Most analyses of terrorism and Islam over the past two years have stressed the thirteen-hundred-year conflict with Christianity and the West. The United States is definitely part of the West, but its own encounter with Islam is substantially different from the European experience since the early Middle Ages. Aside from the conflict with the Barbary Pirates, the United States engaged in no wars—certainly no religious wars—with Muslim powers per se. Moreover, the United States never governed Muslim societies or established colonies in the Middle East. On the contrary, Muslim societies welcomed an American presence in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, to counter the influence of European empires ruled by Britain and France. America projected a glamorous, modern image that was far more attractive than that of either postcolonial Europe or the Soviet Union.
And yet Islamic hostility today is directed primarily at the United States. Why? And what can be done about it? FPRI’s History Academy held an institute for teachers from around the nation on this and other questions in May 2003, to help teachers, who must address the subject in the classroom, understand both the American experience with Islam and its broader context in the encounters between Islamic and Western societies.
In addition, an understanding of America’s encounter with Islam sheds light on important aspects of the United States’ global role since the late nineteenth century. Involvement overseas in the twentieth century developed new political, economic, and cultural relationships that came to define ties between the United States and Islamic societies. The story of these contacts is a part of twentieth-century international history that is often overlooked. And the reemergence of cultural politics since the end of the Cold War sparked a major debate over civilizational conflict. Does America’s encounter with Islam fit in the “clash of civilizations” posited by Samuel Huntington? Beyond the immediate relationship between Western and Islamic cultures, the question has major implications for the philosophical debate over the nature of the West itself.
It is a pleasure to present here three articles based on lectures given at the Institute, by Edward Peters, Jeremy Black, and John Calvert. (Other Institute speakers included Philip Jenkins, professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University, whose presentation, “Islam and America,” has been published as an FPRI E-Note, at www.fpri.org; and Adam Garfinkle, whose “Middle Eastern Notes and Anticipations” was published in Orbis in Spring 2003.)