Prof. Peter Gottschalk

Imperial Enmity and Tolerance: English-language newspapers’ depictions of Muslims during the British Empire

January – March 2022

Research Description:

Not uncommonly, the news reporting in the Anglophone press in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries relied upon well-tested tropes of Muslim indulgence and oppression, helping to perpetuate popular images of Muslims.  A continuous interface existed among Anglophone newspapers that coalesced into a global and globalizing network resulting directly from (and often supportive of) the operations of the British empire.  Not only did news businesses and imperial rule support one another in times of crisis, but their editors routinely read one another’s papers and borrowed reporting—if not whole articles—for their own pages.  Although some of their colleagues forcefully asserted their independence from British governmental control, other editors publicly stated their support for imperial policy.

From the nineteenth century to today, non-Muslim English-language newspapers often have depicted Muslims to negatively project ideal moral orders.  Then again, at times some newspapers referenced Muslims as part of their argument for challenging existing norms and establishing a social order defined by religious tolerance and/or a moral order embracing inclusion of the most marginalized.  Paradoxically, editors and journalists might reference Muslims and their religious practices as either a threat to or protected by secular norms they sought to validate and valorize.

The current project investigates how, through a global newspaper network, the British empire served as a vector for ideas and emotions promoting Islamophobia, anti-Muslim sentiment, and religious tolerance.  Using Anglophone newspapers published in India, Britain, and the United States in the periods 1810-1819, 1870-1879, and 1920-1929, the research will examine both the imaginaries and the emotions perpetuated through reporting.  Most importantly, it will consider how these helped constitute, reinforce, and challenge normative regimes of social belonging and religious commitment.  News reporting often reinforced the marginalization of Muslims though, at times, journalism also served to prompt societies to be more tolerant if not inclusive of them and their religious traditions.  Newspapers became particularly influential due to a range of global political (e.g., imperial treaties and outposts), technological (e.g., steamships), and infrastructural (e.g., telegraph stations) developments.  These mutually reinforcing elements of British imperialism facilitated the coalescence of a globalized Anglophone news network that reciprocally facilitated the empire’s globalizing political and anthropological visions.



Peter Gottschalk is Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University (Connecticut, USA). His research concentrates on the dynamics of cultural interpretation at the intersections of Muslim, Hindu, Christian, secular, and scientific traditions. He is interested particularly in how sentiment and thought (especially comparison and categorization) intersect to create fluctuating conditions of religious tension and confluence. Besides exploring these themes through two books on the United States, he has done so in South Asia—with a focus on Bihar—in Religion, Science, and Empire: Classifying Hindus and Muslims in British India (2012) and Beyond Hindu and Muslim: Multiple Identity in Narratives from Village India (2000).

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