Recent events in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and across the geo-cultural region we call the “Muslim World” has the high potential to reinforce two limited, over-simplified world views:
- A Binary Us-Them Mentality
- A totalizing “Othering” of a group
Performing a simple search of recent headlines uncovers dramatic labels “Mayhem in the Middle East”, “Islamic Anger”, and, of course, Newsweek’s ridiculous cover – “Muslim Rage” – which yielded an abundance of retorts (i.e. Salon and The International Business Times).
Fortunately, addressing these can be done in classrooms on a daily basis. In fact, addressing both of these cosmologies, I argue, is essential for any high school program that embraces paradigms of 21stcentury education and/or global awareness. However, despite these “en vogue” educational monikers, there is no guarantee that social constructs regarding “identity” and “culture” are addressed with sufficient depth and rigor. Doing so would empower students to engage media coverage. Doing so would be an indicator that contemporary education takes serious the claim “college and career readiness.”
In a recent blog post Daniel Martin Varisco, professor of anthropology at Hofstra University, addresses the constructed “Muslim” problem: “There is a problem with labeling here. Just because the protesters are “Muslim” in principle does not mean they represent the vast majority of Muslims in these countries. A very small minority is taking advantage of an out-of-control situation to power play.”
I have found these three instructional approaches to be effective, engaging starting points for students to understand world views and reflect on their own:
- Defining “Social Construct” – I contend this is a key term missing from every curriculum and program standards I have seen.
- Emphasize complexity by refusing binary explanations and either/or options. (This includes how we teach the Cold War, for example.)
- Define “Culture” as a fluid, changing, complex set of meanings that are created and not as a natural, essentialized package of actions and beliefs.
So, back to the Muslim World, what opportunities do teachers of US History surveys have to promote complexity and variety this early in the school year. Across the board, US History textbooks don’t mention US-Muslim relationships as part of the early American curriculum – instead focusing on US relations with UK, France, and Native Americans. Typically, US relations with the Muslim world is framed as a 20th century phenomenon manifesting from the achieved “super power” status that put the US in the backyards of nations worldwide.
Likewise, teachers may not be aware of the growing scholarship in this field. Below, I offer 5 events/ideas/people that highlight US-Muslim encounters between 1776-1830. Check to see if your textbooks include these items and leave a comment with the book title and publisher so we can applaud their globalizing efforts.
a) American Independence: In 1777, Morocco became the first country whose head of state, Sultan Muhammad III, publicly recognized the new, independent United States of America. A decade later, Thomas Barclay, the American consul in France, arrived in Morocco in 1786 and negotiated the “Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship”. The agreement was signed later that year in Europe by John Adams and Thomas Jefferson and ratified by Congress in July 1787. Thomas Ogot, in General History of Africa, concludes that the treaty “has withstood transatlantic stresses and strains for more than 220 years, making it the keystone of the longest unbroken treaty relationship in United States history.”
b) 1796 US Treaty with Tripoli: An obscure treaty that addressed US naval and trade relations across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean. Article 11, below, is an interesting statement to research and discuss: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
c)Muslim Slaves: Gordon Wood in his 2009 work Empire of Liberty states “He (George Washington) expressed toleration for all religions, including the religion of Muslims and Jews… there were not many Muslims in America a the time of Washington’s inauguration – perhaps only a small community of Moroccans in Charleston, SC.” A report by the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI writes: According to some estimates, between the 1600s and the mid-1800s, 30% of African American slaves were Muslim and many spoke Arabic.
d) The Tripolitan War: The young American navy fought the Ottoman Empire’s outlying regions Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis. But the American Marines who landed on “the shores of Tripoli” also allied themselves with Muslim factions that opposed the ruling class and leadership. Historian Max Boot, displaying great historical relativism, writes: “It is tempting to compare the Barbary States to modern Islamist states that preach jihad…it is a temptation best resisted. The rulers of the Ottoman Empire and its North Africa tributaries were not particularly xenophobic nor especially fundamentalist… they were uncommonly cosmopolitan and tolerant… offering more protection than did many European states to flourishing Jewish communities.” The Savage Wars of Peace
e) King Andrew’s Foreign Policy: Known for his Indian Removal, rugged individual democracy, and broadening Presidential power, US History survey courses routinely overlook Jackson’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment. His 1830 treaty with the Ottoman Empire elevated American prestige in the eyes of the Turks to the level held by Europe. The Treaty of Navigation and Commerce allowed the US to trade in the Black Sea, deal arms to the Ottoman Empire, sell Lowell, MA cotton in Damascus, and led to profitable trade on the Arabian Peninsula. An American port in Istanbul constructed the world’s largest battleship at the time, the 934 ton Mahmud. Overall, the treaty is considered to be a major turning point in American global power and influence.
Complicating accepted framework regarding US – Muslim relations, or any accepted categories of thought, is a powerful enterprise. This can be accomplished in the most unlikely of places, the history of early American Republic. I hope this listing helps and if all else fails, read Orientalism , Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present.