Friday, April 17, 2020
April 17, 2020: Arab American Stories: Abdallah Ingram
[April isn’t just National Poetry Month; it’s also National Arab American Heritage Month. So this week I’ll highlight a handful of the many compelling Arab American stories & figures I feature in the final chapter of my book We the People, leading up to a weekend post on contemporary Arab American writers!]
On the inspiring individual who exemplifies the contributions of Arab American communities to our nation and the world.
While the figures on whom I’ve focused so far in this series are certainly part of the broad arc of Arab American history, it’s also fair to say that their circumstances made them somewhat isolated (especially the system of slavery, which by design separate families, communities, and cultures). But in my book chapter I also trace the development of a number of late 19th and early 20th century Arab American communities that represented an important next stage in those histories and stories. There were for example the turn of the century immigrants from the region of the Ottoman Empire known at that time as Syria (now part of modern-day Lebanon) who settled in Ross, North Dakota in 1902 and in 1929 built there a mosque that is known as the oldest such dedicated structure for Muslim worship in American history. And around that same time, another group of immigrants from the same region settled in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and in 1934 constructed what is considered the oldest mosque still in operation today: the Mother Mosque of America (also known as The Rose of Fraternity Lodge and the Moslem Temple). That Iowa community also built the first Muslim National Cemetery, among other ways that they worked to represent Muslim and Arab American communities more broadly.
One particular individual from that Cedar Rapids community truly exemplifies those communal and national efforts. Abdallah (sometimes Abdullah) Ingram was a World War II veteran who in 1952 incorporated an organization known first as the International Muslim Society (IMS; the name would be changed to the Federation of Islamic Associations in the United States and Canada in 1954) which began to hold annual meetings to convene Arab and Muslim American (and eventually Canadian) communities. But during those years Ingram was also pursuing a more personal and striking goal: convincing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to formally recognize Islam as an official religion within the U.S. military. After more than a year of petitioning the president to that end, Ingram succeeded; Eisenhower’s 1953 recognition of Islam meant that (among many other effects) Muslim American soldiers or veterans who died could have religious funeral services (previously they had been forced to be buried as “atheists”). As Ingram wrote in one of his letters to the president, “I am fighting for my right, and the right of my people, to be recognized as a religious faith.”
The Muslim and Arab American communities are not identical, of course; there are Muslims from many different cultures and nations, and not all Arab Americans are Muslim. But Ingram’s quest for recognition can and should be connected not just to that religious community and identity, but to the broader goal of this week’s series (and of this chapter in my book): to recognize and remember as well these Arab American individuals and communities that have been a foundational, central, and ongoing part of American identity at every stage and in every way. Too often, even those who would celebrate the Arab and/or Muslim American communities see them as relatively recent additions to our national landscape (often, the narrative goes, made possible by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act and its effects). As with many other American communities, certainly the number of immigrants from Arab and Muslim cultures and nations has increased since 1965 (as has the number of distinct nations included in that mix), but the crucial truth of that trend is that it represents an amplification of (rather than a change in) our foundational diversity. Better remembering the long history of Arab American figures, stories, and communities helps us recognize that crucial truth, while also celebrating these influential and inspiring lives and legacies.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other Arab American figures or stories you’d highlight?