Power, Faith, and Fantasy
Michael B. Oren’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present describes American involvement in the Middle East that began at the time of the American Revolution. In his narrative, the author discusses the individuals and events that populate his historical canvas by interweaving the three themes of power, faith, and fantasy. The power is political, economic, and military, ranging from the wars waged against the pirates of Barbary in the early national era to the war against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003. Faith pertains to Christianity. In the nineteenth century, many Protestants journeyed to the Middle East with the hope of converting the region’s Muslim majority to Christianity. Few were converted, but the missionaries established schools and hospitals that had a lasting impact. More recently, with the emergence of Zionism and the later Nazi Holocaust, Palestine became the focus of many Jews. Last, the Middle East, with its religious roots, foreign cultures, and exotic landscapes, has proved to be an addictive fantasy for many Americans over the past two centuries.
Power, Faith, and Fantasy begins with John Ledyard, a New Hampshire frontiersman turned sailor who, after attempting to walk across all of Eurasia, journeyed to the Middle East in 1788, the first American to experience that region. He was not impressed with Egyptian society, then under Ottoman rule, nor even the Nile River, among whose sand dunes he died and was buried. The U.S. government’s earliest encounters were occasioned by North Africa’s Barbary pirates. Here, the concern was power, explicitly economic power and the right to trade. With no navy to protect the infant republic’s merchant shipping, Americans were captured and held for ransom. Diplomacy and bribery were initially tried, with little effect. It was only in 1815 that the Barbary threat was eliminated after President James Madison sent warships against the pirates, but it was not the final end of North African seizure of Americans for ransom. In 1904, Ion Perdicaris, a businessman in Tangier and supposedly an American citizen, was taken hostage by a Berber chief, Mulai Ahmed el Raisuli. President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous response was terse: “We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.” Neighboring Morocco paid the ransom and Perdicaris was freed. The incident was later immortalized in the 1975 film The Wind and the Lion, and in typical Hollywood fashion history became fantasy, with the middle-aged Perdicaris played by Candice Bergen and Raisuli played by Sean Connery, a Scot.
While early nineteenth century presidents were creating a standing navy to confront the Barbary states, other Americans were discovering the Middle East as a place of fantasy and faith, where the women were lustful, the men brave warriors, and society corrupted by the false religion of Islam, a vision that resulted from the combined influence of the Bible and One Thousand and One Nights. Washington Irving’s A Chronicle of the Conquest of Granada (1829) and The Alhambra (1832) presented a romanticized view of Spain under the Islamic Moors. After the Civil War, notable Americans, including Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain, discovered the region as tourists. One by-product of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East was Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi’s iconic Statue of Liberty, originally intended to be placed adjacent to the Suez Canal and titled “Egypt Bringing Light to Asia.” Because the bankrupt Egyptian government had no money for statues, it ended up in New York harbor. The Middle East as fantasy also occurred at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which included an Algerian Village, a Turkish Pavilion, a Moorish Palace, a Cairo Street, and the popular if controversial belly dancer Little Egypt. In the silent film The Sheik (1921), Rudolph Valentino’s role as the title character sent female American hearts aflutter. Later, a more historical but still romanticized view of the Middle East was presented in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole, which was based in part on the early reporting of Lowell Thomas, an American journalist.
With American missionaries, faith was often tinged with fantasy, including the belief that the Muslim Middle East could be converted to Christianity. Nevertheless, the Protestant missionaries were at the forefront of American involvement in the region during most of the nineteenth century. The religious aim of converting Muslims as well as Jews and even Orthodox and Maronite Christians to Protestant Christianity was merged with the belief of America as a “city on a hill” with the obligation to create a new model of society for the world. For many Americans, one hope was to restore to the Jews...
(The entire section is 1963 words.)