Sacred Interests

The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921

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Karine V. Walther
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , September
     2015.
     480 pages.
     $42.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781469625393.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Karine Walther’s Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World 1821-1921 provides a rigorous and detailed account of 19th century US interests in and aversion to the Islamic world. Walther traces the genealogies of American Islamophobia from the 19th century Barbary Wars through the end of World War I, and in doing so provides important historical context for our present moment. Her book is a critical addition to the emergent field of Islamophobia studies, and raises a strong case for scholars in the field to engage with a longer timeline on the subject.

Walther successfully argues that Christian beliefs were instrumental in producing and sustaining the idea of Muslims as uncivilized aggressors to the American public. Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, American diplomats, missionaries, writers, and politicians envisioned an alliance  between the United States and Europe based on Christianity—a “Family of Nations”—in direct opposition to the Islamic world. This ideology shaped US foreign policies with the Ottoman, British, and French empires, as well as the colonies of the Philippines and MoroccoWalther also shows that Americans often learned more about Islam through French and British colonial practice than from actual contact with Muslims, and communications between different colonial officials, governors, and missionaries informed US policy. Through her focus on the Christian nationalism of state and non-state actors, Walther underlines the essential role that religion played in governing foreign policy. In this way, her book stands out from other diplomatic histories which have taken for granted the separation of church and state in the United States.

Sacred Interests is divided into four parts, each a case study of US interests and entanglements in the Islamic world. Walther begins with the 19th century Greek and Bulgarian revolutions against the Ottoman empire, during which Greek appreciation societies in the United States and US missionaries abroad urged the government to intervene against what they deemed to be Ottoman oppression over their Christian minority. Walther shows the irony of the American slaveholding population calling the Ottomans oppressive; in fact, one of the great strengths of the book is how Walther reminds the reader of the violent racial regimes of slavery and settler colonialism taking place in the United States at the same moment that her American actors are accusing Ottomans of abusing their own populations.

Throughout her book, Walther demonstrates how Western concern for minorities in Islamic areas served the interests of Americans and Europeans. In part 2, she uses the example of American advocacy for Jewish populations in Morocco. Jewish American organizations in the United States sought equality with American Protestants through their disdain for Muslims and their concern for Moroccan Jews. For the United States and French governments, protecting Jews in Morocco was a way to make money: through the implemented protégé system, minorities gave money to their protector, in this case the US and French governments. Again, Walther shows how forging connections with non-Muslims in the Islamic world was a way to imagine an international family to which the United States belonged and which it could eventually lead.

One of Walther’s main arguments is that Americans viewed Islam as the most important characteristic of a society with majority Muslim population. Thus, part 3 shows how US perceptions of the Ottoman empire were transposed onto their first Muslim colonial subjects: the Moros of the Philippines. Again, Walther triangulates between American anti-Black, anti-Native, and anti-Asian discourses to show the overlapping and relational way American racial grammar informed US imperialist treatment of their new subjects. In one telling example, a US official recommends sending African Americans to the Philippines to convert Moros while also ridding the United States of its “Negro Problem.” 

The book concludes after World War I, the Armenian genocide, and the further entrenchment of Islam as a racial and overdetermined category in the US imagination. Ending at the beginning of the “American Century,” Walther provides an essential base on which to build further analysis of American interests in the Islamic world as the American empire was growing and Muslims were immigrating to the United States in higher numbers. A more thorough account of gender, particularly in light of the excellent scholarly analysis of the gendered racialization of Islam and American foreign intervention in the Islamic world, would have been appreciated. That said, the book is an essential read for historians of Islamophobia, foreign relations, or American Christian nationalism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Randa Tawil is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Yale University where she researches race, mobility, and migration. Her dissertation focuses on routes of migration from Syria to the Americas in the first half of the 20th century, and the intersection of mobility and racial formation.

Date of Review: 
June 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karine Walther is assistant professor of history at the school of foreign service in Qatar. She holds a PhD in history from Columbia University, a Maitrise and Licence in Sociology from the University of Paris VIII and a BA in American Studies from the University of Texas, Austin.

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