Muslims, most egregiously in his response to Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Muslim parents of an American soldier, Humayun Khan, who died in combat in Iraq. Trump’s extreme statements, along with his invectives against Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, have justifiably provoked outrage.

Many argue that President Trump’s two recent Executive Orders barring immigrants and others from several predominantly Muslim countries are unprecedented.[1] However, the history of federal immigration regulation in the United States illustrates that non-U.S. citizens were often denied constitutional protections. In fact, anti-Muslim immigration policies were first implemented in the early twentieth century.

The Religious History of Immigration Policy

A significant American controversy over Muslim polygamy in 1910 highlights the historical and current limits of religious toleration of immigrants and others outside the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition.
Historians have written extensively about how race and ethnicity affected U.S. immigration policy, as well as on anti-Semitism and anti-Catholicism. Yet relatively few scholars have focused on how immigrants outside the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition were formally regulated by the U.S. federal government based on their religious beliefs or affiliations. A significant American controversy over Muslim polygamy in 1910 highlights the historical and current limits of religious toleration of immigrants and others outside the mainstream Judeo-Christian tradition, including Muslims. That prejudice led to efforts to exclude, expel, or deport Muslims from the United States, both in the early twentieth century and today.

But this anti-Muslim strain in American politics is not new. Certain immigrants, including Mormons, Hindus, and Muslims faced barriers in their effort to settle in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because they were perceived as adhering to belief systems that were un-American. Though those religiously based cases were small relative to those immigrants facing exclusion or deportation based on their poverty or on medical grounds, they suggest that religious bias has long been a significant factor in early federal immigration policies. Adherents of those traditions and beliefs came into contact with immigration and other officials, who sometimes did not understand non-Christian traditions, their institutions, beliefs, and practices.

Islam, Polygamy, and the Case of Turkey

As early as 1910, Muslim immigrants arriving in the United States faced exclusion at the country’s ports as a result of their religious beliefs. Islam was considered incompatible with American values, based in significant part on immigration officials’ perceptions of Muslims as polygamists.[2] That year, 43 Muslims from the Ottoman Empire, soon to become the Turkish Republic, were barred from the United States over a six-month period, based on their belief in a religion that allowed polygamy or on grounds that they were unable to be economically self-sufficient and would be “Likely to Become a Public Charge.” In its enforcement of that policy, the immigration bureau had determined that simply adhering to the tenets of Islam, rather than the actual practice of polygamy, served as sufficient grounds for deportation from the United States. 

The Imperial Ottoman government, communicating through its Washington embassy, registered a complaint with the U.S. Department of State about its policy toward Turkish immigrants. The American Embassy in Turkey and, in turn, the U.S. Department of State, advocated for a change in enforcement by immigration officials. The polygamy ban was articulated in section two of the Immigration Act of 1907, having been originally addressed in the provisions of the 1891 law outlining grounds for deportation.[3]

Federal agencies often clash over policies because their imperatives and cultures vary greatly.

Because the United States had significant economic interests in Turkey, the State Department sought to protect that diplomatic relationship and to address any matters that might harm existing business negotiations. In response to pressure from State department officials, those regulating immigration developed a questionnaire for use during hearings that provided careful instructions about addressing polygamy. It was intended to distinguish between those who practiced polygamy (or intended to practice it) and observant Muslims who did not intend to practice polygamy. Only the latter group would be allowed entry to the United States. However, under this new policy, it remained unclear under which circumstances these questions would be posed–whether it would be limited to cases in which an immigrant was Muslim, from various countries with significant Muslim populations, or to all male immigrants arriving at U.S. immigration stations.[4]

Under this new line of inquiry, it appears that if an immigrant stated that polygamy was “right” or an acceptable practice, but had no intent to practice it, that response would still serve as grounds for exclusion. Further, those Turkish immigrants who relied on language interpreters or who knew only limited English would probably miss the nuances implicit in those questions.[5] Hence, as a result of the continuing controversy surrounding the polygamy clause and the exclusion of Turkish immigrants on the basis of religion, immigrant officials decided to appease the State Department by employing equally effective, but non-religious, grounds on which to exclude Turkish immigrants.

Religious Freedom for Non-Citizens

This controversy illustrates that federal agencies often clash over policies because their imperatives and cultures vary greatly. The State Department sought a more inclusive approach to Turkish immigrants largely because that region provided new economic opportunities for the United States. Today, those facing bias because of U.S. officials’ unfamiliarity, or discomfort, with their religious traditions do so in part because most within their religious communities have arrived since 1965, when federal legislation removed many discriminatory features of immigration policy.

Immigration authorities’ perceptions of religious minority groups highlight how the federal government’s protection of religious freedom has been a relatively recent phenomenon and does not necessarily extend to non-citizens. Post-9/11 events, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have also aptly demonstrated the significant tensions between the U.S. State Department in its public diplomacy strategies and more domestically based agencies in the U.S. government that emerged so dramatically in the 1910 Turkish Muslim controversy.

That early policy, and the debates it engendered, helps to explain why anti-Muslim traditions and actions in the United States have a longer history than is often recognized and why religious freedom for non-citizens in the context of federal immigration policy has not been as widespread or longstanding a right as commonly assumed.

  1. [1]Signed on January 27, followed by a revised version on March 6, 2017.
  2. [2]“List of Debarred Aliens” dated August 12, 1910. Eight of the 43 Muslim individuals (all males) on this list were deported to Turkey on charges of polygamy. The others were deported on “Likely to Become a Public Charge” (LPC) grounds. File: 52737/499; The Turkish ambassador (representing the Imperial Ottoman Embassy) issued a formal complaint about deportations of Muslim immigrants and questioned whether Turkish immigrants were being treated unfairly by immigration officials. Letter to [William Jennings Bryan], Secretary of State from J.B. Densmore, May 9, 1914. File: 52737/499. Both files in RG 85. National Archives (NARA). Religion and early immigration policy is discussed more extensively in chapter five of National Insecurities.
  3. [3]Caroline Finkel, Osman. Dream: The Story of the Ottoman Empire, 1300-1923. New York: Basic Books, 2005.
  4. [4]“Examination of alien applicants for the purpose of determining whether a polygamist or a person who believes in the practice of polygamy,” May 5, 1913 and June 16, 1913. File: 52737/499. RG 85. Entry 9. NARA.
  5. [5]Letter to the Secretary of State, from Charles Nagel, January 9, 1913. 53200. File: 52737/499. RG 85. Entry 9. NARA.