The issue of Muslim immigration into the United States has been a hot topic in this year’s presidential race, with the debate fanning anti-Muslim sentiment across much of the country. The controversy is nothing new, however. A look into local newspaper archives shows that debate over the “threat” posed by Muslims — once referred to as “Mohammedans” — has raged for well over a century.
“Pensacola Threatened with Mohammedanism”
On May 31, 1893, the Pensacola Daily News reported that they had received a report from the New York press that Alexander Russell Webb, a former U.S. consul who had embraced the “religion of Mohammed,” had announced plans to form colonies of Muslims in Pensacola and throughout the southeastern United States. He was soliciting and collecting prices on large tracts of land in Florida, primarily Jacksonville and Pensacola, as well as lands in Georgia and Alabama. Webb claimed to represent a syndicate of wealthy Mohammedans in India. Webb further noted that the Muslim Indians would be an industrious addition to the American workforce. The Pensacola newspaper was perhaps somewhat alarmed, using the word “threatened” as their headline.
Alexander Russell Webb is known as America’s First Muslim. He grew up in Massachusetts and New York and began a career as a newspaper publisher in Missouri, succeeding to the editorship of the Missouri Republican in St. Louis. In 1887, he was appointed by President Cleveland as consular general to the Philippines in Manila. He began to study Islam and in 1888 formally declared himself to be a Muslim. His wife and children also became Muslims and he had a formal speaking tour of Indian cities. In 1892, he resigned and returned to America in 1893. He began a Moslem World Publishing Company in New York and became a leading exponent of the Muslim religion. He operated a lecture hall and made a speaking tour in various cities. In 1893 he attended the Columbian Exposition in Chicago as the only representative of Islam at the World Parliament of Religions assembly.
He published an English language newspaper Moslem World and promoted his book “Islam in America.” In his speeches, he criticized American bigotry against Muslims, and also urged the curious to at least study the religion before condemning it. He believed it unfair that if a Muslim did something wrong, Americans would condemn that individual as if he represented the whole religion.
With America focused on the World’s Fair, his remarks garnered wide publicity and especially after it was leaked by the Associated Press that he was preparing to buy land for settlements of Muslims throughout Alabama, Georgia, and Florida.
Following up their May 31st story, the Pensacola Journal on June 1, 1893, re-ran most of the same information under the heading “Do We Want ‘Em?” Webb was further quoted as saying that he wanted to establish study “circles” in towns and cities to teach about the Muslim religion. He opined that these circles were not to make converts but ‘to soften the prejudice of Christians in America against the great religion of the Indies.’
The paper also published an editorial in the same issue titled “The Coming of Mahomet” in which the editor commented on an issue of “The Moslem World” that he was reading. He noted the assurance that soon we will have “possibly near Pensacola, a large settlement of Mahometans who will own a large landed interest and be supported by ample capital.”
The Pensacola editor noted:
“Shall They Vote? Can our Republican institutions sustain the weight now being put upon them?”
And the editor answered:
“We must now practically demonstrate that we are sound enough in body and wise enough in policy to become in truth and in fact “the refuge of the nations, the asylum of the world.”
Other Southern papers had additional commentary. The Atlanta Constitution contacted the land agent for the Georgia Southern and Florida railroad who indicated he had not been approached but would certainly sell land to the Mohammedan syndicate. The Constitution further suggested that letting them colonize might be a good way to convert them to the Christian faith. The Florida Times-Union said an Islamic colony would be an added attraction for winter tourists. The Thomasville Times said “what is the world coming to?”
Did they come?
No. Webb later complained that his foreign backers never came up with the funds, and after a flurry of newspaper reports and speculations, the story faded from public view. In 1898, Webb moved to Rutherford, New Jersey, to edit the Rutherford News. He sold that newspaper to Capt. Addison Ely, who merged it with the Bergen County Herald. He held a number of political offices in Rutherford, New Jersey. In 1901 he traveled to Turkey having been honorary consul general for them in New York City. Webb died on October 1, 1916 in New Jersey. He is still revered as an example of an American Muslim hero.