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date: 24 July 2021

Islam and the Middle East in the American Imaginationfree

Islam and the Middle East in the American Imaginationfree

  • Brooke SherrardBrooke SherrardWilliam Penn University


Americans have utilized Islam as a rhetorical device for articulating various understandings of American identity from the time of the earliest Anglo-American settlers. In every period, many rejected Islam and Muslims as oppositional to American identity, accusing Islam of inherent despotism that conflicted with American liberty. Others, though, used perceived traits of Islam to critique American behaviors or focused on similarities between Islam and Christianity. Many citizens of the early American republic assumed their country was essentially Protestant, but founding figures such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison indicated their support for a more inclusive polity by listing Muslims among the varieties of people they believed could be good citizens. These men meant this abstractly, as they believed there were no Muslims in the United States at the time and did not know some African slaves were Muslim.

American Protestant organizations sent missionaries around the world starting in the early 19th century, including to areas of the Middle East where the Muslim majority was legally protected from proselytization. Therefore, missionaries tended to work with native Christian populations. American missionaries, travelers, and explorers had a great interest in the Holy Land. A frequent theme in their writings was a desire to see this area reclaimed from Islamic rule. They believed the Holy Land could be regenerated through Protestant influence and often suggested Jews could be relocated there. Over time, liberal Protestants moved away from seeking conversions and became more interested in educational and medical aspects of missions. American discussions about Islam intensified again after September 11, 2001. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis argued that Western civilization and Islamic civilization were inherently incompatible. Others, like John L. Esposito and Feisal Abdul Rauf, focused on the historical and theological similarities between Christianity and Islam to suggest common ground.


  • Islamic Studies
  • Religion and Politics
  • Religion in America

Arguing Community Boundaries Using Imagined Muslims

Colonial Americans inherited English views that mostly rejected Islam, though a minority strain of thought was more accepting. Like Catholicism, Islam was often invoked as a slur, and anti-Islamic and anti-Catholic insults bore much similarity to each other. On one hand, Protestants tended to conflate negative views of the Ottoman sultan and the pope, alluding in both cases to doctrinal and temporal tyranny. The sultan and the pope were two of the leading contenders among Protestant thinkers predicting the rise of an antichrist. On the other hand, members of persecuted groups—such as Baptist Thomas Helwys—as well as those developing Enlightenment ideas—such as John Locke—argued for the civil rights of Muslims among other groups.

Protestants in the colonies frequently heard sermons denouncing the Prophet Muhammad as an impostor and arguing that Islam was a corruption of Christianity. Colonial Puritans Cotton Mather and Roger Williams shared negative views of Islam, but Mather thought Muslims should be kept out of the American colonies while Williams saw Muslims as one of many groups he would willingly tolerate. Williams referenced the Prophet Muhammad’s claim to divine revelation to criticize Quakers’ claim to a divine inner light.1

Calling another Christian a Muslim as part of a theological dispute was common. For example, traveling evangelist George Whitefield both used this slur and had it used against him. In 1739, when Whitefield was not allowed to preach from pulpits in Philadelphia, the city’s trustees commissioned a new building that would be open to preachers of any sect. Benjamin Franklin then compared Whitefield to Muslims in a more favorable way, noting that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, he would find a pulpit in his service.”2

Many citizens of the early American republic assumed their country was essentially Protestant, yet framers of the founding documents went to great lengths to ensure otherwise. Denise Spellberg explores this process in relationship to Islam in Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an (2013). Jefferson’s ownership of a Qur’an became a news story in January 2007 when the first Muslim U.S. congressman, Keith Ellison, swore the oath of office on Jefferson’s two-volume set. Spellberg finds that Jefferson often referred to Islam disparagingly, as did his contemporaries. Nevertheless, like Locke, he promoted civil liberties for a broad range of people, including Muslims. George Washington and James Madison also listed Muslims among the groups they would accept. In a 1784 letter in search of a handyman, George Washington wrote, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Asia, Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans, Jews or Christian of an[y] Sect, or they may be Atheists.”3 Spellberg points out the irony, given that Washington owned slaves with Muslim names from whom he had withheld rights. John Leland, a Baptist who had witnessed persecution against Baptists in colonial Virginia, became a devotee of Jefferson’s ideas. Leland wrote that the term “toleration” was not enough because it suggested some people had a higher place than the rest and could grant indulgence to them “whereas, all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans, and Christians.”4

Nevertheless, the majority of Americans in the early republic continued to view Middle Eastern Islam as a frightening other, both repulsive and alluring. As Timothy Marr writes, the “Islamic orient was conceived by many Americans as a vicious realm of inhumane bondage, unstable tyranny, illicit sensuality, and selfish luxury that symbolized the dangerous forces that threatened their fledgling political rights and freedoms,”5 ideas that were partially formed by reading One Thousand and One Nights, a widely owned book in early America. For the half-century after the American Revolution, Americans had plenty of opportunity to apply these preconceptions to events involving American sailors in the Middle East.

Encountering Muslims in the Middle East

Early Americans’ encounters with Middle Eastern Islam went beyond the abstract. Europeans had engaged with Muslims as despised and feared neighbors for centuries. Before traveling to Virginia and encountering Pocahontas in 1607, John Smith fought Turks on behalf of the Habsburgs in Hungary, writing of personally beheading three Ottoman officers. Later Smith was taken into captivity and sold before escaping and making his way back to England. John Ledyard, thought to be the first U.S. citizen to explore the Middle East as an individual, set off to the rest of the world in 1784 with encouragement from Thomas Jefferson. He died in Egypt in 1789 after describing the area as rife with poverty and disease. Egypt did not live up to his fantastical ideas, influenced by One Thousand and One Nights and by classical authors. He wrote to Jefferson never to visit the place, and to burn writings that depicted a wondrous East.6 Ledyard did enjoy observing Bedouin, whom he saw as similar to the United States’ daring frontiersmen, and suggested that some power should come along and remove the Turkish tyranny over them so they could attain American-style liberty.

The North African states of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco on the Mediterranean coast, often called the Barbary states, had been taking European Christian captives and demanding tribute since Ferdinand and Isabella pushed Spanish Muslims into those areas. Colonial sailors occasionally were taken captive by North Africans and ransomed. Joshua Gee of Massachusetts, who was captured in 1655 and held in Morocco, became something of a celebrity and wrote a popular captivity narrative.

The newly declared United States experienced an extension of this relationship in a series of conflicts collectively known as the Barbary Wars. This led to an outpouring of publications about North African captivity that focused on what writers perceived as the tyranny of Islamic rulers as opposed to the liberty of the United States. These publications also debated the morality of American slavery, with many writers arguing that if it was wrong to enslave white American Christians in North Africa, surely it was wrong to enslave Africans in the United States. Benjamin Franklin published a satirical piece in 1790 in which he skewered his contemporaries’ proslavery arguments by recalling reading similar ones long ago in a speech given by (a fictional) dey of Algiers, Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim. According to Franklin, the Algerian had argued that slavery could not be ended because it would hurt property owners, keep work from getting done, and release unwanted Christian individuals into the larger Muslim society.7

In October 1784, the American merchant vessel Betsey was seized by Moroccan corsairs at the behest of the Moroccan sultan, who was upset because his country had been the first, in 1778, to recognize American independence but had heard nothing back. The British informed Algiers that the United States had broken away and would be flying a different flag. In 1785 Algiers captured two American ships, and in 1793 captured eleven more. Overall, about 130 American sailors were taken captive, of whom about forty died in captivity. The rest were freed in 1796 when the U.S. government begrudgingly paid almost a million dollars in tribute.

The United States signed a 1797 treaty with Tripoli that included an agreement to pay $6,000 in tribute. The treaty included the statement that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.”8 In 1797, just months after captives returned home, Royall Tyler published a novel, The Algerine Captive; or The Life and Adventures of Doctor Updike Underhill, Six Years a Prisoner among the Algerines, that drew on the pre-existing genre of North African captivity narratives. In it, Tyler undermined traditions of Christian religious intolerance by allowing Muslim characters to explain themselves in sympathic ways, and he criticized slavery whether it was in North Africa or North America. The fictional character of Underhill participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade but witnesses North American slavery and is horrified by it. He then finds himself enslaved in Algiers, where he has exchanges with a Muslim cleric who criticizes the practice of American slaveowners baptizing their slaves yet continuing to hold them. The cleric juxtaposes this to the Muslim practice of releasing slaves who converted to Islam, a conversion Underhill respectfully resists.

Because the tribute money from the 1797 treaty was not sent, in 1801 the basha of Tripoli declared the treaty void and demanded more money. President Thomas Jefferson’s refusal led to the Tripolitan War of 1801–1805, the conflict that supplied the reference to the “shores of Tripoli” in the “Marines’ Hymn.” During this war, the U.S.S. Philadelphia ran aground on a reef and its crew was captured. One of the individuals they came in contact with was an Admiral Murad Reis, a Scottish renegade born Peter Lisle who had converted to Islam but fancied teaching Americans a lesson for rebelling against England.9 Lieutenant Stephen Decatur came up with a plan to sneak onto the ship and set it on fire to render it useless to the Tripolitans. Decatur’s actions led to his being hailed as a hero and having dozens of American towns and counties named after him. Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key, moved by the exploits, crafted a poem set to the tune of “The Anacreontic Song” in 1805 that honored the events. Nine years later, when Key actually witnessed the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in 1814, he rewrote the song, which became known as “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Part of Key’s earlier composition reads:

And pale beam’d the Crescent, its splendor obscur’d

Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation:

     Where each flaming star gleam’d a meteor of war,

     And the turban’d head bowed to the terrible glare.10

Decatur headed back to the Middle East for the Algerine War of 1815–1816, which was precipitated by failure to come to terms over Algiers’ capture of another American ship in 1812. It ended in 1816 with the British and Dutch bombardment of Algiers, which resulted in Algiers releasing all European and American captives.

Protestant Missionaries to Muslim–Majority Areas

In 1810, a group of students at the recently opened Andover Theological Seminary formed the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. The ABCFM sent missionaries around the world, including the Middle East. One of the organization’s annual reports highlighted the millennial aspects of its work, describing the ABCFM’s objectives as “no less than the moral renovation of a world. Wars are to cease. All the domestic relations are to be satisfied. Every village is to have its school and its church; every family its Bible and the morning and evening prayer.”11 This millennialism was linked to widespread interest in sending missionaries to the Bible lands. Its proponents believed that three major aspects of their millenarian hopes—conversion of Jews, the Vatican’s downfall, and the crumbling of the “Mohammedan” power—would be achieved in the Middle East.12

The ABCFM appointed Levi Parsons and Pliny Fisk to a mission to Palestine. Christine Heyrman’s American Apostles takes a close look at this mission. She finds that within two years Parsons and Fisk developed a softer attitude toward the traditions they were sent to replace, creating a dissonance between their private writings and what they sent home for public consumption. Parsons and Fisk also found out that conversion did not go only one way; in Cairo, they learned about George English, an American convert to Islam who was serving as a high-ranking officer in the army of Mehmet Ali and had written a treatise in defense of Islam.13

Missionaries heading to the Middle East had high hopes of evangelizing Muslim and Jewish populations. For several decades this did not come to pass in areas where Ottoman laws protected Muslims from evangelization and where Jews whom the missionaries encountered proved unreceptive to their advances. Therefore, missionaries in the Middle East focused on converting native Christian populations to Protestantism from Catholic and Orthodox traditions. They also developed educational and medical aspects of their missions.

In Beirut, missionaries had little success making converts. Ussama Makdisi in Artillery of Heaven, his book about the Beirut mission, notes that equality and toleration, however much they may be valued by many Americans today, were not valued by the missionaries, who set off for the Middle East with the goal of replacing native cultures with their own. In 1825, As‘ad Shidyaq, a Maronite Christian who was an Arabic translator for the missionaries, converted to Protestantism. After Shidyaq insisted on preaching his beliefs in public, leaders of his community put him in prison, where he died. Five years later, missionaries still had not made another convert. Shidyaq became a convenient success story for the missionaries, who turned his death into martyrdom. Even though the number of converts was small, American missions had significant effects. In Beirut, for example, Americans brought the first printing press, which helped aid the Arab nationalist movement and position Arab Christians centrally in it.

In the 1830s, ABCFM missionaries began work with a group of Christians in Persia they called “Nestorians,” who were members of the Church of the East. Their existence had been “discovered” by ABCFM scouts Eli Smith and H.G.O. Dwight, who saw them as remnants of the early church.14 Apostles had evangelized the Nestorians in ancient times, and during the Middle Ages, the Church of the East sent missionaries as far as China and India. Hence, missionary Justin Perkins’ instructions from the ABCFM asked him to keep an eye out for records that may have survived of “the history of ancient missions in Central and Eastern Asia.”15 The Nestorians’ sacred history made the Board hopeful that this church could, if reminded of its illustrious past, carry forth the torch of Christianity throughout Asia. Though, as Perkins especially never failed to mention, they were sunk in the darkness of ignorance and superstition, the Nestorians also represented to Protestants a living, breathing remnant of the early church. Asahel Grant, the mission’s doctor, believed the Nestorians were the ten lost tribes of Israel and wrote a book to that effect, The Nestorians; or, the Lost Tribes (1841). Perkins disagreed, drawing on explorer Edward Robinson’s view that the characteristics that might make it seem that way were actually widespread cultural characteristics in the region. Grant’s book sold much better at home than Perkins’ did, perhaps illustrating the American public’s desire for such romantic flights of fancy.

The mainstream view among missionaries about evangelizing the world eventually splintered along fundamentalist-modernist lines: liberal Protestants moved away from the need to convert, while conservatives recommitted to efforts to save souls. This shift was indicated in 1871 by Daniel Bliss when he laid the cornerstone for the American University of Beirut (formerly the Syrian Protestant College) with the words that students could leave the college “believing in one God, in many Gods, or in no God. But it will be impossible for anyone to continue with us long without knowing what we believe to be the truth and our reasons for our belief.”16

Among the organizations that represented a renewal of evangelization was the Student Volunteer Movement, founded in 1886, which vowed to pursue the evangelization of the world in one generation. One young man drawn to this mission was Samuel Zwemer, who chose the Middle East as a place to evangelize precisely because previous missions had failed to reach Muslims. Zwemer avoided settling down to work with a Christian community by spending the first several decades of his career in remote areas of Arabia where few non-Muslims lived and where authorities had little concern about his activities. He wrote about 50 books, mostly in service of impressing upon Americans the need for missions to Muslims. Zwemer came to express more admiration for Muslims as Muslims than he had to begin with, though he never swayed from his belief in the superiority of Christianity and the urgent need he saw in the Muslim world for regenerative influence that in his view only Christianity could provide.

The events of World War I chastened many working in missions, lessening their former triumphalism. Yet the breakup of major empires also gave them hope. In Egypt, a top destination for missionaries, many of them anticipated that the end of the Ottoman Empire would cause what they saw as the monolithic power of Islam to crumble, preparing the way for the population’s Christianization. These hopes were tempered, however, with the rise of Arab nationalism and its attendant suspicion of Western influences.

An example of a missionary who liberalized his views is Charles Watson, who was born in Cairo to American missionaries in 1873. For decades he held a triumphalist view of American Protestantism, as demonstrated in the title of his 1907 book Egypt and the Christian Crusade. But in 1916, Watson resigned his position with the Presbyterian mission board to devote himself to fundraising for his new project, the American University in Cairo (AUC), which opened in 1920. Watson then disappointed his contributors by insisting on complete independence from the Presbyterian mission.17 With AUC, Watson pursued goals of educating Muslims into Christian values without placing emphasis on conversion or labeling. Watson argued there were positive attributes to Islamic culture such as daily focus on God, missionary spirit, and generosity, that Christians could learn from. “If the Moslem world caught the spirit of Jesus,” Watson asked, “could it not keep its lovely mosques and its graceful minarets? Could it not retain its five prayers daily and the summons to prayer by the musical notes of a human call?”18 Even more accepting were figures like Charles Crane, who supported Arab nationalist movements. Crane, who served as patron to several Arab thinkers, both Muslim and Christian, approvingly called Muslims the “Unitarians of the desert.”19

Debating the Holy Land

Throughout the 19th century, an increasing number of American Protestants were able to travel to the Holy Land and surrounding areas. Large numbers of them wrote books so people who could not travel there could experience it vicariously. Many Protestant American travelers expressed profound disappointment when they saw the Holy Land, which they believed would be grander and greener than the places their eyes beheld, given biblical descriptions of a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet this response had theological significance, in that many Protestants believed God had desolated the land in ancient times as a punishment for Jewish rejection of Jesus, but they also blamed current Islamic rule. Their belief that the condition was a fulfillment of prophecy did not make the current inhabitants seem less inept to them. These inhabitants were paradoxically regarded by most Western observers as both the usurpers of the Jews and as living examples of Bible times. Seen as primitive relics with little capacity for development or leadership, they would not be up to the task of restoring Palestine. These notions led many travelers to conclude that Protestant influence could restore the land to former glory. They often suggested that bringing in Jews would be the key to regenerating the land. The idea of Jews “returning” to the land relied on a combination of ideas about biblical prophecy and 19th-century romantic nationalism.

Missionary William Thomson published The Land and the Book in 1859 after more than twenty-five years in the area. Thomson expressed surprise that he could find no wheeled vehicles in Syria even though they had been mentioned in the Bible, taking this as a sign of general backwardness. But there was a ready explanation: “When the wild Arabs of the Mohammedan desolation became masters, wheeled vehicles immediately sunk into neglect, and even contempt . . . Nor will they ever reappear till some other race than the Arab predominates, and a better than the Turk governs.”20 William Cowper Prime also saw the land’s appearance as related to biblical prophecy. “Wild rocks were everywhere,” he wrote, “ragged and fierce in their utter barrenness, and hill and valley were alike apparently cursed with the curse of God.”21

Edward Robinson, a New Englander from a similar Andover Theological Seminary background as many of the ABCFM missionaries, set out to explore the Holy Land to identify holy sites. He published his findings in 1838 under the title Biblical Researches in Palestine. He dutifully referred to Muhammad as a “false prophet,” but in an exchange with a convent superior, Robinson found a way to criticize Catholics rather than Muslims:

We asked the superior of the convent whether the Bedawin would feel any objection to professing Christianity? His reply was: “None at all; they would do it to-morrow, if they could get fed by it.” It is this indifference of dark and unregulated minds, that lies in the way of all moral and intellectual improvement among them. The convent might exert an immense influence over them for good, if it possessed in itself the true spirit of the Gospel.22

One of the earliest organized excursions from the United States to the Holy Land was put together by members of Henry Ward Beecher’s church, who sailed on the Quaker City in the late 1860s. Mark Twain, a young journalist, tagged along to send back reports to a newspaper. His book about the trip, The Innocents Abroad, made him nationally famous. Twain, not so differently from other Protestant travelers, simultaneously suggested Jerusalem’s condition was caused by Islamic rule (“Rags, wretchedness, poverty and dirt . . . indicate the presence of Moslem rule more surely than the crescent flag itself”) and that it was unchanged from biblical days (“[with] the numbers of maimed, malformed and diseased humanity that throng the holy places . . . one might suppose that the ancient days had come again”).23 Twain’s lampooning of his fellow travelers, though, showed his grasp of the humanity of the people they were traveling among. At a mosque, he reported, his fellow travelers “broke specimens from the foundation walls, though they had to touch, and even step, upon the ‘praying carpets’ to do it. It was almost the same as breaking pieces from the hearts of those old Arabs.”24 Herman Melville visited the Holy Land in a period of despondence, and like others he experienced disappointment rather than the uplift he hoped for. The resulting volume, Clarel (1876), is the longest poem in American literature and critiques Americans’ mania for Jewish resettlement to the area.

In the 20th century, some American Protestants with long-term exposure to the region rejected Zionism out of concern for the native Muslim and Christian populations, as well as opposition to ethnic nationalism. Christina Jones wrote that when she and her husband, Willard, arrived in 1922 to run the Quaker school in Ramallah, they brought a Sunday-school image of the Holy Land. Unlike many travelers before them who decried the differences they perceived between their preconceived notions and the place they encountered, the Joneses set about trying to understand. “The first and most important thing we had to learn was that we were living in the Arab World, that Palestine was not the land of the Hebrews,” she wrote.25 During the hostilities of 1948 the Joneses refused to leave, and in 1952 they became the leaders of the Near East Christian Council on refugee work, spending many years publicly speaking throughout the United States about Palestinian refugees.

Another Protestant who sought to intervene on behalf of understanding for Palestinians was Millar Burrows, who taught at the American University in Beirut in 1930–1931 then directed the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Jerusalem school for 1931–1932. His 1931 volume Founders of Great Religions focused on the similarities he perceived among world religions. Reluctant to accept all the details of the Prophet Muhammad’s life as morally upstanding, Burrows argued that “in this respect the life of Mohammed recalls that of the ancient Hebrew king and poet, David.”26 Burrows again served as ASOR director in Jerusalem in 1947–1948. In 1949 he published Palestine Is Our Business about his observations of that time period. He argued that Americans’ religious beliefs about the land of the Bible had influenced the course of events, and that therefore they had a responsibility toward the Palestinian refugees, Muslim as well as Christian. “Even if we dare to reverse Jesus’ metaphor and claim that there is a beam in our neighbor’s eye,” he wrote, “there is at least a splinter in our own.”27

Christian Zionism

The 20th century has seen the flourishing of Christian Zionism, or evangelical Protestant support for the state of Israel based on a belief that it is fulfilling prophecy. Many Christian Zionists believe in premillennial dispensationalism, including the idea that Jews’ ingathering to Israel is one trigger of end-time events. Christian Zionists often operate with some of the same old tropes of Islam as a despotic and devilish tradition that will be swept away before the end of time as have existed throughout the history of American Protestantism. Many evangelicals interpreted Israel’s founding in 1948, and Israel’s capture of biblically significant territories in the 1967 Six-Day War, as evidence of divine intervention on Israel’s behalf. In the years after the Six-Day War, Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth (1970) interpreted prophecies in light of those events.

Christian Zionist beliefs have led to a sometimes cozy relationship between Israelis and evangelicals, even though evangelicals’ view of the future includes the end of Judaism. In 1979 Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin made Jerry Falwell the first non-Jewish recipient of the Zionist Jabotinsky Award.28 Falwell’s words about Israel reflect a common evangelical view: “I would say evangelicals are the very best friends Israelis have in the whole world outside their own family. Evangelicals are more committed to Israel than some of the American Jewish community.”29

Dispensationalist hearts beat faster upon hearing reports from Iraq that Saddam Hussein was pouring funds into rebuilding a fantastic new Babylon on the site of the city’s ancient ruins. Charles H. Dyer, who published a book on Hussein’s actions in 1991 titled The Rise of Babylon: Is Iraq at the Center of the Final Drama? released a revised version in 2003 to coincide with the United States’ new war with Iraq. Coauthors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins started publishing the Left Behind series, which fictionalizes premillennial dispensationalism, in 1998. Much of the action in the series takes place in the Holy Land. LaHaye and Jenkins take a softer approach toward Islam than many other Christian Zionist works do, presenting both Jews and Muslims as going underground to resist the one-world government because of their commitment to monotheism. Yet they do write that violence in the Middle East is crucial to end-times events. In Jenkins’ unrelated Soon trilogy, violence between Muslims and the West sparks World War III. And in Are We Living in the End Times?, LaHaye and Jenkins write, “The Arabs will not rest until Israel is driven from the land—and Israel will not be driven from the land.”30 Hope for world-ending violence is a major theme of Christian Zionism, as Victoria Clark found in her ethnographic work on Chuck Missler’s Christian Zionist tour of Israel. She overhead conversations among American travelers hoping someone would blow up the Dome of the Rock, and connected this to the teachings of the tour, commenting that “Chuck [Missler] had been telling us, over and over again, that Islam—anti-Semitic and ‘violent to its core’—was a ‘Satanic religion.’ ”31

Interfaith Relations and Islamophobia

Americans’ discussions about Islam again focused on compatibility issues after September 11, 2001. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis, which gained heavy publicity after the attacks, argued that Western civilization and Islamic civilization are inherently incompatible and on a collision course. Some focused on the theological and historical similarities between Christianity and Islam to argue that religion was not the source of the conflict but could be a source of common ground. Many writers, such as Bruce Feiler in Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (2002) advanced an argument based on the concept of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as Abrahamic religions. This line of reasoning continues, with a recent example being Ejaz Naqvi’s The Three Abrahamic Testaments: How the Torah, Gospels, and Qur’an Hold the Keys for Healing Our Fear (2017). Right before the September 11, 2001, attacks, Paul Findley, a former U.S. congressman from Illinois, published Silent No More: Confronting America’s False Images of Islam (2001), in which he challenged long-standing stereotypes of Islam based on a lifetime of getting to know Muslims around the world.

In the wake of the attacks, President George W. Bush cast the conflict in non-religious terms. On September 17, 2001, Bush visited the Washington, D.C., Islamic Center where Dwight Eisenhower had spoken at the dedication in 1957. Bush gave a short speech that included the words, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” In November 2001, evangelical minister Franklin Graham called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion” on NBC, signaling at least some American evangelical Christians’ unwillingness to accept Bush’s version of the role of religion in the conflict.

Richard Bulliet’s The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization (2006) argues for commonalities between Christianity and Islam not just in the ancient past but throughout history, undercutting ideas of civilizational differences. In a process elucidated by Kevin Schultz in Tri-Faith America (2011), liberals used the idea of a Judeo–Christian tradition in the mid-20th century to accept Jews and Catholics into what many citizens had previously considered a Protestant country. Because of this historical precedent, many believe a similar process could be used to include Muslims. Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, who was tapped by the U.S. State Department to speak on behalf of interfaith relations, in 2004 cofounded the Cordoba Initiative. The initiative, named after a city in Spain where historians have identified a “convivencia” in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together fruitfully in the Middle Ages, was a reference to the attempt to create similar interfaith cooperation in the present. One aspect of the initiative was to construct a Cordoba House (later called Park51) in lower Manhattan, a project whose detractors dubbed it the “ground zero mosque.” Those who opposed the project, such as Pamela Geller, a blogger who helped foment the opposition, accused it of promoting the Islamic predominance that existed then in Cordoba. Former U.S. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called those behind the project radical Islamists seeking supremacy. The 2010 midterm elections featured much discussion of the mosque controversy, with candidates like Renee Ellmers of North Carolina including anti-mosque rhetoric in her successful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives.

Many scholars are writing about Islamophobia, which they define as irrational fear and hatred of Muslims. John L. Esposito, director of the Alwaleed Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, has written in recent years about the phenomenon of Islamophobia, as well as about the diversity of thought within Islam. Public intellectual Reza Aslan, whose family fled the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, speaks out regularly in favor of understanding the historical complexity that leads to conflicts rather than blaming religious traditions. Todd Green’s Fear of Islam (2015) identifies figures he refers to as professional Islamophobes, who make a living off fomenting hatred of Muslims in general and who push the idea that Muslims are essentially the same, rather than seeking to understand historical particularities and internal differences within the tradition. One example he gives is Irshad Manji, whose The Trouble with Islam Today (2003) compares an illiberal rendering of Islam to a liberal rendering of Judaism and Christianity with little acknowledgment that open and inclusive versions of these traditions may not be the most representative. A corrective to such essentialization is Scott Hibbard’s Religious Politics and Secular States, which compares illiberal or fundamentalist strains in Egyptian Islam, Indian Hinduism, and American Protestantism to each other while also comparing liberal or inclusive strains among those three traditions.

Review of the Literature

Perhaps what almost all scholarly commentators agree on is that Americans utilize Islam and the Middle East to construct their own identity. Robert Allison takes the title The Crescent Obscured from Francis Scott Key’s earlier version of what became the Star-Spangled Banner, which was based on an episode of the Barbary Wars. Allison uses this phrase to indicate the depth and breadth of connections between the United States and the Middle East that have been forgotten over time. He argues these episodes were core to several developments in the early American republic, including the decision to create a standing Navy, to collect taxes, and to maintain secrecy in some diplomatic negotiations.

A trio of recent missionary histories has contributed greatly to attempts to undermine grand civilizational theories. Ussama Makdisi in Artillery of Heaven, Heather Sharkey in American Evangelicals in Egypt, and Christine Heyrman in American Apostles provide fine-grained missionary histories intended to demonstrate the historical particularities that led to small-scale conflicts. These intricate historical studies of specific cultural interactions resist a discourse of inevitability. “[W]hat is conceptually most distinctive about the origins of a sustained U.S. engagement with the Middle East,” Makdisi writes, is “the plural nature of the encounter itself and the diversity of its sources.”32 On the other hand, Michael Oren brings together exhaustive material on the history of American encounters with the Middle East in Power, Faith, and Fantasy, but lack of context contributes to Oren’s view of inevitable cultural clash, which bears much resemblance to Samuel Huntington’s thinking in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996).

Makdisi, Sharkey, and Heyrman also share the similarity that the historical figures in their books tended to become more culturally sensitive to others over time. As the missionaries changed, the people they were encountering changed also. By showing the way these groups changed each other, these books also undercut assumptions that perduring views of the other are not significantly affected by that other, a view advanced for example in Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) and Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (2006). Marr, coining “Islamicism” as an analog to Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” argues that Americans have used discussion of Islam to bolster and contest ideas about themselves rather than to better understand Islam or Muslims. Said and Marr suggest their subjects had a uniformly negative view of Islam, a finding that Denise Spellberg disputes in Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an.

Further Reading

  • Allison, Robert J. The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  • Heyrman, Christine Leigh. American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam. New York: Hill & Wang, 2013.
  • Kidd, Thomas S. American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009.
  • Long, Burke O. Imagining the Holy Land: Maps, Models, and Fantasy Travels. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003.
  • Makdisi, Ussama. Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008.
  • Marr, Timothy. The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
  • McAlister, Melani. Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, & U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.
  • Obenzinger, Hilton. American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.
  • Oren, Michael B. Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
  • Rogers, Stephanie Stidham. Inventing the Holy Land: American Protestant Pilgrimage to Palestine, 1865–1941. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011.
  • Sharkey, Heather J. American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
  • Spellberg, Denise A. Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders. New York: Vintage, 2013.


  • 1. Thomas S. Kidd, American Christians and Islam: Evangelical Culture and Muslims from the Colonial Period to the Age of Terrorism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009), 10.

  • 2. Quoted in Denise Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders (New York: Vintage, 2013), 22.

  • 3. Quoted in Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, 5.

  • 4. Quoted in Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, 240.

  • 5. Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 21.

  • 6. Michael B. Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 47–49.

  • 7. Robert J. Allison, The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 104–105.

  • 8. Quoted in Spellberg, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an, 207.

  • 9. Allison, The Crescent Obscured, 178.

  • 10. Quoted in Allison, The Crescent Obscured, 205.

  • 11. Quoted in Clifton Jackson Phillips, Protestant America and the Pagan World: The First Half Century of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, 1810–1860. Harvard East Asian Monographs 32 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), 12.

  • 12. Phillips, Protestant America and the Pagan World, 11.

  • 13. Christine Leigh Heyrman, American Apostles: When Evangelicals Entered the World of Islam (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015), 174.

  • 14. Amanda Porterfield, Mary Lyon and the Mount Holyoke Missionaries (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 80.

  • 15. Quoted in Justin Perkins, A Residence of Eight Years in Persia, among the Nestorian Christians, with Notices of the Muhammedans ([1843] Elibron Classics, 2006), 32.

  • 16. Quoted in Ussama Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven: American Missionaries and the Failed Conversion of the Middle East (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008), 211.

  • 17. Heather J. Sharkey, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 149.

  • 18. Charles R. Watson, What is this Moslem World? (New York: Friendship Press, 1937), 32.

  • 19. Quoted in Oren, Power, Faith, and Fantasy, 374.

  • 20. W. M. Thomson, The Land and the Book; or, Biblical Illustrations Drawn from the Manners and Customs, the Scenes and Scenery of the Holy Land (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1860), 21.

  • 21. William C. Prime, Tent Life in the Holy Land (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1857), 55.

  • 22. Edward Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine, 1838–52. 3 vols. (Boston: Crocker and Brewster, 1856), Vol. I, 143.

  • 23. Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad ([1869] New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 559–560.

  • 24. Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 543.

  • 25. Christina H. Jones, The Untempered Wind: Forty Years in Palestine (London: Longman: 1975), 4.

  • 26. Millar Burrows, Founders of Great Religions: Being Personal Sketches of Famous Leaders (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1931), 160.

  • 27. Millar Burrows, Palestine Is Our Business (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1949), 48.

  • 28. Melani McAlister, Epic Encounters: Culture, Media, & U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945, 2nd ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 194.

  • 29. Quoted in Timothy Weber, On the Road to Armageddon: How Evangelicals Became Israel’s Best Friend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 221.

  • 30. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, Are We Living in the End Times?: Current Events Foretold in Scripture . . . and What They Mean (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1999), 63.

  • 31. Victoria Clark, Allies for Armageddon: The Rise of Christian Zionism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007), 2.

  • 32. Makdisi, Artillery of Heaven, 6.