Islamophobia has a long history: A Review of Karine Walther's Sacred Interests

Today's guest post comes from Matt Smith, a doctoral student in American Religions at Northwestern University. His work is on Anglo-American Protestantism during the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century with a focus on U.S. empire, race and gender/sexuality, racial and settler colonialism, and critical white studies.

Matt Smith

In a series of late September interviews, Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson was asked about whether faith should matter in the running of the United States. When pressed further about what he meant by “consistent with the values and principles of America,” Carson said he “would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” In November, on the heels of Paris Attacks which killed 129 people, the specter of U.S. islamophobia arose again as Donald Trump and other GOP nominees were quick to declare they did not want Syrian refugees entering U.S. borders for fear of Trojan horse terrorists. And just earlier this month, suspicion arose when President Obama delivered a speech at a Baltimore mosque, the very first in his two terms in office. While the recent anxiety over Muslim “extremism” may not surprise many in our ‘War on Terror’ Age, the roots of this religious imaginary extend much earlier.

Karine Walther’s Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921, illuminates a series of transnational engagements which helped shape U.S. foreign policy throughout the 19th and 20th centuries and which reveal the roots of a persistent racialization of Islam in America today. Walther examines four historical moments which shaped the U.S. gaze on the Islamic world: a) Greeks and Bulgarians under the Ottoman Empire and the influential philhellene movement in the U.S., b) Jewish persecution and Jewish American activism in Morocco, c) Filipino “Moros” and U.S. imperial rule in the Philippines, and d) Armenian persecutions leading up to World War I, the League of Nations, and the mandate system. This century-long account offers a story of U.S.-Islamic relations which blurs the often rigid boundaries between religion, race, civilization, and nationhood. Placed upon divergent ends of a hierarchical imagination, Walther not only shows how American’s viewed Islam but also how U.S. missionaries, religious organizations, businessmen, clergymen, diplomats, soldiers, and Presidents negotiated their own understandings of what it meant to be an American.

Sacred Interests offers a number of crossroads. First, it elucidates America’s “imperial civilizing mission” by studying together American foreign policy and American missionary work (9). Protestant missionaries not only served as ‘anthropological gaze,’ providing much of the “knowledge” of Islam for U.S. intellectuals, they also joined a powerful network of religious organizations in lobbying the U.S. government. While the U.S. was usually stubborn in its neutrality, Walther reveals the ways in which religious motivations were often part and parcel of U.S. political decisions. Second, Walther shows how American engagement with Islam interacted with a number of developing imperial hierarchies, both racial and religious. For example, at the Saint Louis World’s Fair, American anthropologists split Filipinos into three hierarchical categories: Filipino Christians, Muslim “Moros,” and then finally Indigenous “animists” as the most ‘underdeveloped’ (195). Islam was often designated as a religion which pinned its subjects into primitive racial pasts, or in reverse, ‘Moro,’ ‘Arab,’ or ‘Turk,’ were type-casted as not racially advanced enough to be un-affected by ‘religious radicalism.’ These religio-racial taxonomies served to legitimize colonial governance over people who were seen as incapable of their own self-rule. Third, Walther historically traces the ubiquitous generalization of Islam as inherently violent. In showing the development of this over-simplification, Walther also highlights how violence by Muslim actors was often more ‘politically’ than ‘religiously’ motivated (such as in Morocco in 1870s). At the heart of these orientalist logics, both the Islamic faith and non-Europeanness implied the impossibility of self-governance for Muslims and justified the colonial governance of European and American empires.

The primary limit of Sacred Interests is the relatively absent engagement with female actors, and with gender/sexuality more broadly. Walther is diligent in admitting, however, that this as a limit of time and space, as she hopes others will take up this analysis in the future. One could, for instance, explore how Anglo-Protestant gender conceptions or the rise of virile “Muscular Christianity” contributed to the ‘feminization’ of the Islamic ‘East.’
Most significantly, Walther is successful in utilizing the theoretical lens of Edward Said’s Orientalism in order to show its significance within the U.S. long before the World Wars. The characterizations of global Muslims by U.S. policymakers have not only been grossly inaccurate, but also rooted in notions of American religious and racial supremacy which paints the Islamic ‘Orient’ as dichotomous to the Christian/secular ‘West.’ Walther’s main objective of Sacred Interests is to reverse a common overemphasis in considering the religious influence on Muslim political actors, as well as the nonreligious motivations of American (usually Protestant) political actors (26). With the rise in programs like CVE (Countering Violent Extremism), and recent statements by potential future Presidents, Walther’s important historical corrective could not have come soon enough. As she says on her final page, hopefully, “U.S. policymakers will not repeat the same mistakes” (332).

For more on Sacred Interests, I highly recommend a recent podcast interview she did with Marginalia. Check it out, here.


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