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New Texts Out Now: Karine Walther, Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921

Karine Walther, Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015.  

Jadliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Karine Walther (KW): As my parents were both French immigrants to the United States, I have always been interested in what constitutes “American identity” and the history of how religious, ethnic and “racial” differences have been dealt with in the United States. After I finished my BA at the University of Texas, Austin, I pursued a Masters in France, where I studied the experiences of second and third generation French Muslim women. In the process, I learned quite a bit about the history of French Orientalism and the country’s historical attitudes towards Islam and people of the Muslim faith. I returned to the United States in 2000 to pursue my PhD and I intended to compare the experiences of first and second generation Muslims in the United States and France. 

After 9/11, however, conducting oral histories with members of the Muslim-American community in New York became unfeasible, since the community had became the target of national surveillance. What I noticed, however, was that many of the media portrayals of Islam, Muslims, and the “Islamic world” that emerged after 9/11 were reminiscent of the kinds of imagery that had emerged from European Orientalism in the nineteenth century. This included the belief that the Islamic world was in need of some kind of reform, preferably coming from a Western power.  This led me to question whether these images had existed in the United States prior to 9/11, and how Americans had viewed the “Islamic world” in the nineteenth century, when Orientalism emerged in Europe.

As I began to conduct research into this topic, I was struck not only by the exchange of Orientalist ideas between Europeans and Americans about the “Islamic world,” but also the presence of American home grown attitudes about Islam and Muslims. What was most interesting about American beliefs was how domestic ideas about race, religion and ethnicity, including ideas about other non-Christians, such as American Jews, Catholics, and Mormons, informed American ideas about Islam itself, in ways that were different from European Orientalist views. 

Of course, many of us who work on the United States and its relationships with Muslim-majority countries have also had to “talk back” to Samuel Huntington’s ideas about an alleged “Clash of Civilizations,” the theory he put forth in his 1993 essay. All of these factors led me to analyze the longer history of American beliefs and how these had shaped American foreign relations from the country’s very origins.  

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

KW: A large part of my book analyzes the ways in which different groups of Americans participated in shaping American foreign relations, writ large. Although I focus on official actors, including diplomats and political elites, my work also examines how Americans not officially tied to the American government helped shape American interactions with Muslims abroad, both officially and unofficially.  For this reason, I also examine the roles played by religious organizations, missionary groups, business interests, academics, and journalists, to name a few. 

The book begins by examining American official and unofficial responses to the Eastern Question, the term commonly used to describe the challenges faced by the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century as it increasingly faced nationalist revolutions by various groups. The first section of the book, therefore, looks at how Americans responded to and participated in efforts by Greeks and Bulgarians to secure their independence.

In the second part of the book, I challenge the myth of the United States as a “Christian nation” by analyzing how Jewish Americans participated in shaping American foreign relations in Muslim-majority nations. These two chapters examine how Jewish-American activists pressured the American government to intervene when it believed Muslim governments were abusing their Jewish minorities in the Ottoman Empire and Morocco. I argue that one of the consequences of such activism, whether intended or not, contributed in shaping American hostility towards Islam and Muslims, while also lending support to the belief that only outside intervention, preferably in the shape of European imperial rule, would bring about religious tolerance and reform to these areas.

The third section of the book shifts the geography quite a bit to examine how these existing beliefs about Islam and Muslims shaped American imperial rule in the Philippines. When the United States annexed the Philippine Islands in 1898, it now had to deal with how it would go about ruling over its own Muslim colonial subjects. Filipino Muslims numbered approximately 300,000 and controlled about a third of the territory in the Islands.  These chapters analyze how American beliefs about Islam and Muslims became a central factor in shaping its colonial rule in these areas.

Finally, in the last part of the book, I circle back to the Eastern Question, examining how Americans responded to the Armenian massacres in the 1890s–and then the Armenian Genocide during World War One. This chapter also analyzes how Americans participated in the creation of the mandate system in the Middle East, and lent its support to the Balfour Declaration.  Although interesting for the time period in question, American participation in these historical moments also set the stage for many of the issues the United States would face in the Middle East throughout the twentieth century and indeed, until the present moment. In this way, the book is in conversation with the broader literature on US foreign policy in the Middle East.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

KW: Given the rising Islamophobia after 9/11, I hoped that my book would be read my Americans who were curious about the history of Islamophobia in the United States, and how these stereotypes and prejudices built on American attitudes about other minority groups, including religious minorities but also ethnic minorities, who have also had to fight for their inclusion in the United States.   Of course, the fear and hostility some Americans are expressing towards Muslims today must also be understood within a wider historical trajectory that has seen discrimination against numerous other ethnic and racial groups.  African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and others have all faced similar forms of violence, fear and hostility.  Sadly, as we have seen recently, Islamophobia has only increased in the last few months. My hope is that if people begin to understand the history of religious and racial stereotypes, this will begin to break down the fallacy of our current hostilities and xenophobia.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

KW: My next book, which is also under contract with the University of North Carolina Press, looks at the history of American missionaries in the Arabian Gulf in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and how their presence overlapped with the arrival of American oil companies in the area in the 1930s. My book analyzes how American missionaries worked with oil executives, at times explicitly, in trying to expand what I describe as the “American Mission” in the Gulf in the period between 1890 and 1950. The “American mission,” as I will argue, came to represent different things for American missionaries and oil companies–some of which were very similar, others that conflicted in important ways. The project also seeks to look at the origins of what would become modernization theory in the actual practices of American missionaries and oil companies in the period before it emerged in American academia in the 1950s. 


Excerpt from the Introduction:

In 1872, Hagop Matteosian, an Armenian Ottoman subject and the civil head of the Protestant communities in the Ottoman Empire, wrote a letter from Istanbul to Nathanial Clark, corresponding secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a Boston- based organization founded in 1810. In his letter, Matteosian praised the ABCFM’s efforts to spread American culture and Protestant Christianity to Ottoman Christians, noting that the “most zealous advocate of American civilization could not have done half as much for his country abroad as the missionary has done.”

Given the ABCFM’s mission to promote American Protestant civilization among Ottoman subjects, Matteosian asserted, the American people now had “a sacred interest” in the Ottoman Empire. But Matteosian went beyond just lauding the benefits the missionaries had brought to the empire’s subjects. Their presence also advanced U.S. interests. Hinting at the larger political and commercial competition between Europeans and Americans, he wrote that American missionary influence could not be “overbalanced” by all of the European diplomats combined. Clark undoubtedly welcomed Matteosian’s praise; the ABCFM secretary republished the letter the following month in the ABCFM’s monthly journal, the Missionary Herald, whose readership included thousands of influential members across the country.

The primary endeavor of ABCFM missionaries was to convert Ottoman subjects to Protestant Christianity, not to serve as “advocates” to advance their own country’s interests or their political and cultural values. Yet, Matteosian understood that many ABCFM missionaries did not consider these goals to be mutually exclusive. Ultimately, most American Protestant missionaries in the Ottoman Empire believed an indivisible link existed between the superiority of their faith and the superiority of their culture; thus, “conversion” meant more than just advancing religious dogma—it meant reforming the Ottoman Empire in America’s image.

These goals were undoubtedly apparent to Matteosian. According to his letter, American missionary schools had not only converted Ottoman Christian subjects to Protestant Christianity, they had also inculcated in their Ottoman students a deep belief in the political, religious, material, and commercial superiority of the United States over the Ottoman Empire. If Clark were to quiz a young Ottoman schoolboy at an American missionary school about geography, he would certainly be surprised to find that “he knows more of the United States than perhaps of his own native country. Question him about social order, he will tell you all men are created equal.” In addition, Clark should not be surprised to see “Yankee clocks; American chairs, tables, organs; American agricultural implements; Yankee cotton-gins, saw-mills, sewing-machines; American flowers in the very heart of Kurdistan; Yankee saddles, and a Yankee rider on the wild mountains of Asia Minor, perhaps singing, with his native companion, some familiar tune.” Given Matteosian’s depiction of these pervasive American influences, one can easily imagine the “Yankee rider” singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

Matteosian’s letter may have offered some comfort to American missionaries who worried about the success of their missions in the Ottoman Empire, but it could not eliminate their concerns. By 1872, when he wrote his letter, American Protestants had extended their presence throughout the empire and were able to spread their beliefs to more than 8,000 Ottoman students at hundreds of missionary schools. In this way, American Protestant missionaries far outnumbered any other American or European entity in the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, Matteosian broadly overstated the American missionaries’ success in transforming Ottoman subjects into American Yankees. He failed to mention that Ottoman Christians, including Armenians, had been hostile toward American missionaries for decades and that they resisted missionary attempts to reform their religious practices and their culture.  He omitted that the Armenian patriarch had repeatedly requested that the Ottoman sultan forcibly remove the American missionaries, whom he believed challenged his authority and the overall stability of Ottoman society. The ABCFM faced similar opposition from Ottoman Christian religious leaders in other parts of the empire. Alerted by his Christian subjects to these disruptions, the Ottoman sultan had repeatedly asked the American ministers to make the missionaries leave.

But the most glaring absence in Matteosian’s letter underscores the American missionaries’ anxieties about their work in the Ottoman Empire. From the beginning, the ABCFM’s most important missionary objective was not to convert Ottoman Christians to Protestant Christianity, but instead to convert Muslims. Ottoman legal restrictions prohibited proselytizing directly to Muslims. Thus, the ABCFM’s work among Ottoman Christians constituted a strategic step toward this more important goal. As one ABCFM leader noted, these “nominal” Christians had strayed so far from “true” Christianity that they no longer served as good examples to Muslims: “Hence a wise plan for the conversion of the Mohammedans of Western Asia necessarily involved, first, a mission to the Oriental Churches.” Despite six decades of effort, the hopes of American missionaries that their success in spreading Protestant Christianity to Ottoman Christians would soon redound upon Muslims had thus far proved a dismal failure.

More than forty years after Matteosian sent his letter to Clark, the desire to convert Muslims and bring political and spiritual reform to Muslim lands remained a central concern for many Americans. In 1914, Josiah Strong, one of the most well- known and influential American clergymen and a strong proponent of American imperial expansion and missionary work, praised the efforts of Episcopalian bishop Charles Brent. Brent had begun working as a missionary among Filipino Muslims (or Moros) in the American colony of the Philippines shortly after the United States annexed the islands in 1898. Although Strong praised Brent’s missionary efforts for their own sake, he was particularly hopeful for how Brent’s success among Filipino Muslims could be expanded to Muslims around the world.

Strong was so confident in the global potential of Brent’s work that he published a fund- raising pamphlet to support the cause. Entitled, “A Door into the Mohammedan World,” the pamphlet highlighted the far- ranging possibilities of Brent’s efforts: “To discharge our obvious duty to the nation’s wards, to give a Christian civilization to a million Moros, is worth any sacrifice; but if this is done, infinitely more will have been done—we shall have demonstrated the method of approach, we shall have entered the door into the great Mohammedan world, and shall have done more in a single generation to win it to the Cross than has been done by all the diplomats and merchants and soldiers of all the centuries.” Strong’s public support of Brent’s mission acknowledged decades-long efforts by the ABCFM and other American missionary organizations to find the elusive “door into the Mohammedan world” that would allow American Protestant Christians to convert Muslims. But what one American Protestant missionary had earlier dubbed the “Mohammedan missionary problem” continued to vex their efforts.

[Excerpted from Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921, by permission of the author.]

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