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Muslims on America’s Mind, Circa 1790

Do the two worlds, the Muslim world and the United States, have more in common than Americans would like to believe?

September 28, 2001

Do the two worlds, the Muslim world and the United States, have more in common than Americans would like to believe?

Back in the 1790s, a flood of books on the Muslim world poured from American presses. These books included captivity narratives, histories (including two biographies of Muhammad), novels and poems. And they also featured the first American edition of the Arabian Nights.

This literature conveyed a consistent picture of the Muslim world. As it turns out, it was also an inverted image of the world the Americans were trying to create anew. This very ability to create the world anew gave the Americans endless chances to improve people’s lives — but just as many chances to ruin them. In the literature on the Muslim world, Americans saw what could happen to people who made the wrong choices.

Muhammad had offered people a chance to change. And change they did — adopting a new religion, building new states and empires, reorganizing family life.

But, in American eyes, each change had been a tragic mistake. The once prosperous people of Egypt, Turkey, Mauritania and Syria were impoverished by bad governments — and their fertile lands turned to deserts. In Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli, honest commerce was perverted into piracy by their rulers, avaricious deys and pachas.

Everywhere, women were debased in harems and seraglios, the victims of unrestrained sexual power. The Muslim world was a lesson for Americans in what not to do in how not to construct a state, encourage commerce or form families. For men and women to prosper and for societies to progress, they learned that power had to be controlled, liberty had to be secured.

But though the American people had avoided some evils, they had not avoided them all. How could the United States condemn Algiers for enslaving Americans when Americans themselves enslaved Africans? If slavery was wrong for Americans, was it not also wrong for Africans?

Slavery in the United States made the congratulations which Americans bestowed on themselves for avoiding political, religious or sexual tyranny sound hollow, hypocritical — and shameful. Perhaps the war against Tripoli (1801-1805) that was fought over U.S. refusal to pay tributes, did prove that the Americans had created a different kind of nation.

But Americans returned from the slavery they observed in Algiers, Morocco and Tripoli to a nation in which slavery was much more deeply rooted than in any Muslim society. By avoiding the mistakes of Muslims, who submitted without question to their rulers and religion, Americans for an instant thought they had avoided the fate of every empire that had risen only to fall.

But slavery in America constantly reminded them of their own failure. The degree to which their countrymen submitted to it as a necessary evil — or endorsed it as a positive good — was the degree to which all Americans would be condemned by their just God, the God of the Christians and the Muslims, who judged all men.

This early exchange across cultural boundaries came to an end with a double triumph. The United States had defeated not only Tripoli, but England — then the world’s greatest military force. The Americans had overcome the fears of the 1780s and 1790s, the fears that they might fall into the traps of anarchy or despotism.

The successful creation and maintenance of constitutional government — and the military victories over Tripoli and England — ushered in a period of confidence and national assurance in the newly founded United States.

But the Americans were left with the unresolved dilemma of slavery, a constant reproach to their own sense of moral superiority. Slavery’s legacy still haunts them, proving a more dangerous and resilient phantom than any genie, sultan — or ayatollah.

Editor’s Note: This feature is adapted from “The Crescent Obscured,” © 1995 by Robert J. Allison. Reprinted with the permission of the author.