Review of Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.-Arab Relations: 1820-2001 by Ussama Makdisi Public Affairs

Ussama Makdisi’s Faith Misplaced: The Broken Promise of U.S.—Arab Relations: 1820-2001 provides critical insights into how the United States and the “Arab World” have encountered each other over the last two centuries, offering historicized answers to the question, “Why do they hate us?”  Makdisi seeks to contextualize contemporary American and Middle Eastern understandings of each other by exploring how these two peoples have interacted in the past.  Arguing that Americans have, with notable exceptions, held essentialized views of “Arabs,” refusing to admit the complexity of Middle Eastern society and culture, a fact that has had serious consequences for U.S.—Arab relations.  However, Makdisi examines the earliest instances of Arab-American contact in order to demonstrate that mutual understanding and the sharing of culture and ideas has occurred and is still possible.  Because of its pertinent subject matter, accessibility, scholarly foundation, and transnational focus, Faith Misplaced would make excellent additions to high school or undergraduate world history courses.

Makdisi’s Faith Misplaced (Public Affairs Press, 2010) in that it attempts to historicize U.S.-Arab relations—both positive and negative—in an attempt to critique the “clash of civilizations” thesis, which argues that conflict between the “West” and the “Muslim World” is inevitable and culturally grounded.  Makdisi accomplishes this not by simply studying the causes the of contemporary conflict, but by bringing to the fore “what has been lost in the relationship…and why.” (2)  Thus, Faith Misplaced’s concise narrative of American actions in the Middle East—and their subsequent interpretation by local inhabitants—providing a context through which Arab mistrust and ambivalence towards the United States is understandable.

The book begins with the arrival of American Evangelical missionaries to the Ottoman Empire in the early 19th century.  Initially confrontational and uncompromising in their proselytizing, these unwitting “ambassadors” of America served, Makdisi asserts, as the Arab World’s first impression of the United States.  At first inspiring intense, if only localized, resistance, Arab views of the missionaries gradually softened into respect and admiration as missionaries began downplaying religious difference, emphasizing their “Americanism,” and founding schools and universities.  According to Makdisi, this fostered a “non-ebullient, but positive image of America,” which resulted in new spaces of intellectual engagement and religious tolerance. (61)  Although Arabs sometimes balked under the often paternalistic and racist attitudes of missionaries, American-Arab interactions during this period were characterized by understanding, exchange, and optimism.

However, because of political encounters and ideological shifts within American society, this era of enthusiasm was short lived.  Foremost among these was the United States’ support of a Jewish state in Palestine, which “relied on a denial of the meaningful Arab presence in Palestine.” (169)  Makdisi examines this event from the perspective of Middle Eastern intellectuals and politicians to gain an understanding of how pro-Israeli American policies contributed to Arab pessimism concerning the United States’ presence in Middle East.  Faith Misplaced offers a similar analysis of other well-known political events in the Middle East, including the Suez Canal Crisis, Iran Hostage Situation, and the Gulf Wars.  However, in his conclusion, Makdisi ends the book on a faintly optimistic note, reminding the reader that because they are grounded in historical, rather than cultural, causes, current U.S.-Arab differences are reconcilable.

Faith Misplaced provides an excellent rebuttal to the “clash of civilizations” thesis and, while solidly based upon academic research—ranging from diary entries to political documents—and method, is accessible to the degree that it will retain students’ attention.  Further, Makdisi depicts the Arab inhabitants of the Middle East as sympathetic, complex, and agency-laden characters by humanizing Palestinians and giving voice to important, but largely overlooked minority groups—most notably Arab Christians.  This point is useful for engaging students about stereotypes of Arabs Vis-à-vis complex ethnic and cultural milieu of the Middle East.

In all, this study is invaluable to educators wishing to explore the contours of American imperialism in the Middle East.  Makdisi contextualizes Arab attitudes towards the United States by giving a balanced, but unflinching, account of American actions in the Arab world.  Doubtlessly its content will be new and interesting to students as it challenges their preconceived notions about the United States as a benign international force and the Middle East as a region in which the exercising of American power is justifiable.  This illuminating, timely transnational history has thesis that is of obvious and immediate value to our current geopolitical understanding, as well as our world history course syllabi.

Reviewed by Joshua A. Sooter, Northeastern University
Edited by Jodi R.B. Eastberg

(c) The Middle Ground Journal, Number 3, Fall 2011. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]