Earlier this year, Islamic scholars at al-Azhar University in Cairo suggested that the government of Egypt ban a recently reprinted edition of an early 19th-century biography of the Prophet Muhammad (upon whom be peace). Written in 1830 by the Reverend George Bush, an American Presbyterian minister, Biblical scholar and ancestor of US President George W. Bush, the biography presents a distorted version of Islamic history that emphasizes violence and the persecution of Christians. Taken with President Bush’s proclamations about reforming the Muslim world, his “war on terror” (which most now see as a war on Muslims), his initial comments after 911 suggesting that the American response ought to be a crusade, and his tacit support of the Christian right in the US, which has often made clear its hatred of Muslims, one may be tempted to conclude that Bush has inherited his views from his family lineage. But the fact is that the current American attitude and policy toward the Muslim world permeates American culture and history, and one can find the same sorts of proclamations and ministrations emerging time and again, in many different forms, throughout American history.
By the time the Rev. Bush wrote his vitriolic biography of Allah’s Messenger in 1830, there had already emerged in America a literary tradition of presenting Islam as the enemy of American values and Western civilization, and of Christendom in general, which was fueled by scores of travelers, missionaries and government officials. These literary accounts are characterized by an odd combination of religious fanaticism and national arrogance, at a time when Americans were coming to terms with what they saw as the promise of God to His chosen people, that they would spread the light of their own peculiar brand of Christianity to the unfortunate “heathens” and “barbarians” of the world. These works emphasize two points: that the Middle East is God’s Promised Land for Americans to dominate according to their own interests, and that Muslims are depraved and backward.
Heyman Humphrey, an American missionary, put it this way in 1819:
That immense regions of the earth, which belong to the church, are still unsubdued; that the ultimate conquest and possession of all these is certain; that, although the excellency of the power of God, this great work is to be accomplished by human instrumentality; that but for lamentable and criminal apathy of the church, it might have accomplished ages ago; that as Christendom now possesses ample resources and ability, she is solemnly bound in the name of God, and with the least possible delay to set up her banners in every heathen land. And, that the aspects of Divine Providence are peculiarly auspicious to the missionary enterprise of the day.
This missionary enterprise, already implicated in the genocide of native peoples and the slavery of African peoples in the Americas, turned its attention to the Muslim world with the full military support of US presidents such as Thomas Jefferson, who sent US Navy gunboats to subdue the restless “pirates” of the Mediterranean and secure trade routes for US merchants.
With an increasing military and economic presence of Americans in the region, a steady flow of missionaries, adventurers and government officials embarked on the then arduous journey across the Atlantic, which, as Josiah Brewer, another missionary, put it in 1830, “spread out as a trial of patience, before entering the Promised Land.” A US Navy chaplain, George Jones, recalled of his journey in 1836:
Early on the morning of the 12th we had the pleasure of seeing the hills of Palestine emerging from the waters. What a thrill was occasioned by the sight! The birthplace of a widespread and wonderful religion –” the land of a thousand miracles –” the original home of a people now spread every where, and every where a miracle; and every where, from Lapland to India, still yearning towards their fatherland –” the mountains, the plains of Judea were before us.
Often blinded by their intense religious feelings, Americans could only view the people of the region through a distorted prism of Biblical lore and fantastic tales reminiscent of the Arabian Nights. The celebrated American traveler Sarah Haight wrote the following in her accounts of 1840:
While I was returning to our tent, the impression made on my mind when I first landed on the coast of Syria returned to me with increased interest, now that I felt myself actually treading in the soil of Palestine, the theatre of so many mighty events. All my historical recollections, sacred and profane, came fresh to my memory; and I fancied I saw in every face a patriarch, and in every warrior chieftain an apostle. Is not this the land by Nature blessed beyond her pale, and where ‘all save the spirit of man is divine?’ And yet is it not here that those blessings are least appreciated, and left to run fallow through the sheer neglect and inanity of the lazy and stupid possessors of the soil? Is not this once splendid capital of a Roman empire now the mere rendezvous of a horde of beastly Tartars? At that perhaps not distant epoch the crescent will fall from each proud minaret, and the emblem of the Christian faith resume its former place, and these swelling domes shall again resound with loud Hosannas to the Lord of Hosts.
From her desert campsite, Haight made this fanciful observation about a nearby encampment of Bedouin Arabs:
In the distance, a few dying embers served to throw an uncertain light on sundry forms lying about, so like the human as easily to be mistaken for man or mummy. In the foreground were several campfires, around which were seated the half-naked Bedouins, silently and voraciously devouring some fragments of food. While gazing at these hideous creatures, my imagination transformed the hooded females who flitted by the blaze into Hecates and witches, the swarthy myrmidons into devils incarnate, and the half-consumed mummy-fuel into some victim they were tormenting. Now and then a shrill ejaculation from a female, or a coarse laugh from the savage-looking beings by the fire, with their lank bodies, shaved heads, sunken eyes, and endless mouths, gave the whole a more sepulchral and demoniacal appearance than anything I had ever seen before in real life.
If the dates of these accounts were removed, one would have a hard time detecting when they were uttered. It is in fact common to hear similar views expressed from the pulpits of many American Christian right leaders to their flocks today, and these flocks remain a major base of support for Bush.
Throughout American history Christian faith and fanciful fairy tales have never been too far from imperial designs and colonial arrogance, as shown by the statements of US government official Richard Haight in 1840:
Russia had accomplished her purpose; she had prostrated Turkey, and therefore made a merit of magnanimously sparing a fallen foe. The seeds of discord have taken too deep root in the great empire of Islam for all the diplomacy of the West ever to eradicate them; and all its members are too much disjointed for England to succeed in reconstructing a powerful empire on the ruins of the one she (so foolishly for herself) assisted in overturning. [The dismantling of the Ottoman empire will give] to France all the southern coast of the Mediterranean, from Morocco to the borders of Egypt, with the privilege of making conquests as far into the interior of Africa as she might choose, always excepting the Atlantic coasts. Egypt should be England’s, with the right to carry her arms to the Cape of Good Hope. Syria should go to France, as far as the Euphrates on the East and Taurus on the north. Asia Minor to England, with the right to march to Bucharia if she saw fit. Throughout all the Holy Land the sacred monuments are surrounded by thousands of pilgrims from the farthest west; and the pious female devotee returning to her home, nourishes her roses of Sharon with the water of Jordan. The descendant of Ishmael now visits in peace the bazaars of Cairo and Damascus, and his hand is no longer against every man, nor every man’s hand against him.
In fact, Haight would have to wait for the treachery of the Sykes-Picot agreement for his geopolitical dreams to come true, but the similarity of his view and what actually transpired is startling. And these fanciful images are alive and well today, as for instance among the mass tourism to the “Holy Land” sponsored by the American Christian right and welcomed by the government of Israel, both of which promote the Biblical legacy of the region at the expense of the Palestinian people who have lived there for millennia, and both of which are complicit in the ongoing colonization and dispossession of Palestine.
American imperial designs for the region were often intertwined with Biblical prophecy, as interpreted here by the Rev. George Bush in 1843:
The Five months, and hour, day, month, and year, or 541 years and 15 days of Revelations IX, are believed to have commenced with the first entrance of Othman, the founder of the Ottoman empire, into Nicomedia, a Greek province, to commence his war, July 27th, 1299. And then the period ended August 11th, 1840 the day the ultimatum of the allied powers of Europe was submitted to Mehemet Ali, and the fate of the empire was sealed.
It would become common practice for Americans to see the hands of Providence and the plans of Prophecy in the political machinations of Western imperialism and colonialism in the region, and such proclamations are still found today among the American Christian right, among the likes of Revs. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, whose powerful ministries are a major base of political support for President Bush.
The connection between the American genocide of native peoples and their understanding of Muslims was often made explicit, as in this statement by the archaeologist William Lynch in 1852:
What a patriarchal scene! Seated upon their mats and cushions within we looked out upon the fire, around which were gathered groups of this wild people, who continually reminded us of our Indians. Then came their supper, consisting of a whole sheep, entombed in rice, which they pitched into without knives or forks, in the most amusing manner. There was an Arab bard withal, who twanged away upon his instrument, and sung or rather chanted mysterious Arabic poetry. He will never ‘Make a swan-like end, fading in music.’
In another account by Lynch, we see his intense religious feelings coupled with a total disregard for the local peoples in the region:
The yearnings of twenty years were about to be gratified. When a young midshipman, almost the very least in the escort of the good Lafayette across the ocean, my heart was prepared for its subsequent aspirations. Twice, since, at distant intervals, I contemplated making the desired visit. But the imperative calls of duty in the first instance, and a domestic calamity in the second, prevented me. As I have before said, in the spring of the present year I asked permission to visit the lands of Bible, with the special purpose of thoroughly exploring the Dead Sea; the extent, configuration, and depression of which, are as much desiderata to science, as its miraculous formation, its mysterious existence, and the wondrous traditions respecting it, are of thrilling interest to the Christian.
The archaeological project in Palestine, begun by Americans sent to explore their “Holy Land,” is continued today by the zionists, with much damage done to the Muslim heritage as a result.
American support for the zionist colonization of Palestine, which many believe only began when US President Truman was the first to recognize the modern state of Israel in 1948, is actually much more deeply rooted in American culture and society, as demonstrated by many statements of travelers, missionaries and officials. Another example is this remark from J.V.C. Smith, an American traveler, in 1853:
As frequently expressed in the course of preceding observations on the future destiny of the land of Promise, I fully believe in the final restoration of the Jews, and the re-establishment of the nation. That greatest of all events to the reflecting Christian, who sees the hand of God in the eventful history of the descendants of Abraham, must be brought about by the concurrence and guarantee of all the Christian powers on earth, who will thus be instrumentalities in fulfilling the intentions of Divine Providence.
Among the Christian right today this attitude has not changed, and although many pin hopes on the Americans to arbitrate peace in the region, they need only examine the American legacy of support for zionism to realize that the Americans have much the same attitude as the zionists, that Palestine has always been the “land of promise.”
Like the Europeans from whom they inherited parts of this legacy, the Americans were often intrigued by Muslim women, as the traveler John Lloyd Stephens noted in1854:
If before I had occasionally any doubts or misgivings as to the reality of my situation; if sometimes it seemed to be merely a dream, that it could not be that I was so far from home, wandering alone on the plains of Asia, with a guide whom I never saw till that morning, whose language I could not understand, and upon whose faith I could not rely; the part which I met now was so marked in its character, so peculiar to an oriental country, and to an oriental country only, that it roused me from my waking dreams, fixed my wandering thoughts, and convinced me, beyond all peradventure, that I was indeed far from home, among a people ‘whose thoughts are not as our thoughts, and whose ways are not as our ways,’ in short, in a land where ladies are not the omnipotent creatures that they are with us. This party was no other than the ladies of a harem. They were all dressed in white, with their white shawls wrapped around their faces, so that they effectually concealed ever feature, and could bring to bear only the artillery of their eyes. I found this, however, to be very potent, as it left so much room for the imagination; and it was a very easy matter to make a Fatima of every one of them. They were all on horseback, not riding sidewise, but otherwise; though I observed, as before, that their saddles were so prepared that their delicate limbs were not subject to that extreme expansion required by the saddle of the rougher sex. They were escorted by a party of armed Turks, and followed by a man in Frank dress, who, as I after understood, was the physician of the harem. They were thirteen in number, just a baker’s dozen, and belonged to a pacha who was making his annual tour of the different posts under his government, and had sent them on before to have the household matters all arranged upon his arrival.
Countless stories abound of American and Western travelers in the region being both aroused and repulsed by Muslim women, their attitudes shaped more by their own desires and confusion than by any reality.
The celebrated American novelist Herman Melville, author of the classic novel Moby Dick, traveled to Istanbul in 1857 and wrote this in his personal diary one night:
Staid in all night. Dangerous going out, owing to footpads and assassins. The curse of the places. Can’t go out at night, and no places to go to, if you could. Whir of the spinning jennies. Terrible place to be robbed or murdered in. Great curse that of Babel. The horrible grimy tragic air of these streets. The rotten and wicked looking houses. So gloomy and grimy as if a suicide hung from every rafter within.
The feeling that the Arab and Muslim world is a wicked, gloomy and dangerous place has not changed, and one can find this still to be the prevailing attitude of many Americans who travel to the region. One would think that after a century and a half of traveling to and writing about the region, that attitude might have changed, but once we understand that these attitudes toward the Muslim world are deeply rooted in the American sense of identity, infused with missionary zeal and political supremacy, we realize that it would be virtually impossible to change these deep attitudes without changing the American identity.
For those who think that the current American adventure in Iraq is an anomaly, or the work of the so-called “neo-cons” advising the White House, this account by the missionary J.T. Barclay suggests in 1858 that the Americans have long held onto beliefs that they would be the ones to remake the Middle East in their own image:
What mean the various lines of streamers now traversing the length and breadth of the Mediterranean and Red Seas –” placing Palestine in such direct, constant, and intimate communication not only with other parts of Asia, but with Europe, Africa, America, and the Isles of the Gentiles? What the railways now projected between Jaffa and the Persian Gulf, via Neapolis, with which a branch from Egypt is to unite –” passing through Jerusalem, a ‘highway’ from Egypt into Assyria? And what the electric telegraph of the Holy City –” the great central metropolis! –” to say nothing of the stupendous scheme of converting the great depressed basin of Arabia Deserta into an inland ocean by letting in the waters of the Red Sea!” The attitude and belief run deep in American history, and the present policy of remaking the Middle East is the enacting of a long-held belief in the American dream, to dominate and reshape the Muslim world in its own image.
And for those who think the vitriol spewed by American televangelists in recent years is an aberration in a legacy of tolerance and peace, these words of the notorious missionary Henry Jessup written in 1884 ought to be cause for reflection:
The wild spirit of Mohammedan bigotry broke out once more, and the streets of Alexandria ran with Christian blood. The interposition of England, the defeat of Arabi, the check upon rising Moslem frenzy, and the shattering of the Pan Islamic league which had become a menace to progress and civilization in the East, all revealed again the working of that hand which makes no mistakes, and that wise and glorious Providence of God, which over rules all things for His own glory.
It is not too far a leap to see these images of Muslim “frenzy” and “menace” in today’s widespread acceptance that Muslims are “terrorists.” This belief is not new, and runs deep in America.
Even the occasional direct observation of Muslim rituals was seen through the lens of the American bias against Muslims, as suggested by the illustrator William Thomson, who after observing Muslims at prayer, wrote this 1905 account:
That is the result of habit and education; small children imitate it to perfection. There is certainly an air of great solemnity in their mode of worship, and, when performed by a large assembly in the mosques, or by a detachment of soldiers in concert, guided in their genuflections by an imam or dervish, who sings the service, it is quite impressive. I have seen it admirably enacted by moonlight on the wild banks of the Orontes, in the plain of Hamath, and the scene was something more than romantic. But, alas! It was by as villainous a set of robbers as could be found even in that lawless region.
In other words, hidden behind the pious enactment of prayer lay something evil, which one can see today in the constant warnings that a “terrorist” fringe lies in wait among seemingly peaceful Muslim immigrants in the US. Thomson agreed with many of his compatriots that God would indeed give the Holy Land to Americans, as he noted in 1905:
Our first walk in the Land of Promise! To me a land of promises more numerous and not less interesting than those given to the Father of the Faithful, when the Lord said, ‘Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and the breadth of it; for I will give it into thee.’ It is given to me also, and I mean to make it mine from Dan to Beersheba before I leave it.
Toward the end of his life, the American novelist Herman Melville had this to say in 1924:
We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people –” the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. Seventy years ago we escaped from the thrall; and, besides our first birthright –” embracing one continent of earth –” God has given to us, for a future inheritance, the broad domains of the political pagans, that shall yet come and lie down under the shade of our ark, without bloody hands being lifted. God has predestinated, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are the pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things to break a new path in the New World that is ours.
One could hardly find a more complete statement of the American attitude toward Muslims and the Middle East, and there is little evidence today, despite the millions of dollars spent on flashy public relations and the Muslim apologists for American colonialism, that what Americans are now enacting is any different from their early dreams of domination. Americans today are living out a long-held belief that it is their destiny to rule the region and to defeat the Muslims. But in the end observation and analysis by others will do little to remedy this legacy; little will change until Americans themselves face their legacy and realize it is based on arrogance and hate.