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“How the Specter of Islam Fueled European Colonization in the Americas” by Alan Mikhail

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In the following article that appears in the Literary Hub on 17 December 2020, Alan Mikhail, professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Yale University, considers the historical ripples of Islamophobia.

(FromGod’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World by Alan Mikhail. Used with the permission of Liveright Publishing. Copyright © 2020 by Alan Mikhail.)

***

As every schoolchild learns, Columbus set sail with India on his mind’s horizon. Rarely, though, do schoolchildren learn why Columbus sought to cross the Atlantic. Hoping for an alliance with the Grand Khan of the East, he aimed to retake Jerusalem and destroy Islam; more prosaically, his voyages promised an end run around the trade monopolies of the Ottomans and the Mamluks. And when Columbus arrived in the Americas, fresh from the battle which marked Spain’s final defeat of the Muslim kingdom of Granada, he saw—or, more accurately, imagined—Muslims everywhere. Spanish conquistadors would claim to see mosques in Mexico, American Indians wearing “Moorish” clothing and performing “Moorish” dances, Turks invading New Spain from the Pacific, and West African slaves attempting to convert America’s indigenous peoples to Islam. Filtering their experiences in the Americas through the lens of their wars with Muslims, Europeans in the New World engaged in a new version of their very old Crusades, a new kind of Catholic jihad. Long after the many Matamoros—Moor-slayers—who sailed to the Americas aboard Columbus’s ships were dead themselves, Islam would continue to forge the histories of both Europe and the New World and the relationship between the two.

On either side of the unambiguous watershed represented by the year 1492, Islam endured as Europe’s primary obsession, its perennial rival and major cultural “other”—a spur of innovative historical change as well as an enemy on the battlefield. Throughout the 17th century and into the 18th, Europe remained far more concerned about the Ottomans and Islam than about the lands across the Atlantic. Remarkable, in fact, is the apparent lack of interest in the Americas among most Europeans. Spain’s Charles V, for example—the leader most responsible for his empire’s enormous expansion in the New World—uttered not a word about the Americas in his memoirs. What obsessed him were the Ottoman advances in Europe and his fears about the growing weakness of Christianity vis-à-vis Islam. 16th-century France produced twice as many books about Islam as it did about the Americas and Africa combined. Overall, between 1480 and 1609, Europe published four times more works about the Muslim world than about the Americas. This disparity only increased over the course of the 17th century.

16th-century France produced twice as many books about Islam as it did about the Americas and Africa combined. Overall, between 1480 and 1609, Europe published four times more works about the Muslim world than about the Americas. This disparity only increased over the course of the 17th century.

Following the lead of their Spanish predecessors in the New World, the British, a century later, initially understood American Indians through their own history of encounters with Muslims in Europe and the Mediterranean. Before it ever set sail across the Atlantic, that quintessential symbol of British arrival in North America, the Mayflower, had begun its seafaring life trading with Muslims in the Mediterranean. And before he crossed the Atlantic, John Smith, the founder of Jamestown in 1607, spent several swashbuckling years helping to beat back the Ottomans in Hungary and Wallachia (now part of Romania). The Ottomans captured him in 1602 and held him enslaved for two years before he managed to escape.

Later, when he became Admiral of New England, Smith named three islands across from Cape Cod “the three Turkes heads,” and he dubbed what is today Cape Ann “Cape Tragabigzanda,” after a young woman with whom he had fallen in love while serving her family as a slave. Smith’s personal coat of arms—like the one Melchor de Castro drew up after the 1521 Wolof Rebellion in Hispaniola—featured the severed heads of three Turks he had supposedly killed while fighting in eastern Europe. “The lamentable noise of the miserable slaughtered Turkes,” he wrote, “was most wonderfull to heare.” In addition to his account of his travels around the Mediterranean and works on Virginia and New England, Smith produced the first map of Virginia, with his coat of arms proudly displayed in the bottom right corner. Thus, more than a century after Piri Reis drew the first world map to join the Americas to the Old World, the Ottomans appeared yet again—in very different circumstances—on one of the first maps of North America. Beneath the three heads on his crest, Smith emblazoned his favorite Latin dictum: Vincere est vivere (To conquer is to live).

And conquer Smith most certainly did. He would soon add hundreds of Indian heads to his gruesome tally from the Old World. Like the Spanish conquistadors, Smith and countless other Englishmen who arrived to fight in America had already battled, traded with, or otherwise engaged the Ottomans and other Muslims in the Mediterranean. William Strachey, Virginia’s secretary, had spent time in Istanbul a few years before going to Jamestown, and George Sandys, eventually the colony’s treasurer, had traveled extensively throughout the Ottoman Empire—to Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Egypt—and had written a bestselling account of his adventures. Although one might assume they would have known better, these Britons repeated Spanish assertions from a century earlier about Muslim connections across the Atlantic—for example, again, that Native American dancing somehow had roots in Old World Muslim dances. They also filtered their understanding of the New World through their earlier personal experiences. Strachey drew parallels between Indian deerskin leggings and “the fashion of the Turkes.” Smith wrote, “If any great commander arrive at the habitation of a Werowance [chief], they spread a mat as the Turkes do a carpet for him to sit upon.”

What obsessed Spain’s Charles V were the Ottoman advances in Europe and his fears about the growing weakness of Christianity vis-à-vis Islam.

The Ottoman Empire affected the English colonization of America in other ways as well. In the 17th century, many of the thousands of English Protestants who crossed the ocean would cite two evils as the reasons for their flight: the injustices and discrimination of their Catholic coreligionists and the scourge of the Muslim Ottomans. In 1621, for instance, Robert Cushman, a passenger on the Mayflower, wrote of the promise of America as a refuge from an Old World then in the grip of the Protestant–Catholic Thirty Years’ War: “If it should please God to punish his people in the Christian countries of Europe, for their coldness, carnality, wanton abuse of the Gospel, contention, &c., either by Turkish slavery, or by popish tyranny, (which God forbid) . . . here is a way opened for such as have wings to fly into this wilderness.” As Luther had done at the very start of the Protestant Reformation, Cushman here speaks simultaneously of two enemies: pope and sultan. Persecuted by papal tiara and sultanic turban, he saw America as his salvation from both.

The road to that salvation was not straightforward. Only after a century or so of abysmal living conditions, rampant death, few profits, and apparently only a fleeting possibility of permanent settlement in the Americas, did the English succeed in making some small territorial gains. Some even began to turn a profit along the western Atlantic coast. Though Native Americans were frequently—understandably—hostile to the settlers, negotiation eventually proved possible, and what settlers could not accomplish through these means they attained by subjugating those whose land they felt entitled to take by virtue of their superiority as Christians. Slow though the progress of these fledgling colonies was, when juxtaposed with their ongoing skirmishes with the Ottoman Empire and Barbary pirates in North Africa, the English experience in North America was, by the end of the 17th century, beginning to look like a resounding success.

In the course of that century, North Africa remained the primary locale of England’s overseas operations. With its storied riches of gold, slaves, and spices, North Africa attracted more English adventurers in the 17th century than North America did. Some of these adventurers succeeded in earning handsome profits, but many more succumbed to the entrenched power of North Africa’s numerous independent sovereigns and pirate captains. Barbary pirates regularly captured English ships in the Mediterranean and eastern Atlantic (many of them sailing to and from the Americas) and enslaved those on board. Indeed, by the end of the 17th century, there were more enslaved Englishmen in North Africa than free ones in North America. “Conquerors in Virginia, they were slaves in Algiers,” as the scholar Nabil Matar nicely summarizes.

In 1699, the infamous Puritan minister Cotton Mather bemoaned the fate of those prospective New England settlers taken into North African slavery. “God hath given up several of our Sons, into the Hands of the Fierce Monsters of Africa. Mahometan Turks and Moors, and Devils are at this day oppressing many of our Sons, with a Slavery, wherein they Wish for Death, and cannot find it.” Mather—a slaveholder himself—thus drew a direct line between the English colonial project he represented in America and the Muslims of the Mediterranean. At the same time that he attacked North African slavery, he expressed no qualms about—and, in fact, encouraged—the American and English enslavement of African Muslims and non-Muslims. Moreover, Mather believed it was the duty of all Christians to contribute to the annihilation of the Ottoman Empire, in order to precipitate the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel in Palestine, a vital prerequisite for the second coming of Christ.

By the beginning of the 18th century, the conquest of North America would stand as the ultimate model of English colonial warfare. Given their divergent fortunes in their two main theaters of war, success in Virginia and New England made it easier for the English to abandon their largely failed efforts at commerce and settlement in North Africa. They would, however, return in the early 19th century to colonize parts of the Middle East. When the Ottomans pushed Europe out of the Mediterranean around 1500, they obviously had no inkling of the violent fury with which it would one day return.

Many of the thousands of English Protestants who crossed the ocean would cite two evils as the reasons for their flight: the injustices and discrimination of their Catholic coreligionists and the scourge of the Muslim Ottomans.

*

This transatlantic crisscrossing of war, cultural denigration, and colonization between Europe and Islam, Old World and New, had, as we have seen, already begun in the 15th and 16th centuries. And even as the American colonies began to assert their independence from England, phantom Muslims continued to lurk in North America. Like the Spanish and English before them, the founders of the United States saw Islam where it did not exist. The largest group of Muslims in North America in the mid-18th century were slaves. While estimates vary, Muslims might have constituted up to a tenth of the African slave population of North America between the 16th and the 18th centuries. Yet, given their racial bondage and scattered demography, they clearly posed no “Islamic threat” to the burgeoning American republic.

Nevertheless, quite oddly, one of the debates that emerged during the drafting of the Constitution was the question of whether or not a Muslim could be president of the United States. Regarded as the “eternal enemy without,” Muslims in this context (more so than Jews or Catholics) represented one of the primary legal limit-cases for the founders in their conversations about the ideals of citizenship and religious freedom in the young United States. In 1788, the answer to the question of whether an “imagined” Muslim could be president of the United States was a theoretical, though reluctant, yes. As Muslims were virtually absent from the United States in that period, the fact that the shapers of the Constitution even thought to consider the question of a Muslim president points to the shadow threat Islam was conceived to be—an inheritance of America’s European origins.

Columbus had seen the lands across the ocean as a means of funding an apocalyptic war to “recapture” Jerusalem. The Puritans saw America as the New Jerusalem. 19th-century Americans understood the western United States as an Edenic wilderness they had to redeem. The Holy Land thus always lurked as part of the European and then American understanding of the New World. In the 19th century, as more and more Americans traveled to the real Jerusalem for tourism, religious missions, and trade, their notions of an American Eden in North America formed much of their encounter with Ottoman Palestine.

After the Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, discussed a trip to recuperate from the terrors and tragedies of the war. They considered first a journey “out to the West as far as California, then perhaps to Europe.” The other option was “a special pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which Lincoln had often said was a city he longed to see.” His assassination cut short these plans, though just before his death he and Mary had reportedly settled on Jerusalem. In Lincoln’s mind, California and Jerusalem existed on a continuum. Each represented both a spiritual destiny and a geographic destination for Americans. Such a notion derived from the same mythology of Crusade that drove Columbus west—a redemptive journey to gain the promises of a Promised Land.

The 19th-century writers who, unlike Lincoln, did eventually cross the Atlantic to the Middle East not only shared this vision of Jerusalem but also articulated the way in which Americans in that period and later came to understand the East—by yoking Muslims to Native Americans. In a mirror image of Columbus’s effort to understand the indigenous peoples of the Americas by means of the Islam of the Old World, 19th-century Americans fell back on what they knew of Native Americans—as derogatory and scant as that knowledge was—to comprehend what they saw in the Holy Land. Thus, on the road from Damascus to Jerusalem, Mark Twain writes in The Innocents Abroad (1869) that the “dusky men and women” he saw “reminded me much of Indians. . . . They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.” Later, he says, “These people about us had other peculiarities, which I have noticed in the noble red man, too: they were infested with vermin, and the dirt had caked on them till it amounted to bark.” If for Columbus Muslims represented the ultimate other through which to understand all difference anywhere in the world, for Twain Native Americans played this role.

This transatlantic crisscrossing of war, cultural denigration, and colonization between Europe and Islam, Old World and New, had, as we have seen, already begun in the 15th and 16th centuries.

In his epic lyric travel poem Clarel (1876), Herman Melville describes pyramids in Egypt’s Nile Delta as:

Three Indian mounds
Against the horizon’s level bounds

Of an encounter with a group of Arab bandits on a road near the Jordan River, he writes:

Well do ye come by spear and dagger!
Yet in your bearing ye outvie
Our Western Red Men, chiefs that stalk
In mud paint—whirl the tomahawk.

Above all, neither Melville nor Twain could ever assimilate Islam to their world. The 19th-century American writer Washington Irving differed in this regard, as he studied the religion and the history of Islamic Spain and wrote books on these topics employing Arabic and Spanish sources. His rendering of Islam to the American public thus offered both a more scholarly take and a more sympathetic one. But for Melville and Twain, Islam was always other and only enemy, useful for literary and rhetorical purposes, but not worthy of serious or nuanced engagement. For example, the existence of Arab Christians in Bethlehem, Christ’s birthplace no less, was a detail that befuddled and seemingly annoyed Melville:

Catholic Arabs? Say not that!
Some words don’t chime together, see

Twain could only understand Islam by domesticating it to what he knew of America. In Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894), one of the sequels to his masterpiece, Tom explains to Huck that a Muslim “was a person that wasn’t a Presbyterian,” to which Huck responds that “there is plenty of them in Missouri, though I didn’t know it before.” This is, of course, satire. Embedded in the joke, however, is the historical truth that even in the 19th century—as it was for Columbus and his men—Islam remained beyond the frontiers of Americans’ conceptual universe, a limit-case for Twain to make the point that only Presbyterians matter in Missouri. Everyone else is so beyond the bounds, they might as well be Muslims.

In the 20th century, artistic engagements with the Muslim world continued to perpetuate American notions of uncivilized and evil Muslims, rapacious and licentious Arabs. In the new medium of cinema, films such as The Thief of Bagdad (1924), A Son of the Sahara (1924), and The Desert Bride (1928) projected these stereotypes on screen for American audiences. From the early 20th century to today, the violent, brooding Arab villain has been a favorite of Hollywood. In 20th-century American literature, too, caricatures of Islam continued to flourish. Consider just one example. The Beatnik writers Jane and Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg all lived in Morocco for a time in the 1950s and 1960s. Both in their writings and in their personal lives, these paragons of hippie counterculture adopted often racist attitudes toward Moroccans, much closer to those of the dying colonial order around them than to anything resembling the spiritually free future with which they are generally associated. Morocco for these towering American literary figures was a libertine frontier of sex and kif, empire and nostalgia, populated by people who were at best a backdrop, at worst sexual objects to exploit.

*

As the United Stated engaged more directly with real Muslims both in America itself, through immigration at the turn of the 20th century, and in the Middle East and elsewhere, through travel, Christian proselytizing, expatriate residence, diplomacy, and increasingly war, the earlier, often fantastical fears of Muslims and Islam persisted. Over the course of the last half century, one figure above all others has dominated these fears—the terrorist. The deaths of Americans in places such as Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan confirmed to many the menace of Islam, and, of course, the attacks of 9/11 brought this peril into the United States itself. These all-too-real instances of Muslims killing Americans have coursed new vitality into the centuries long notion of a Muslim threat to the United States. Now, in the early 21st century, an imaginary of what Muslims are thought to be—ruthless, violent, hate-driven—has overtaken any reality of what Muslims actually are in the United States—citizens, parents, voters, Americans. This contemporary fear and demonization come easily because they tap directly into a long history of the perceived threat of Islam in the Americas—which, as I have suggested, began at the first moment Europeans set foot on these continents.

This is not to discount the fact that Muslims have attacked America. They have. The indisputable reality, however, is that Muslims are not modern America’s primary domestic terrorists. That distinction belongs to white nationalists. Since 9/11, white nationalists—nearly all of whom are professed Christians—have accounted for more terrorist attacks than any other group in the United States. Yet, Muslims have received the greatest attention as potential domestic perpetrators of violence against Americans and, in turn, have been regular targets of both discriminatory legislation and hate crime in the United States.

19th-century Americans understood the western United States as an Edenic wilderness they had to redeem.

Irrational fantasies about a Muslim threat in the contemporary United States emerge in many ways. For example, between 2010 and 2018, forty-three states introduced 201 bills aimed at banning sharia law as a looming danger to the West. Of course, Selim’s post-1517 reform of sharia courts never entered these discussions. If it had, perhaps state legislators would have come to understand that the overwhelming majority of the resolutions in the millions of cases adjudicated in sharia courts over the centuries have had next to nothing to do with sharia law—either the real law itself or their caricature of it. Perhaps they would have learned that Islamic courts served Muslims and non-Muslims alike, and that Christians and Jews often preferred the Islamic court to their own. Taking a comparative perspective, they might have discerned that sharia courts in Selim’s day provided more rights to religious minorities, especially to women in the realm of family law, than did Christian courts in Europe. Needless to say, in such polemical conversations, historical reality is usually beside the point.

Examples of this sort abound. Again tapping deep into the fantastical vein of the rhetoric of Islam-as-threat in the United States, many on the American right assert that President Barack Obama is a Muslim (or, even worse, a crypto-Muslim), in a direct echo of the founders’ debate over whether a Muslim could ever be president. Far more than an echo, however, was the statement by Ben Carson—Republican candidate, one-time front-runner, and subsequently President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development—during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation. I absolutely would not agree with that.” With millions more Muslims living in the United States in the early 21st century than in the 18th century, the question of a Muslim president in 2016 was no longer a theoretical legal exercise but one that had enormous real-world consequences, as the post-election attempts at a Muslim travel ban made painfully clear.

After the 2016 election, one of the more extreme claims made about immigration over the United States’s southern border—through towns such as Matamoros—was that Muslims were part of the “invasion” of the United States. President Donald Trump tweeted an endorsement of a “border rancher” who claimed to have found “prayer rugs” on his property. The notion of Muslim terrorists—or, for that matter, throngs of Central American criminals and drug dealers—crossing into the United States from Mexico has been repeatedly refuted by fact, but, again, fantasy does not pay heed to fact. The imaginary moros of 1492 have become today’s imaginary border-crossing Muslim terrorists. We might do well to remember that in the last three decades, it is the United States that has invaded Muslim countries, not the other way around. As of 2020, America continues to battle the Muslim world in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere, with the Afghan conflict holding the dubious distinction of being the nation’s longest war. In these wars, Americans fly Apache and Kiowa helicopters over Muslim towns and cities and shoot Tomahawk missiles at their targets below. Black Hawk helicopters ferried the Navy SEALs in the nighttime raid dubbed Operation Geronimo that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. Thus for centuries now, the American psyche has drawn a durably resilient conceptual link between violence against Native Americans and the Muslim world.

Indeed, the idea that Islam is a deep existential threat to the Americas is one of the oldest cultural tropes in the New World. Its history is as long as the history of European colonialism and disease. It must, therefore, be a part of any understanding of the history of the Americas. After 1492, European colonialism, as we have seen, folded the Americas into the long history of European-Islamic relations. Seeing American history in this way allows us to give a more holistic accounting of the American past.

The history of the United States does not begin with Plymouth Rock and Thanksgiving. The first European foothold in what would become the continental United States was not Jamestown, but a Spanish Catholic outpost in Florida. The origins of the American people must obviously include the history of the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and the Americas, West Africans, and the Jewish and Catholic subjects of mainland European polities. This history must also include Muslims, both African slaves and Selim’s Ottomans, for Islam was the mold that cast the history of European racial and ethnic thinking in the Americas, as well as the history of warfare in the Western Hemisphere.

***

A leading historian of his generation, Alan Mikhail, professor of history and chair of the Department of History at Yale University, has reforged our understandings of the past through his previous three prize-winning books on the history of the Middle East. In writing God’s Shadow, he has drawn on Ottoman Turkish, modern Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, Italian, and French sources. He lives in New York and New Haven, Connecticut.

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