Scholar: Maine's Muslim History Goes Way Deeper Than Somali Refugees

Jul 18, 2016

As the nation’s attention shifts to the city of Cleveland and the Republican National Convention, the party’s presumptive nominee is adding some new detail to his call for a ban on Muslims entering the country.

In an interview on the CBS news program “60 Minutes,” Donald Trump says he would order what he calls “extreme vetting” of Muslims from territories with a history of terrorist activity.

This is the first in a series of profiles of Muslims who have made Maine their home.

Reza Jalali would like to dispel at least one major myth about Muslims in the U.S. — that they are new to the country

“I laugh when people tell me that Islam arrived in Maine with the arrival of our Somali neighbors,” he says. “I find that really funny. Muslims have been part of the American narrative for centuries.”

Jalali is an accomplished scholar, writer and educator. He was recently named one of 50 Mainers that are “charting the state’s future” by Maine Magazine. He has produced work on a wide variety of subjects, including the history of Muslims in the United States.

“I would argue that possibly the first group of Muslims came in the 14th century as Mali explorers and then different waves of Muslims came, as explorers, as slaves,” he says. “Some came with Christopher Columbus and others came because, once Muslim-ruled Spain fell into the hands of the Catholics and the Spanish Inquisition started, the persecution of Jews and Muslims started in Spain, Europe. Many Muslims came to America in search of safety.”

Here in Maine, says Jalali, the first Muslims likely arrived nearly 100 years ago.

“In 1920, the first group of Muslims arrived in Maine, of all places, to work in the mills in Biddeford, Maine. In fact, they were recruited as textile designers and there was a vibrant Muslim community,” he says. “They had their own mosques, meeting places and all that is left of that community is a few dozen gravestones with Islamic signs and names, in a cemetery in Biddeford. The disappearance had something to do with the arrival of the Spanish influenza in Maine.”

Jalali, who is an Iranian of Kurdish descent, came to the U.S. more than three decades ago after the Iranian revolution. He became a political refugee and was resettled in Portland.

Jalali currently lives in Falmouth and says there a number of reasons why he has decided to stay in the area, build a home and raise a family here.

“My biggest attraction to this state [is] that people are open minded and loving and then there is this grace in Maine about the way they receive you.  They may not like you or totally accept you as a new neighbor but they also would not harm you, and that has been amazing,” he says. “In addition, of course, the natural beauty of this state; safety, Maine is a safe place; the education system is very strong; so once we had our children my wife and I decided this was home. So there have been all these different factors.”

Of course, it hasn’t always been easy for Jalali. He recounts an experience he had while pumping gas just outside of Augusta.

“The gas owner came outside of the store — he was quite upset — and angrily he informed me that he did not want to sell gas to Arabs,” he says. “This was years ago, in the early 90s — so this was prior to 9/11 — and I started to laugh, the reason being I am not an Arab. Iranians are not Arabs. I am a Muslim but I am not an Arab, I am a Persian. So I found it funny because he was making a statement not to selling gas to Arabs, and then I wanted to tell him, ‘But I am not an Arab so maybe you can sell gas to me.’ By looking at his face — and he was also carrying a baseball bat — I thought, this is really not a teachable moment. So I backed away, because my smiling and laughing about the whole thing was making him more aggressive.”

Jalali believes that because of the way Muslims have been marginalized by many institutions, including some news media, there is a need to re-humanize them. He says he has devoted his professional life to making this happen, as an educator, a writer and a community leader, and in his role as coordinator of multicultural student affairs at the University of Southern Maine.

“The future of Maine depends on how well we welcome and include immigrants and those arriving here in search of safety and human dignity,” he says. “If we manage to do a good job and they feel at home and they feel valued, then we’ll be a vibrant state. If not, we’re in trouble. This is an aging state. Young people are leaving and families having fewer children. At this rate, we won’t have a skilled workforce that every community, every state needs in order to survive. So to me, it’s an issue of survival.”

Jalali is currently working on a book called “God Speaks in Many Accents,” which is about the religions that immigrants have brought with them to their new home in Maine.