Muslims of the Midwest: From the 1880s to 2010


Back on September 5, 2010, I posted “A Close Encounter With a Mosque,” remembering a friendship in the 8th grade in Ross, North Dakota in 1953-54.

In the mysterious ways such things work, someone saw the blog post, liked it, and on November 13, 2010, I found myself on stage at the annual celebration and awards banquet of the Islamic Resource Group of Minnesota (IRG)*, and my blog post** printed in their program booklet. I said to the assembled group that I was both astonished, and very, very honored to be with them. The evening was a powerful and inspirational one, with very good attendance considering the first major snowstorm of the season had just struck us here in Minnesota.

“Mysterious ways” indeed. I have long believed that there is no such thing as a “coincidence.” Everything has some purpose. Some would call this “luck,” or “fate,” or attribute good or bad occurrences to something caused by a higher power, using that same higher power to justify good or bad actions.

Whatever the reason, I felt very privileged and humbled to be in that hotel banquet room last night.

There is a formulaic aspect to such events as IRG’s celebration: food, speeches, awards…

These all happened last night.

I chose to notice who was in that room, and who it was that really made IRG a success. They were, by and large, young people: people in their 30s or younger. Yes, there were the “gray-maned” folks like myself and my spouse, but this was a celebration by and about youth.

There was another aspect of this gathering that stood out for me. This was a group that was about understanding, not fear and division; a group whose intention is to promote dialogue rather than positioning and taking sides. To be for, not against. The “Building Bridges Awards” were for Media, Education, Interfaith, Community Leadership and the “IRG Speaker of the Year.” Four of the five award winners were young people.


From “A Close Encounter With a Mosque

In 1991, I inquired about the Ross school, and the then-County Superintendent provided me with my Dad’s year-end report for the high school which that year had 30 pupils in grades 9-12. In 1953-54, the report shows, there were at least six and possibly seven members of the Ross Syrian Community in the public school. Two were seniors, one from Emmett’s family.

We, on the other hand, were clearly religious outsiders: our family was Catholic, and I would doubt there were any other Catholics in the community. We attended church in the nearby trade center of Stanley.

A 1988 book, “North Dakota’s Ethnic History: Plains Folk” (ND Institute of Regional Studies, North Dakota State University, multiple authors), has been a frequent resource for me in my family history work. Pages 354-363 of this book discuss Syrians (Lebanese) and their presence in many parts of North Dakota. On page 360 is this quote, particularly relevant to this discussion: “In Mountrail County, near the village of Ross, other Syrians put down roots during the homestead rush at the turn of the [20th] century. Sam Omar, probably the first settler of Arabic background, in 1902 took land on section 26, Ross township. Later in that year, twenty-two other men came to Ross Township and nearby Alger Township. Within several years almost seventy Lebanese men had taken up land in Ross, James Hill, and Alger townships.

The Mountrail settlers were unique in that, with two exceptions, everyone was of Muslim background. Their descendants today remember two home towns “in Syria”: Bire (Berrie) and Rafid. These villages, in eastern Lebanon adjoin each other and lie only three miles from Ain-Arab. Beirut is twenty-eight air miles to the northwest.

Families in the early days came not only from Lebanon and eastern American seaports, but also from settlements in Nebraska as well….

I saw these families through an eighth graders eyes in the single year of 1953-54.

I don’t recall so much as a thought or a mention that they were ‘different’. They were simply part of the community.

Lest I be accused of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, North Dakota was no less immune to prejudice than anywhere else. In my own Catholic case, for instance, in the late 1920s there was a Ku Klux Klan movement that was anti-Catholic in its focus, led by a Protestant minister, and was very damaging. In the late 1940s an anti-garb law was passed prohibiting Nuns in habits to teach in public schools. And, of course, there was the shameful matter of treatment of American Indians.

This photo and following: people recognized for their work with IRG

Keynote speaker Daniel Tutt, himself a young person, helped us to understand some of the reasons for the dynamics which lead to the politics of division, which in turn lead to the kinds of campaigns which exploit issues such as the Ground Zero Mosque (why I wrote the previously mentioned September 5 blog post), fear and loathing of “illegals,” gays, etc., etc., etc.

Daniel Tutt

Daniel knows of what he speaks. He is program director of the national program 20,000 Dialogues, a program of Unity Productions Foundation.

As Daniel was speaking it occurred to me that the major controversial wedge issues, like the “Ground Zero Mosque,” suddenly went silent immediately after the election November 2.

Before November 2 they were eminently useful, politically. Now they aren’t, but have been simply put on the shelf till the next election…

There is a window of opportunity now to, as IRG emphasized, “Build Bridges.”

Indeed, as I heard last evening, those bridges are already being built, as Emmett and his family and the Muslim community in rural North Dakota were building from 1902 forward.

Whatever your issue, talking – dialogue – is a strong part of the answer of breaking down barriers, of “Building Bridges.”

* – The IRG website is currently under re-construction, but still includes useful information about the group.

** – On November 13, I updated the September 5 blog post to include some additional information.