H-Diplo Review Essay 363- "Civilizational Imperatives: Americans, Moros, and the Colonial World"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 363

6 August 2021

Oliver Charbonneau.  Civilizational Imperatives: Americans, Moros, and the Colonial World.  Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2020.  ISBN:  9781501750724 (hardcover, $45.00).

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Tessa Ong Winkelmann, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Oliver Charbonneau’s Civilizational Imperatives: Americans, Moros, and the Colonial World covers new ground in scholarship on the U.S. occupied Philippines, focusing specifically on the predominantly Muslim southern Mindanao and Sulu islands.[1] Many contemporary works on U.S. empire in the Philippines neglect the history of the south, and its population, which constitutes the largest non-Christian minority group in the nation.[2] As Charbonneau asserts, however, the history of the U.S. and the Southern Philippines was not bound by delimiting national/imperial boundaries and borders, but rather spanned the larger transimperial world of multiple competing and collaborating empires. Indeed, one of the most compelling facets of this work is how Charbonneau draws the larger Islamic world in particular into this colonial history of the U.S. in Southeast Asia.

Civilizational Imperatives explores how American colonialists attempted to “remake” (8) the southern Philippines and its people using a variety of methods and most often informed by white supremacist notions of Islam and the wider Muslim world.  Americans sought imperial control over Mindanao and the Sulu Islands, and utilized a vast network of transimperial connections, from observing British, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Ottoman methods of reforming Muslims.  These transimperial linkages, Charbonneau argues, were central to the American transformative approach to the “Moro problem” in the Philippines.  But the American “transformative vision of colonial rule” (8) was not just about transforming Muslims and the Southern islands into civilized colonial subjects and spaces, but also about shoring up the idea of an exceptional U.S. empire that could rule and shape its possessions in different and “better” ways than other empires.

After a brief introduction that outlines to the contours of Moro history and the imperial forces that played a role in that history, the book begins by describing how Americans understood the Moro inhabitants of the Philippines upon first reaching its shores.  Ideas about the Moro south and its inhabitants, he shows, were very much constructed from popular culture, Spanish Imperial writings, American experiences with U.S. frontier expansion, and limited imperialist notions of Islam, to name a few.  Chapters two and three shift to the practice of empire, showcasing how the American construction of Moros informed colonial state-building plans and processes.  Colonialists struggled to erect legal systems, schools, settlement schemes, and market economies in a world where authority was contested and little real understanding of Moros and Islam existed.  Chapter four highlights the American preoccupation with “corrective violence,” as a method of control in the southern region (94).  Punitive violence and warfare, many imperialists believed, was the only language that an irrationally violent people like the Moros understood.  Chapter five looks at the politics and infrastructure of segregation that colonists erected around themselves in Mindanao-Sulu, while chapter six highlights transnational flows in the direction of Mindanao-Sulu to the U.S. rather than vice versa.  Moros came to the U.S. not just figuratively on the pages and stages of empire, but also as students and visiting dignitaries.  Last, chapter seven demonstrates the ties that both Americans and Moros fostered with the wider Muslim world outside the colony in order to serve their own desires.  The book ends with a brief consideration of the imprint left on Mindanao and the Sulu Islands in the wake of the U.S. colonization, and how eventual independence and nationhood did little to shift either local Philippine perceptions of the south or how the independent government administered to the region.

The standout chapter four is especially compelling in highlighting the connections between the decades of colonial occupation and contemporary western understandings of Islam.  These days, Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago appear in U.S. intelligence reports as “the second front” in the war on terror.[3] This chapter delves into the long history of how palliative violence became the de facto method of western interaction with the Arab/Muslim world.  Charbonneau shows how colonial officials understood juramentado, the ritual suicide that often embodied individual acts of resistance (particularly to U.S. rule in this time-period) and how American perceptions of supposedly maniacal Muslim violence led the colonial state to rely heavily on “routinized state violence” in the south as a method of transformation, discipline, and communication with the Moro peoples (204).  This imperial perception of Moros as martial peoples is one that continues to shape U.S. and western relations with the broader Muslim world. 

Chapter six offers an excellent look at the transimperial tissue that connected the imperial world, and how U.S. and Moro actions in the Philippines were never completely removed from that world.  From Moro pilgrimages to Mecca and the resultant problems that such journeys posed to U.S. attempts to temper and eradicate the influence of Islam in the south to American visitations to the European colonial possessions in northern Africa, Charbonneau’s deft work illustrates how colonized and colonizer operated within a literal ocean world of empires that constantly touched, overlapped, and shaped each another’s outcomes.  Inquiry into the transimperial is a relatively new method, most recently popularized in the Hoganson and Sexton edited volume, Crossing Empires.[4]  Charbonneau’s transimperial analysis is at its best when describing the both the American and Moro interaction with the Ottoman empire.  American imperialists with designs on the southern Philippines sought the approval of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed V for their Philippine empire, for example, to strengthen their authority in the southern region.  This example also highlights how some colonialists believed that Islam wasn’t necessarily an insurmountable obstacle to imperial transformation if it could be utilized as tool for state building.  Moro inhabitants too sought to foster ties with the Ottoman empire, seeking protection and aid from the Sultan, or using pilgrimages to Mecca to strengthen their standing within their local communities in Minadanao and Sulu.

Though Charbonneau’s work is in many ways pathbreaking in its treatment of the transimperial southern Philippines, it is odd that with the book’s transimperial emphasis that neither Philippine archives nor non-English language sources were consulted.  This is one of the difficulties of doing transnational and transimperial research, where often times the demand to do research in multiple languages and in multiple locations is often outside the scope of the training that many Americanist historians receive.  I don’t think that doing this type of research would have shaken the major foundations of Charbonneau’s arguments, as the book is, at its heart, about U.S. imperial agents and how they wielded power.  On the other hand, looking at Philippine archives and documents in Filipino, Arabic, or Tausug would have given a deeper sense of Moro desires, perspectives, and understandings of the imperial world around them, and would have helped present a more balanced history rather than one mostly from the perspective of the colonizing power.  I also believe that Civilizational Imperatives would have benefited from consulting some works outside the discipline of history.  Interdiscipinary and Ethnic Studies works like Lucy Burn’s Puro Arte and Victor Mendoza’s Metroimperial Intimacies, for example, are very conversant in the subject matter Charbonneau covers in chapter one and six in particular, as they home in on cultural productions and literature.[5] The exploration in chapter six of George Ade’s Broadway play, The Sultan of Sulu, for example, would have benefitted from the nuanced gender and sexuality framework applied by Mendoza in his understanding and deconstruction of the play.[6]

Taken together, Civilizational Imperatives is a much-needed work that contributes to the fields of U.S. empire, U.S. foreign relations, Southeast Asian Studies, and religious studies.  The attention to the transimperial is long awaited, and anyone interested in the longer genealogical history of U.S.-Muslim relations and the “war on terror” should read this book.


Tessa Ong Winkelmann is an assistant professor of U.S. history and an affiliated faculty member of the Asian and Asian American Studies program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.  She received her B.A. at the University of California, Irvine, her M.A. in Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, and her Ph.D. in History at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (2015).  Her research interests are in the fields of U.S. in the world, empires and imperialism, ethnic studies, and gender and sexuality studies.  Her first book, Dangerous Intercourse: Gender and Interracial Relations in the American Colonial Philippines, 1898 – 1946, is forthcoming from Cornell University Press.  This project utilizes a transnational approach to examine a wide range of interracial sexual relationships -from the casual and economic to the formal and long term- between Americans and Filipinos in the overseas colony from 1898 to formal independence in 1946.  At UNLV she teaches courses on U.S. Foreign Relations, Asian American History, and Women and Gender in a global perspective.


[1] The most comprehensive works on the Southern Philippine include, Patricio Abinales, Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation-State (Quezon City: Ateneo De Manila University Press, 2001); Cesar Adib Majul, Muslims in the Philippines (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1971); Samuel K Tan, The Filipino Muslim Armed Struggle, 1900-1972 (Manila: Filipinas Foundation Inc., 1977).  The recent work of Michael Hawkins, Making Moros: Imperial Historicism and American Military Rule in the Philippines' Muslim South (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2013), is one to focus more on U.S.- Moro history.

[2] Many of the most well cited books on the U.S. in the Philippines only marginally focus on the Southern Philippines.  See for example, the works of Alfred McCoy, Cathy Choy, Paul Kramer, Kristin Hoganson, and Luis Francia.

[3] Patricio Abinales, “The Other Americans in the ‘Second Front in the War on Terror’: The Politics of USAID in the Southern Philippines,” 11 May 2011, Wilson Center, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/event/the-other-americans-the-second-front-the-war-terror-the-politics-usaid-the-southern.

[4] Kristin Hoganson and Jay Sexton, eds., Crossing Empires: Taking U.S. History into Transimperial Terrain (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020).

[5] Victor Román Mendoza, Metroimperial Intimacies: Fantasy, Racial-Sexual Governance, and the Philippines in U.S. Imperialism, 1899-1913 (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2015); Lucy Mae San Pablo Burns, Puro Arte: Filipinos on the Stages of Empire (New York: New York University Press, 2013).

[6] For more interdisciplinary works that look at American imaginings of Mindanao and Moros, see Jose B. Capino, Dream Factories of a Former Colony: American Fantasies, Philippine Cinema (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Allan Punzalan Isaac, American Tropics: Articulating Filipino America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006).