Lecture on the History and Origins of American Islamicism
|Professor Timothy Marr
Timothy Marr, a professor of American Studies at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill and holder of a PhD from Yale University, gave
a lecture on May 22 in West Hall about the thorny issue of islamicism
in America. Hosted by the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saoud
Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR), Marr's talk, accompanied
by slides, was entitled "The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism."
Marr argued that, rather than promote a better understanding of the religion
of Islam or the interests of Muslims themselves, Americans have consistently
mainstreamed orientalist images into domestic service as "a means
to globalize the authority of the cultural power of the United States."
He thus defined islamicism as a form of orientalism that consequently
precludes a critical analysis of the diversity of Muslim peoples, the
contingency of their cultures, and the complexities of their beliefs.
Marr then discussed the differences between two main kinds of islamicism:
the romantic and the comparative. Drawing upon a panoply of stereotyped
images, he showed how romantic islamicism painted Islamic lands in the
American imagination as one of the world's most nefariously exotic places,
populated by supposedly sensual and indulgent peoples, whose dissipation
stood in stark contrast to the self-proclaimed virtue of the emerging
American national identity. On the other hand, comparative islamicism,
which started taking root with the decay of the Ottoman Empire, proved
that Muslim societies, though politically weak, had been more successful
in preventing many of the critical social problems American society was
suffering from, problems like xenophobia, drunkenness, exploitation, and
sectarianism. Marr cited honesty, hospitality, kindness to animals, temperance,
sanctimonious cleanliness, and respect for the dead as aspects of Muslim
and Turkish cultural behavior that first astonished Americans. He emphasized
that as a result of comparative islamicism, Muslim and Turkish virtue
became "an effective rhetorical means of highlighting the depths
of American vice."
However, even comparative islamicism could not deter the traditional American
view of the East, said Marr. He pointed out that even the worst vice in
America's history, slavery, was still in practice in the States at the
time it was outlawed by the Ottoman Empire in 1847. Marr concluded that
a fuller understanding of the history and origins of American islamicism
and its "complex, diverse, and abiding patterns of transcultural
appropriation" is needed to provide the necessary perspective on
contemporary dispositions toward Islam, which many Americans still view
as the antithesis of their own beliefs and culture.