Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921

Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921

Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921

Sacred Interests: The United States and the Islamic World, 1821-1921


Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Americans increasingly came into contact with the Islamic world, U.S. diplomatic, cultural, political, and religious beliefs about Islam began to shape their responses to world events. In Sacred Interests, Karine V. Walther excavates the deep history of American Islamophobia, showing how negative perceptions of Islam and Muslims shaped U.S. foreign relations from the Early Republic to the end of World War I.

Beginning with the Greek War of Independence in 1821, Walther illuminates reactions to and involvement in the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, the efforts to protect Jews from Muslim authorities in Morocco, American colonial policies in the Philippines, and American attempts to aid Christians during the Armenian Genocide. Walther examines the American role in the peace negotiations after World War I, support for the Balfour Declaration, and the establishment of the mandate system in the Middle East. The result is a vital exploration of the crucial role the United States played in the Islamic world during the long nineteenth century--an interaction that shaped a historical legacy that remains with us today.


In 1872, Hagop Matteosian, an Armenian Ottoman subject and the civil head of the Protestant communities in the Ottoman Empire, wrote a letter from Istanbul to Nathanial Clark, corresponding secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), a Boston-based organization founded in 1810. In his letter, Matteosian praised the ABCFM’s efforts to spread American culture and Protestant Christianity to Ottoman Christians, noting that the “most zealous advocate of American civilization could not have done half as much for his country abroad as the missionary has done.”

Given the ABCFM’s mission to promote American Protestant civilization among Ottoman subjects, Matteosian asserted, the American people now had “a sacred interest” in the Ottoman Empire. But Matteosian went beyond just lauding the benefits the missionaries had brought to the empire’s subjects. Their presence also advanced U.S. interests. Hinting at the larger political and commercial competition between Europeans and Americans, he wrote that American missionary influence could not be “overbalanced” by all of the European diplomats combined. Clark undoubtedly welcomed Matteosian’s praise; the ABCFM secretary republished the letter the following month in the ABCFM’s monthly journal, the Missionary Herald, whose readership included thousands of influential members across the country.

The primary endeavor of ABCFM missionaries was to convert Ottoman subjects to Protestant Christianity, not to serve as “advocates” to advance their own country’s interests or their political and cultural values. Yet, Matteosian understood that many ABCFM missionaries did not consider these goals to be mutually exclusive. Ultimately, most American Protestant missionaries in the Ottoman Empire believed an indivisible link . . .

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