Sociology and Anthropology

The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism

Perceptions of the “other” are a powerful force in day-to-day human interaction, as well as in domestic and international politics. Since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism almost three decades ago, many scholars have appropriated and debated his thesis about the reality-changing power of European (and American) discourses on Muslims and Arabs. In the book under review, Timothy Marr, professor of English in the American Studies Curriculum department at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, simultaneously broadens and criticizes Said’s ideas.

The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (a somewhat misleading title for a fascinating book) offers a rich analysis of how Americans appropriated images of Islam, Muslim societies, and the Middle East during the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries for various political, social, and cultural – but ultimately American – purposes related to domestic and international issues. The author argues that such perceptions, in light of their complex and multiple uses in American history, are significant because they continue to shape contemporary American approaches to the Muslim world.

Marr advances this thesis by looking at an impressive array of historical sources and documents, as well as secondary literature on various aspects of American history and culture, in which he finds a multitude of references to Islam and Muslims (or Turks, Saracens etc., respectively). His analysis of these references offers a stunning kaleidoscope of American images of the Muslim “other,” but reveals far more about the inner dynamics of American nation-building and cultural self-definition than about Islam or Muslims. In his introduction, “Imagining Ishmael: Introducing American Islamicism,” which in terms of theoretical engagement is the book’s most powerful part, Marr situates his book in relation to Said by challenging the latter’s “contention that nineteenth-century Americans never made an ‘imaginative investment’ in the orient because they were preoccupied in large part with the settlement of the West” (p. 17). His analysis focuses on discourses produced by a white Protestant elite concentrated in the northeastern United States and thus intentionally ignores the inner ethnic and cultural diversity of American society.

The first chapter, “Islamicism and Counterdespotism in Early National Cultural Expression,” argues that the notion of oriental despotism, as exemplified in the images of the Ottoman Empire and its rulers, provided a powerful negative backdrop for defining early republican ideas of liberalism and democracy. It also demonstrates the multiple levels of American engagement in global politics and the diverse uses of the (mostly negative) Ottoman example to explain American foreign policy successes and failures. Chapter 2, “Drying Up the Euphrates: Muslims, Millennialism, and Early American Missionary Enterprise,” focuses on the Protestant imagination’s designation of the Turks as part of the Antichrist and the diverse approaches to Protestant missionary encounters, which invariably resulted in direct encounters with Muslims. Marr shows that such encounters had the potential to dramatically alter simplistic negative perceptions, which sometimes resulted in redirecting missionary activity toward Eastern Christians, leaving infidel Muslims for a later generation to convert.

Timothy Marr, Cambridge, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 309 pages.


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