Is the War on Terror really a war against Islam? After 9/11, this was a charge leveled regularly at the policies of President George W. Bush, who found numerous creative ways of denying it. “Ours is not a campaign against the Muslim faith,” he insisted while the ruins of the World Trade Center still smoldered. “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.” With visits to mosques and dutiful Eid messages, Bush insisted that the 9/11 attackers were “traitors to their own faith” who had tried “to hijack Islam itself.” It didn’t help the president’s cause that so many conservative commentators fudged the distinction between what Bush called “true Islam” and what others described as “fascism with an Islamic face,” as Christopher Hitchens wrote in this magazine in 2001.
Even before the recent attacks in Paris, there was no shortage of support in Europe for the view that Islam is at war with modernity and Western values. “To hell with their culture,” Richard Dawkins declared on Bill Maher’s Real Time last October, raging that Islam’s putative barbarities—“a woman who’s forced to wear a beekeeper suit in the hot sun,” Maher offered—are given a free pass by the so-called Jurassic left. The United States has remained fertile ground for Islamophobia. While Barack Obama’s reliance on drones rather than occupying armies has put a new face on US imperium in the Middle East, conservative commentators have presented the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a vindication of their warnings about jihadist expansionism. According to a YouGov/Huffington Post poll this past spring, 55 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of Islam, a statistic that may explain Donald Trump’s campaign pledge to ban Muslims from entering the United States. As for the president, his willingness to assassinate “Islamists” from Afghanistan to Somalia seems not to have persuaded the far right of his loyalties. Does anyone believe that Ben Carson’s extraordinary remarks on Meet the Press last September—“I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation”—were unconnected to the persistent attempts of the “birthers” and their allies to uncover the true loyalties of Barack Hussein Obama?
Those who remember the final years of the Cold War—or even, say, the Clinton presidency—will know that there was a time in American history when “radical Islam” appeared some way down the news agenda, if it entered popular consciousness at all. In the aftermath of 9/11, journalists and scholars reminded us of American support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan and the long relationship between the US government and the ultraconservative rulers of Saudi Arabia. In American Apostles, Christine Leigh Heyrman aims to recover a much earlier episode in this story: as the subtitle puts it, the moment “when evangelicals entered the world of Islam.” She follows a series of US missionaries who, in the early 19th century, abandoned the boosterism of the American Republic for the alien and baffling landscapes of the Middle East. Seeking souls in the broad expanse of the Ottoman Empire, skipping from Anatolia to Cairo to Jerusalem, these men married an intense study of Islam with a fervent hope that the peoples of the region could be brought to Christ. Heyrman carefully explains how these crusaders became fascinated by the potential of their mission, but the book’s most thrilling sections recount their struggles when things didn’t turn out as they’d imagined.