What We Can Learn from America’s Other Muslim Ban (Back in 1918)


President Trump’s January 27th Executive Order attempted to ban the entry of nationals from seven Middle Eastern countries and suspended the resettlement of refugees unless they are “persecuted religious minorities,” a terminology that is itself selectively deployed to refer to Middle Eastern non-Muslims in general, and Christians in particular. This policy has correctly been understood as part of Trump’s campaign promise to create a ban on Muslim travel to the United States; the order is currently facing legal challenge in 9th District Federal Court. As a scholar of Middle Eastern migration, I am stunned by this administration’s unwillingness to engage the expertise of refugee resettlement agencies, asylum experts, or historians before attempting this discriminatory and impracticable policy.

As a historian, I would also like America to know that we have seen this before. An American president imposed a ban on Muslim travel nearly a century ago, during World War I. That president was Woodrow Wilson.

America’s 1918 Muslim Ban was one facet of the multiplying wartime restrictions that immigrants faced in the United States. America declared war on Germany and Austria in 1917 and mobilized millions of men in the largest conscription by that point in American history. But despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire was fighting America’s allies in the Middle East, the United States never declared war on Istanbul. America’s position toward the Ottomans was a frosty, armed neutrality which it maintained throughout the armistice of 1918. Istanbul recalled its diplomats from Washington and severed ties with the United States, but no declaration of war ever came between the Ottoman Empire and America.

In 1917, around 250,000 Ottoman subjects lived in the United States.[1] Though German and Austrian immigrants were reclassified as “enemy aliens” during the war and were marked for surveillance and policing, subjects of the Ottoman Empire—Turks, Syrian Arabs, Kurds, Sephardic Jews, and Armenians—were granted an intermediate status as “neutral allies of the (German) enemy.”[2] As neutrals living in the United States, Ottoman nationals were initially granted enhanced access to military enlistment and to naturalization as U.S. citizens.[3] But even as they bought Liberty Bonds, joined the Army, and deployed to the French Western Front, Ottoman immigrants simultaneously faced the rising tide of nativist hostility. A stepped up security regime confronted them; the federal Bureau of Investigation, for instance, routinely detained and questioned Ottoman migrants, suspecting them of pro-German loyalties. Ottomans were marked as a security threat because of their Empire’s relationship with Berlin, but also because of pervasive Islamophobic anxieties that as Muslims, they could be compelled to rebellion by their Caliph in Istanbul, the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V. Because travel restrictions were among the only facets of immigrant life that the federal government had control over, limitations on Ottoman movements and travel became the preferred means for policing these communities.


President Woodrow Wilson issued a series of executive orders to restrict the travel of foreign nationals to and from the United States. A 1915 executive order required all persons leaving U.S. soil to carry a passport for the first time, a policy that Congress expanded in May 1918 to restrict departures from the United States of citizens and non-citizens alike. Prohibiting the departure of foreign nationals from U.S. territory was contrary to international practice at the time, and the U.S. Attorney General struck down the ban on departure of aliens as impracticable. Unwilling to be deterred by international law or his own Justice Department, President Wilson issued Executive Order 2932 in August 1918, mandating that “hostile aliens must obtain permits for all departures from, and entries to, the United States” from the U.S. Department of State.[4] In effect, the executive order was a blanket ban on travel of American immigrants with German, Austrian, and Ottoman nationality. Ottoman migrants were the only group included in the ban despite their sovereign not being at war with America.

The 1918 ban impacted millions of European immigrants as well as a quarter million Ottomans of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish faiths. Like the current ban, it purposed to target the nationality of immigrants rather than their religious identities. So what made the 1918 order a Muslim ban? First, the inclusion of Ottoman nationals despite American-Ottoman neutrality was on the basis of U.S. perceptions of Muslim travelers as uniquely threatening. The ban came in the wake of British propaganda about a “jihad made in Germany,” the idea that Germany sought to tap into Islamic religious resentments to create rebel cells of Muslims within the territories of her enemies.[5] In America generally, Islam was racialized as alien, as threatening, as worthy of extreme vetting and policing.


But what really made the 1918 executive order a Muslim ban was the concomitant creation of exemptions from the ban for Ottomans who were not Muslim. The blanket ban on travel by Ottoman nationals belied the reality that this multi-religious empire included millions of Christians, particularly Armenians and Syrian Christians with large diaspora communities in the United States. U.S. immigration authorities granted these non-Muslim groups exemption from the travel ban on the basis that, as Christian communities from the Middle East, they were not the intended targets of Executive Order 2932. The narrative that they were exiled minority communities fleeing religious persecution emerged around the same time and was linked to these exemptions. 100,000 Syrians then lived in the United States, particularly in New York City’s Little Syria, six miles from where Trump Tower now stands.[6]

Syrians were exempted from the travel ban thanks to a series of court cases culminating with George Dow v. United States (1915), which categorized Syrian immigrants as “free white persons” because of their Semitic ethnicity and Christian faith.[7] The law’s conflation of race and religious identity is pertinent, because the subsequent racialization of Islam as “non-white” is at the crux of this story. Islamophobia is a conflation of religious anxieties with racism, a toxic mixture which results in policies that target Arabs and Arab Americans as threatening because they are assumed to be Muslim. This same Islamophobic worldview posits that Middle Eastern religious minorities are universally non-Muslim and that the persecutions they suffer are based in religious ideology at the hands of Muslim majorities.[8] Though he’s likely unaware of it, Trump’s invocation of religious minorities in his executive order is wholly rooted in the legacy of Wilson’s Executive Order 2932, the first #MuslimBan in American history.

However, the problems that quickly emerged in 1918 when federal authorities tried to enforce Executive Order 2932 are also instructive for our own moment. First, the judicial system swiftly and repeatedly challenged the order’s legality, creating inter-departmental scuffles as immigration officials scrambled to discern whether the order held this week or not. Second, the order predictably created diplomatic conflict with neutral powers, principally the Spanish who were charged with mediating between Istanbul and Washington D.C. to oppose the order as contrary international law. The State Department proffered exemptions to Syrians, Armenians, and other Ottoman religious minorities in an effort to smooth this conflict, but those exemptions were correctly seen by the Ottoman Empire and its allies as further threats to Ottoman sovereignty.

Perhaps the most instructive complication from 1918 is the way that exemptions to the ban were processed. Though the ban and its exemptions regime clearly targeted Muslim travelers for restriction, U.S. laws codifying who was properly “Syrian” remained impossible to enforce. Prewar understandings in U.S. law clearly conflated Christianity with Syrian nationality, and it was on this understanding that Syrians—as a religious minority—were granted exemption to the travel ban. In practice, however, passport and immigration authorities struggled to parse “Syrians” from “Turks” because both groups carried Ottoman documents and travelers seeking the Syrian exemption had only to obtain the signatures of two witnesses confirming their Syrian identity. As a result, ineligible ethnic Turks, Kurds, and other non-Christian Ottomans passed for Syrians on paper in order to obviate the ban. This was especially the case following the 1918 Armistice, when the ban on European enemy aliens was lifted but travel by Ottoman Turks continued to be prohibited in an attempt to stymie repatriation until the Syrian Question’s settlement at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

“Stay in America” bilingual propaganda printed in Arab American newspaper, al-Nasr, NYC June 1919.
“Stay in America” bilingual propaganda printed in Arab American newspaper, al-Nasr, NYC June 1919.

There are a few ways, however, in which 1918’s ban differs from Trump’s executive order. First, the 1918 ban’s discriminatory nature did not arouse public recrimination among Americans because religious identity remained problematically suffused with race and nationality. That we are seeing broad-based opposition to a similarly discriminatory ban a hundred years later is significant. Second, and more critically, when the United States cancelled its Ottoman travel ban in 1919, the government quickly shifted its tone towards Middle Eastern immigrants, investing in an ad in the ethnic press asking Syrian, Turkish, and Arab Americans to stay in America. They understood the economic boon Middle Eastern immigrants brought to this country, needed them as workers, and wished not to see them go.

In sum, we have some experience in issuing travel prohibitions which turn on Islamophobic ideas about mobile Muslims as a security threat. We also, sadly, have a century of experience issuing discriminatory immigration laws against Muslim migrants while purporting this discrimination to be about national origins. Finally, we know that the conflation of national origins with religious identity creates policies that are sloppy and unenforceable from a practical perspective. Why? For starters, because faith does not operate within borders and nowhere is the organizing principle of the nation-state more artificial than in relationship to religion. More to the point is that American immigration policies began targeting national origins during World War I precisely because using a religious litmus test could no longer be tolerated by many of us.

No historian will tell you that the restrictionist immigration policies which followed in the 1920s were a rosy time for immigrants. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 slammed the gates shut to Syrian and Lebanese migrants by imposing an national origins quota of 100 persons per year; a quota arrived at by virtue of the uniform classification of Ottoman migrants as “Turks” in the 1890 census that formed the basis for the new quota regime (the “Syrian” classification did not emerge until 1897). A broader history of Asian exclusion—the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907, or Thind v. United States in 1923—provides a meaningful backdrop to this story. But it is also important that we understand that Islamophobia has indelibly marked our immigration and travel policies toward Middle Eastern immigrants since World War I, that this discrimination is the result of conflating religious identities with nationalities. In fact, the United States of America outlawed national origins discrimination in the Immigration Act of 1965.[9]

Trump’s proposal, then, is that we grant his administration a state of exception with regard to Middle Eastern migrants and refugees.[10] With that permission he would suspend a century of legal protections build after Woodrow Wilson’s 1918 executive order in order to reinstitute legalized discrimination against Muslim immigrants, overtly on the grounds of nationality and covertly through religious identity. Trump couches his request in rhetoric borrowed from the “War on Terror,” language which jumps the shark by implying a connection between terrorism and Middle Eastern migration despite all evidence to the contrary.[11] No, Trump is not the first president to try to ban Muslim immigration, but with luck, lawyers, and migration/refugee advocates aligning against this executive order, Trump will be the first to fail to do so.

Dr. Stacy Fahrenthold is a historian of Syrian migrants & refugees in the Americas during World War I. She is a lecturer in Islamic history at California State University, Fresno.


[1] Kemal H. Karpat, “The Ottoman Emigration to America, 1860-1914,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 17, no. 2 (May 1985), 175-209.

[2] Nancy Gentile Ford, Americans All! Foreign-Born Soldiers in World War I (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2001), 60-1.

[3] Stacy Fahrenthold, “Former Ottomans in the ranks: pro-Entente military recruitment among Syrians in the Americas, 1916- 18,” Journal of Global History 11, no. 1 (March 2016), 88-112.

[4] John Torpey, “The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Passport System,” Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World, eds. Jane Caplan and John Torpey (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 265; Craig Robertson, The Passport in America: The History of a Document (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 181-90.

[5] Mustafa Aksakal, “Holy War Made in Germany? Ottoman Origins of the 1914 Jihad,” War in History 18, no. 2 (2011), 184-99.

[6] Public historians have produced an exhibit, “Little Syria, N.Y.: an Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy.” It is currently housed at the Metropolitan College of New York: http://www.mcny.edu/news/newsdetail.php?id=519

[7] On the Dow case, see Sarah Gualtieri, Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010), 52-80.

[8] On the politics of the use of the term “minority” towards population policies in the post-WWI Middle East, see Laura Robson, States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017).

[9] Gabriel J. Chin and Rose Villazor, eds, The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: Legislating a New America (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 11-59.

[10] Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, trans. Kevin Attell (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008).

[11] The Cato Institute has demonstrated, among other things, that no refugees have committed terrorist violence in the United States between 1975-2015. See David Bier, “Five Reasons Congress Should Repeal Trump’s Immigrant & Refugee Ban,” 28 January 2017. https://www.cato.org/blog/five-reasons-congress-should-repeal-trumps-immigrant-refugee-ban