Muslims, Concepts and Images of

views updated


Early American understandings of Muslims were shaped by the political power of the Ottoman Empire, the geographical expanse of the Islamic world, and the aura of the exotic found in A Thousand and One Nights. New nationals of varied backgrounds found the Islamic world to be a distant site of oriental opposition and licentiousness. By contrast, Americans saw the destiny of their new nation as joining religious and republican worldviews in a majority vision of Christian patriotism. When the Constitution in 1787 protected the religious freedom of officeholders, anti-Federalists feared the opening of American government to "Jews, Turks, and Infidels."

Early American religious views of Islam as anti-Christian stemmed from the heritage of the Crusades, which cast Muhammad as a false prophet who attracted adherents by appealing to carnal desires and coercing belief through violence. Interpretations of the Books of Daniel and Revelation featured Islam as the smoke from the bottomless pit resulting from the corruption of Christianity. American missionaries in the eastern Mediterranean after 1819 viewed Muslims as cursed followers of a dark delusion whose removal was a promised sign of the coming millennium.

Americans were also influenced by the Enlightenment's equation of Islamic government with systematic despotism. The eighteenth-century French political philosopher Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, popularized an image of Muslim political authority as an illegitimate empire of passion that negated the ideals of republicanism. The perverse excesses of male Islamic despots who replaced the moral home with the sexualized seraglio symbolized a social order in which the virtue of liberty had degenerated into the vice of passionate license. Montesquieu's compatriot, Constantin François de Chassebouef Volney, saw Ottoman despotism as causing the social ruin of Mediterranean culture by replacing free inquiry with fatalism. His influential work The Ruins, or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires was first translated into English in 1792 and again, ten years later, by Thomas Jefferson when he was serving as president. During the early years of the Republic, images of Muslim despots included the Turkish tyrant, the Barbary pirate, the Algerine spy, and the treacherous Malay. Americans thought Muslim societies were infested with a host of behaviors associated with public vice—not only political tyranny, but also ambition, corruption, covetousness, ostentation, sensuality, and cruelty—all dangers fatal to the viability of a virtuous republic.

The most sustained American contact with Muslim lands took place during a succession of conflicts between the United States and the North African regencies of Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis. In 1785 Algerian corsairs sailed out of the Straits of Gibraltar and captured two American vessels no longer protected by British treaties. The plight of these captives attracted public attention in late 1793 when nine more ships and their crews were taken into captivity. A treaty signed on 12 July 1796 with the Dey of Algiers resolved this crisis at a humiliating cost of ransom and tribute. The Pasha of Tripoli's demand that tribute be paid to him as well led to the Tripolitan War of 1801–1805, which was eventually resolved through the successful exploits of the newly developed U.S. Navy. The presence of Tripolitan prisoners in New York and the six-month tour of a reckless Tunisian ambassador in 1805–1806 helped to deflate images of the fearsome Muslim despot. Widely read works of literary fantasy celebrated how the female virtue and male valor of early nationals converted Muslims from despotism to democracy through the expression of a vigorous American example.

In the crisis of American captivity in Barbary, early abolitionists viewed Muslim practices as a mirror of the dangers that slavery posed to democratic civilization. Benjamin Franklin, less than a month before his death in 1790, satirized a Georgia congressman's support of the slave trade by assuming the persona of an Algerian courtier who supported North African slavery on the grounds that Christians were needed to cultivate its lands. The only Muslims living in the United States during the founding period were Africans uprooted from Islamic cultures in West Africa whose heritage, although destroyed by the slave system, helped individuals to deal with the indignities of bondage.

During the Greek War of Independence from the Ottomans (1821–1828), many Americans emphasized the barbarity of Turkish despotism in their eagerness to see democracy exported back to the land of its origin. The victory of the Greeks and the decline of Turkish power in the Mediterranean after 1830 led to an increase in travel that fostered more romantic images of Muslims, including those of the natural freedom of Arab life.


Allison, Robert J. The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Parker, Richard B. Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Sha'ban, Fuad. Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought: The Roots of Orientalism in America. Durham, N.C.: Acorn Press, 1991.

Timothy W. Marr

About this article

Muslims, Concepts and Images of

Updated About content Print Article