5 Questions with Karine Walther

Cara Burnidge

Recently I had the opportunity to send 5 questions to Karine Walther about her new book Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921. Karine is an Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown Univeristy's School of Foreign Service in Qatar and fellow participant in the Religion and US Empire Seminar. She holds a PhD in history from Columbia University, a Maîtrise and Licence in Sociology from the University of Paris VIII and a BA in American Studies from the University of Texas, Austin. She is currently working on her next manuscript, entitled The American Mission: God, Oil and Modernity in the Arabian Gulf, 1889-1950, which is also under contract with UNC Press and you'll get a chance to read about below.

1. Sacred Interests draws attention to long-standing interactions between the United States and Islamic nations and territories. You focus on the history of American Islamophobia and how it has affected U.S. foreign policy. Can you explain this central idea?

Whether we like it or not, in the last few decades, many of us who work on American relations with the Middle East and other Muslim-majority areas have had to “talk back” to Samuel Huntington’s influential, yet controversial theory of a “Clash of Civilizations,” which he first published as an article in 1993.  According to Huntington, international relations in the post-Cold War world would be driven by this alleged “Clash of Civilizations” between a simplistically defined “Islamic Civilization” against an equally simplistic construction of the “West,” broadly understood as Euro-American civilization.

As a graduate student in New York City witnessing the American response to 9/11, I was particularly struck by how Huntington’s arguments rose to prominence both in public discourse, and even amongst some academics. Indeed, the Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror” borrowed heavily from such theories to explain its emerging ideological conceptualizations. And yet, having previously worked on the history of European Orientalism, I was struck by how much Huntington’s theory – and much of the public discourse that emerged after 9/11, recalled so powerfully nineteenth century Orientalist tropes about the Islamic world. 

In my first year of graduate coursework, we had also been asked to read Daniel Rodgers brilliant study, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age, which analyzes the intellectual and cultural exchanges between Europe and the United States in the period between 1870 and 1945. As a result, I put these two intellectual currents together to think about how ideas about Islam had “crossed the Atlantic,” to shape American understandings of the Islamic world. What I realized in researching this topic, however, was that although Europeans played an important role in shaping American ideas about the Islamic world, American attitudes about Islam and Muslims were also deeply shaped by its own historical contingencies and its understandings of domestic minorities.

For this reason, my work has also been deeply influenced by the “cultural turn” in American diplomatic history, which has led scholars to focus on how domestic ideas about gender, race, and to a more limited extent, religion, have shaped American foreign relations abroad.  This new focus has also pushed scholars to examine the roles played by non-official actors, including American missionaries, religious organizations, academics, and business interests in shaping American foreign relations. As a result, in addition to understanding how European Orientalism(s) shaped American ideas about Islam and Muslims, my book engages with both official and non-official actors in thinking about the impact of domestic ideas about religion and race on American  Islamophobia and American foreign relations in the long nineteenth century. 

2. You trace a history from the Greek War of Independence to the establishment of the mandate system. How has this transnational and international history shaped American perceptions of the world and of the U.S. nation?
As I argue in the book, we must reinsert the United States within the larger global history of the nineteenth-century, including the global history of empire. Moreover, in order to understand the history of American Islamophobia, we must study the exchange of transnational discourses about Islam and Muslims between Americans, Europeans, and Islamic nations and territories themselves, while also recognizing the domestic particularities that distinguished American discourses from those of European powers.

In the past, many of the grand narratives of American history often advanced the idea of the United States as an exceptional nation, one that cannot be understood in relationship to the history of other nation-states.  Until recently, many diplomatic historians have also emphasized the Monroe Doctrine’s idea of non-interference in European affairs to define American foreign relations in the long nineteenth century. What I argue in the book is that this “isolationist” focus has blinded us to seeing the ways in which Americans understood their identity in ways that transcended the American nation-state, including a powerful affiliation with what many American Christians understood as the Christian “Family of Nations.” Official insistence on neutrality, isolationism, or American exceptionalism, did not always function as a hegemonic, determinant forces in governing American actions abroad. Nonstate actors, including journalists, missionaries, religious activists, immigrants, philanthropists, academics, and other Americans contributed to important transatlantic activities that directly involved these individuals in diplomatic crises in Islamic lands. Mounting frustrations over lack of U.S. action also prompted official state actors to cooperate both overtly and covertly with private American interests in these areas. American foreign relations were thus complicated by messy ideological and religious sympathies that led both state and nonstate actors to circumvent official neutrality. In the process, the diverse actions of these state and nonstate actors led to discursive exchanges among these various groups as they worked, at times in parallel and at other times in concert, to shape American foreign relations.

At the same time, as I mentioned earlier, Americans’ understandings of ethnic and civic nationalism, including who could and could not be incorporated into the nation-state, played a powerful role in shaping how Americans understood non-Christians both at home and abroad. In this way, American understandings of Islam and Muslims were shaped by their own historical circumstances that differed from those of Europe.  With regards to its specific relationships with the Islamic world, we must also take into account that American missionaries were the largest group of Christian missionaries in the Ottoman Empire, far surpassing the number of European missionaries and diplomats in the Ottoman Empire. This also shaped American attitudes towards the Muslim world in distinct and important ways.

3. Since your work highlights the persistence of ideologies, and since the blog has often discussed these concepts (e.g. here and here), can you explain to readers how you conceptualized both "the Islamic World" and "America" for this project?

I’m so glad that you asked me this question, because this has been one of the most difficult and frustrating processes in coming up with a title that reflects the subject I cover in the book and that does not mimic the reductiveness of American Orientalist thought!  The term “Islamic world,” which I use in the title, is incredibly reductive and in many ways goes diametrically against the central arguments my book is trying to advance. What I argue in the book is that many Americans understood Muslims as similar across time and space, whether they were living in the Ottoman Empire, Morocco or the Philippines, despite the fact that these were very distinct societies.  In the process, Americans who tried to conceptualize these areas as part of a homogeneous “Islamic world” ignored the historical, cultural and religious differences between and even within these very societies.

Even the term “Islamic society” is incredibly problematic because in many ways it ignores the important role non-Muslims played in areas such as the Ottoman Empire and Morocco, or the massive cultural, religious and ethnic differences that existed within these societies. Marshall Hodgson, the scholar of Islam, coined the term “Islamicate” to address these very limitations and to describe practices and beliefs that emerged from areas where Muslims were culturally dominant but not necessarily linked to the Islamic religion. Unfortunately, his term has not gained wide usage. My hope is that scholars who read the book will understand that my intent is not to reduce these societies to a homogeneous “Islamic world” entity, much to the contrary, but instead, to understand how Americans in the nineteenth century conceived of this societies and the misunderstandings this entailed.

Similarly, the term “American” is also incredibly reductive. Although I study Americans from many different segments of society, including missionaries, journalists, diplomats, etc., many of these actors were elites.  As I argue in the book, many of the narratives advanced by these historical actors were strongly contested both at home and abroad.  One of the reasons I included the actions of Jewish Americans in this book was also to counter grand narratives of American identity that sought to define the United States as a Christian nation.

4. This project focuses a great deal on U.S. foreign policy, but it also draws readers' attention to the development of national culture and politics. How do you see these two areas in relationship to one another? And how do your ideas of domestic and foreign politics shape the way you teach the U.S. survey course?

My book begins in 1821 (although the introduction traces the earlier history of American Islamophobia from the colonial era up to this point).  As other scholars of American Islamophobia have argued, including Timothy Marr and Robert Allison, the Young Republic was striving to define itself on the world stage, and this often entailed explicitly comparing its political project to Europe and the alleged political despotism of Islamic societies.

But as I mentioned earlier, ideas of American exceptionalism, which helped shape American national identity, coexisted with other forms of identity.  Many Americans also saw themselves as the political and religious leader of the Christian “Family of Nations.” Although highly critical of European political systems, Americans placed them on the same civilizational ladder of political development as Americans—albeit many rungs down. In contrast, many Americans framed Muslims and Islamic societies in an entirely different political and civilizational universe that featured no rungs, as presumably they were incapable of civilizational advancement.  Both of these ideologies would play an important role in shaping American national identity – but also their role in global politics and their relations with Muslim majority countries around the world. 

Indeed, when European strategic interests led politicians to retain the status quo in the Ottoman Empire, many Americans denounced European policies as a blatant expression of the political and religious corruption that had weakened their natural and divinely ordained allegiance to global Christendom and the civilized, Christian “Family of Nations.” This righteous indignation fueled both public and official demands for greater U.S. intervention in the Islamic lands. At these moments, American attitudes toward Islamic societies diverged with Europeans in affirming a new, exceptional role for the United States in global affairs.

When I teach the US history survey course, I make it a point to analyze how ideas about American exceptionalism have helped to shape American national identity and US foreign relations – but I also make it a point to analyze how contested these national narratives have been throughout history, particularly by the people these narratives have often excluded.  For example, one of the things I love to talk about with my students is how recent scholarship has documented the existence of Muslims on American shores from its very colonial origins. The fact that many African slaves were Muslim – and that they helped build this country from its very beginnings – has challenged post-9/11 discourse that have attempted to portray Muslims as “interlopers” in American society. This scholarship contributes to the attempts to reintroduce the contributions of immigrants, African Americans, women and other groups in shaping American culture from its very origins.

5. Finally, what are you working on next? We'd love to know!

Since I am based in Georgetown University’s branch campus in Qatar, one of the things that has fascinated me is the historic relationship between the United States and the Arabian Gulf.  For good reason, most of the work that has been done on this topic has focused on oil.  While conducting research for my previous book, however, I learned that the first Americans in the Gulf were not oil executives, but American missionaries who worked for the Reformed Church of America and who arrived here in the 1890s.  There has been very little scholarship on this subject. My next project seeks to bridge the history of these American missionaries with the arrival of American oil interests, notably the Arab American Oil Company (ARAMCO).  My next project, which is also under contract with UNC Press, entitled The American Mission: God, Oil and Modernity in the Gulf, 1889-1950, analyzes how American missionary discourse of development overlapped with the public discourse of American oil executives.  I analyze how these two entities worked, at times hand in hand, to advance their goals of “modernizing” local Gulf Arabs. In the process, I hope to analyze how the legacy of American Orientalism and the discourse of American missionaries and ARAMCO shaped what would emerge as “modernization theory” in the 1950s and 1960s. 


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