- The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism
In the aftermath of the tragic events of 11 September 2001, subsequent disclosures of nefarious U.S. government contracts with various Muslim governments, and still rising Islamophobia, Timothy Marr’s The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism provides readers with some [End Page 154] insights into the roots of the representations of and attitudes toward Islam and Muslims. This text extends and deepens knowledge on various topics—American orientalism, early American history, and Islam in America. Students of American history automatically think of western European influences on the social and political structures of early America, but Marr invites us to revisit early America and explore another significant influence on those structures—cultural imaginings of Islam and Muslim cultures. These imaginings were used along with others in oppositional ways in early nation building.
This text is situated at significant and unique crossroads, that of Islam in America, American studies, and early American literature studies. Texts on Islam in early America, such as Sylviane Diouf ’s Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (1998) or Allan Austin’s Muslim Slaves in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles (1997), focus on Muslim slaves from West Africa with only casual mentions of any interaction between the colonists and Muslims on the Barbary Coast. Historical texts written on Islam in America or Muslims in the United States omit any reference to American imaginings of Islam or Muslims at any time prior to the twentieth century. American studies itself ignored this significant aspect of the formation of this nation’s identity until the last decade of the twentieth century. Orientalism as a topic was limited to discussions of the imaginings of Islam and Muslims in the Middle East. After decades of reimagining the Muslim world through the lens of orientalism as articulated by Edward Said (1976), scholars in the 1990s turned their eyes toward America’s participation in the orientalist enterprise. Fuad Shab’an’s Islam and Arabs in Early American Thought (1991), Robert Allison’s The Crescent Obscured (1995), and Malini Johar Schueller’s U.S. Orientalisms (1998) opened the door to the discussion through which scholars like Marr could walk. Marr successfully takes up the challenge.
He clearly knows the criticality of establishing a conversation between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans and uses this as a theme throughout this text. He asserts that “the powerful historical templates that preceded and prefigured the mass immigration of Muslims still shape in some ways the contours of how Islam is perceived and received within the United States” (p. 7). While scholars in the 1990s explored “diplomatic and cultural interactions” or the hypocrisy of using Islam as a foil, this text further excavates numerous hitherto unreviewed archives such as military records, pictures of early monuments, pamphlets, missionary reports and biographies, and biblical eschatological writings to give readers a holistic picture of “the times.” His situation even of his term “Islamicism” also demonstrates his erudition in this field. [End Page 155]
“Islamicism” as a concept aims to acknowledge the difference “between orientalist codes and Islamic faith,” what he calls “Islamic orientalism.” Muslims have long protested the refusal on the part of media in particular to make this distinction as they often blur the lines between the two. He further provides readers with some other much needed differentiation of terms such as the notion of “Islamism,” which he asserts has been used to describe the agendas of Muslims who desire to form Islamic states. Yet, his most significant contributions to this topic lay in the relationship of Islam and Muslims to American identity formation.
Chapter 1 begins its examination of the relationship with the era after the American Revolution and an “America” that feels powerful after gaining sovereignty from Britain. This was a time to begin formulating that feel of nation and thus the concomittant sense of distinction. As with many previous instances of nation building, the nation was built on an oppositional philosophy: we are what you are not; you stand for tyranny while...