Thursday, November 06, 2008

The American Moslem Brotherhood, 1893

In 1893, on the third floor of 30 E. 23rd Street in New York City, was the headquarters of the American Moslem Brotherhood.

The organization was the brainchild of what most consider to be the first American to convert to Islam, named (Mohammed) Alexander Russell Webb.

Webb converted to Islam while he worked in the US Consulate in the Philippines. He then went to India on a fundraising mission to spread the faith to America: (Washington Post, December 21, 1892)

He arrived in New York City in February of 1893, enthusiastic and full of major plans, and quite willing to use the New York Times (Feb. 25, 1893) as his means of spreading Islam in America:

Webb did manage to start an Islamic publishing company as well as a Muslim school and a mosque. But unlike his initial comments, he started backtracking upon the goal of converting Americans to Islam, now saying that he only wanted to educate them about Mohammedeanism. (NYT 10/8/1893)

And a milestone was achieved in December of 1893, as the Muslim call to prayer was first sounded in New York City: (12/11/1893 NYT)

But all was not Paradise for Mr. Webb. He got into a dispute with one of his workers at the publishing company and she barricaded herself in the office demanding to be paid money he owed her. (This is the first article that refers to his organization as the American Moslem Brotherhood.) The worker, Nefeesa Keep, also alleged various monetary indiscretions from Webb, saying that he solicited and took large amounts of money from rich Muslims abroad and used them for his personal needs (7/16/1894):

The first American Muslim convert retaliated by accusing Keep of stealing from the office; Nefeesa turned around and filed a complaint against Webb and his wife on conspiracy charges.

She then added an additional charge of mail fraud:

The following year, an Indian prince came to America to see how his money meant for converting Americans to Islam was being spent, and he left sorely disappointed. The New York Times did a very large piece on this, interviewing both the prince and Webb. Webb strongly denied receiving most of the money from the Nawab and was found to be living in poverty.

Webb again in this interview denied wanting to convert most Americans to Islam.

Webb vigorously defended himself, giving an exact tally to the Times of every amount he received from India.

Things quickly went downhill for Webb and his mission. There was lots of name-calling and blaming, and Webb became disillusioned at the idea of having any success in America. He blamed the lack of funds on his failure as well as some of his partners who split off from him.

Strikingly, even at a time that the media was explicitly racist in many guises, Alexander Russell Webb's faith was treated with respect - there was no "Islamophobia" in America in the late 19th century.