H-NET Review of Marr, _The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism_



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Timothy Marr. _The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism_. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xii + 309 pp. Figures, index. $75.00(cloth), ISBN 0-521-85293-5; $24.99 (paper), ISBN 0-521-61807-X.

Reviewed for H-Amstdy by Milette Shamir, Department of English and American Studies, Tel Aviv University

Recovering Early American Orientalism

Until around a decade ago, the topic of early American orientalism went considerably under-treated in American Studies. Most students of orientalism followed Edward Said's lead in assuming that in the pre-twentieth-century United States--although "there were occasional diplomatic and military encounters with Barbary pirates and the like, the odd naval expedition to the Far Orient, and of course the ubiquitous missionary to the Orient"--there was "no deeply invested tradition of orientalism ... perhaps because the American frontier, the one that counted, was the westward one."[1] Given that the United States had relatively little direct commercial or political interests in the Middle East before the twentieth century, and that its expansionist ambitions lay mostly to the west, the Saidian model of orientalism qua imperialism could not be applied.

Since the 1990s, however, this assumption has been revised in a series of studies, most notably in Fuad Shab'an's _Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought_ (1991), Lester Vogel's _To See a Promised Land_(1993), Robert Allison's _The Crescent Obscured_ (1995), John Davis's _The Landscape of Belief_(1996), Malini Johar Schueller's _U.S. Orientalisms_ (1998), Hilton Obenzinger's _American Palestine_ (1999),and Burke O. Long's _Imagining the Holy Land_ (2002). Collectively,these books not only brought to light the multiple and heavy investments in orientalist tropes and conventions in early U.S. culture, but also developed more nuanced models for understanding the relationship between cultural forms and political power, ones that far exceed the tethering of orientalism to imperialist practices.

These books are now joined by Timothy Marr's fascinating study. In _The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism_ Marr uncovers fresh and surprising archives for exploring American orientalism (military monuments, missionary reports, abolitionist and temperance pamphlets, anti-Mormon literature, women's dress reform, and more), to illustrate how orientalist codes and representations of Islam were deployed by Americans in order to shape their national mission, to manage domestic differences, and to claim a position of global importance. The choice of the term "islamicism" instead of "orientalism" is not self-evident; it first strikes one as at once too narrow (the trope of the "oriental despot," for instance, extended to non-Muslim, say Chinese, rulers as well) and too broad (since American popular imagination did not stretch across the entire Muslim world). But its strength is that it calls attention to the resilient religious component of early American cultural history, to the way the Orient was usefully opposed not only to Enlightenment ideals of liberty and rationality, but also to Protestant narratives of election and redemption.

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