Ryan P. Jordan
For centuries before the European colonization of North America, sectarian, ethnic, and racial discrimination were interrelated. The proscription of certain groups based on their biological or other apparently ingrained characteristics, which is one definition of racism, in fact describes much religious prejudice in Western history—even as the modern term “racism” was not used until the 20th century. An early example of the similarities between religious and racial prejudice can be seen in the case of anti-Semitism, where merely possessing “Jewish blood” made one inherently unassimilable in many parts of Europe for nearly a thousand years before the initial European conquest of the New World. Throughout Western history, religious values have been mobilized to dehumanize other non-Christian groups such as Muslims, and starting in the 16th century, religious justifications of conquest played an indispensable role in the European takeover of the Americas. In the culture of the 17th- and 18th-century British colonies, still another example of religious and racial hatred existed in the anti-Catholicism of the original Protestant settlers, and this prejudice was particularly evident with the arrival of Irish immigrants in the 19th century. In contemporary language, the Irish belonged to the Celtic “race” and one of the many markers of this race’s inherent inferiority was Catholicism—a religious system that was alternatively defined as non-Western, pagan, or irrational by many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who similarly saw themselves as a different, superior race. In addition to the Irish, many other racial groups—most notably Native Americans—were defined as inferior based on their religious beliefs. Throughout much of early American history, the normative religious culture of Anglo-Protestantism treated groups ranging from African slaves to Asian or Middle Eastern immigrants as alternatively unequal, corrupt, subversive, or civically immature by virtue of their religious identity. Historians can see many examples of the supposedly dangerous religious attributes of foreigners—such as those of the Chinese in the late 19th century—as a basis for restricting immigration. Evangelical Protestant ideas of divine chosen-ness also influenced imperial projects launched on behalf of the United States. The ideology of Manifest Destiny demonstrates how religious differences could be mobilized to excuse the conquest and monitoring of foreign subjects in places such as Mexico or the Philippines. Anglo-Protestant cultural chauvinism held sway for much of American history, though since the mid-1900s, it can be said to have lost some of its power. Throughout its history, many racial or ethnic groups—such as Hispanic Americans, African-Americans, or Asian Americans in the United States have struggled to counter the dominant ethnic or racial prejudice of the Anglo-Protestant majority by recovering alternative religious visions of nationhood or cultural solidarity. For groups such as the 20th-century Native American Church, or the African American Nation of Islam, religious expression formed an important vehicle to contest white supremacy.
Lawrence A. Peskin
Encounters between Americans, Muslims, and Jews in North Africa played a foundational role in Americans’ early understanding of Islam and Judaism. At a time when the United States population had few Jews and virtually no free Muslims, North Africa was one of the places Americans were most likely to meet individuals from these groups.
Initially, American sailors and diplomats encountered North African Muslims and Jews as the result of frequent ship captures by Barbary corsairs beginning in the colonial period and culminating in the 1780s and 1790s. After 1815, the sailors and diplomats were joined by missionaries journeying to the Mediterranean region to convert Jews and Muslims as well as non-Protestant Christians.
These encounters prompted a good deal of literature published in the United States, including captivity narratives, novels, plays, histories, and missionary journals. These publications reinforced two dominant views of Islam. First, the early focus on Barbary corsairs capturing American “slaves” reinforced old notions of Islam as despotic and Muslims as “savages” similar to Native Americans. Missionary accounts prompted more thoughtful approaches to Muslim theology at the same time that they reinforced existing notions of Islam as a deceitful religion and revivified millenarian hopes that the declining Ottoman Empire foretold the Second Coming.
As a result of the captivity crises, Americans often had to deal with the area’s small but influential group of Jewish merchants in order to get terms and credit to free their countrymen. These fraught negotiations reinforced older European stereotypes of Jews as sharpers and Shylocks. As with Islam, the missionary period brought more thoughtful consideration of Jewish theology as Americans engaged in chiliastic hopes of bringing the Jews to Jerusalem.
After 1850 or so, Americans interested in Jews or Muslims looked less frequently to North Africa. Growing immigrant populations, first of Jews and then of Muslims, meant that Americans could encounter people of all three Abrahamic faiths at home. At the same time, missionary interests moved east, into the Holy Land, Syria, Turkey, and ultimately East Asia. Nevertheless, the early impact of North Africa on American thinking retained its influence, as is evident from President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech on American-Islamic relations delivered in Cairo.