Here is the strange story of the Shriners organization, members of which include very significant people ranging from ex-US presidents to celebrities for 145 years.
In 1870, William Florence, a world-renowned actor, while on tour in Marseille, was invited to a party given by an Arabian diplomat.
Fleming took the ideas supplied by Florence and converted them into what would become the "Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (A.A.O.N.M.S.)." Fleming created the ritual, emblem, and costumes.
The group adopted a Middle Eastern theme and soon established Temples. The first Temple established was the Mecca Temple established at the New York City Masonic Hall.
In 1875, there were only 43 Shriners in the organization. Fleming was elected the first Imperial Potentate. After some other reworking, in 1900, there were 55,000 members and 82 Temples.
Despite its Orientalist theme, the Shriners is a men's fraternity, not connected to either Arab culture or Islam. To further minimize confusion with religion, the use of the words "temple" and "mosque" to describe Shriners' buildings has been replaced by "Shrine Center," although some individual local chapters are still called Temples.
Shriners often participate in local parades, an "Oriental Band" dressed in cartoonish versions of Middle Eastern dress; pipe bands, drummers, motorcycle units, Drum and Bugle Corps, and even traditional brass bands.
They even gathered in the White House many times.
On May 9, 1921, two months after taking office, Harding reviewed a Shriner’s parade in Washington DC.
US Presidents Truman, Franklin Roosevelt, Gerald Ford, and Chiefs of Defense such as Omar Bradley, Douglas MacArthur were known to be affiliated with the Shriners.
By 1938 there were about 340,000 members in the United States. That year Life published photographs of its rites for the first time. It described the Shriners as "among secret lodges the No. 1 in prestige, wealth, and show," and stated that "in the typical city, especially in the Middle West, the Shriners will include most of the prominent citizens."
Buzz Aldrin, Clark Gable, John Wayne, Nat King Cole, Irving Berlin, and Johnny Cash were some of its celebrity members.
While there are plenty of activities for Shriners and their wives, there are two organizations tied to the Shrine that are for women only: The Ladies' Oriental Shrine and the Daughters of the Nile.
Architecturally notable Shriners Temples include the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, the former Mecca Temple, now called New York City Center, Newark Symphony Hall, the Landmark Theater (formerly The Mosque) in Richmond, Virginia, the Tripoli Shrine Temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and the Helena Civic Center in Montana (formerly the Algeria Shrine Temple).
The Academy Awards were held at the Shrine Auditorium in LA, from 1947 to 1948 and eight times between 1988 and 2001. This Shrine also hosted several Grammy ceremonies until 2000 when the Grammys moved to the nearby Staples Center.
Especially after 9/11, Shriners, that had already been distancing from Islamic symbols, rapidly abandoned Islam influenced elements.
The rise of anti-Islam movements in the US and the accusations of proselytizing Islam also contributed to this.
But Shriners still salute each other in Arabic-Islamic way and use the word "Allah" in their ceremonies.
Medinah Country Club is a private country club in Medinah, Illinois, where modern day Shriners, who are mostly middle class men gather for fun, charity, and networking.
The Shriner's charitable arm is the Shriners Hospitals for Children, a network of twenty-two hospitals in the United States, Mexico, and Canada.