The Disputed Story behind the Statue of Liberty’s Muslim Heritage

  • Photo by Diane Main, via Flickr.

“The Statue of Liberty was born a Muslim!” yelled activist Linda Sarsour, at a rally in New York City on Sunday, January 29th. The statement sent murmurs through the crowd of over 10,000 people who’d gathered in Battery Park, within view of the the statue, to protest Donald Trump’s executive order restricting entry to the United States for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries. But was there any truth to it?

There’s little doubt that the Statue of Liberty, the first sign of the promised land for the 12 million immigrants who came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954, has become a worldwide symbol of freedom and democracy. It’s no coincidence then that since its inception, it’s been a site and a symbol for protest.

In 1886, for example, suffragettes organized a rally around the statue’s dedication ceremony, which excluded women; and in 1960, there would be a Civil Rights rally there. During Beijing’s Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Chinese dissidents wielded their own version of Lady Liberty to drive home their bid for free speech, among other basic rights. And over the past month, at women’s marches and immigration-rights rallies across the U.S. and beyond, images of the legendary statue have shown up on protest signs and banners. Online, too, she’s featured frequently, in countless memes and social media posts. This ubiquity begs the question: How did the Statue of Liberty become an international symbol of freedom? And why did her maker, the French sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, settle on a robed, crown-sporting woman to communicate this message?

  • Watercolor of Bartholdi’s proposed statue for the Suez Canal. Courtesy Musée Bartholdi, Colmar, France.

“From the very moment she was first conceived, she was meant to signify liberty,” explains National Parks Service ranger Danelle Simonelli, who has been sharing the history of the Statue of Liberty with visitors for over a decade. The statue’s origins trace back to the mid-1860s, when Bartholdi, a young French sculptor, began to develop an idea for a colossal sculpture—one that would rival the scale of the stone sphinxes he’d seen on recent a trip to Egypt.

After meeting Egypt’s then-khedive, Isma’il Pasha, and his director of antiquities, former Louvre curator Auguste Mariette, Bartholdi decided to propose a new monument for Egypt: A towering, veiled, robed female fellah (or slave), based on a painting he’d seen in Egypt’s presentation at the 1867 Universal Exposition. In his vision, described in depth in Elizabeth Mitchell’s book Liberty’s Torch (2014), she was intended to rise, unshackled, above the country’s new Suez Canal and hold a glowing torch to announce Pasha as the emancipator of slaves and his kingdom as a place of freedom. These were bold ideas that the khedive was eager to advertise, despite the fact that he never completely eradicated slavery from Egypt during his reign.

In the end, the khedive didn’t bite, but Bartholdi’s dream to forge a mighty emblem of democracy wasn’t stifled. Another opportunity had come out of a dinner party near Versailles, with a group of angry intellectuals ready to fight the increasingly tyrannical regime of Napoleon III. Together, they began to conceive of a gift to the U.S., to coincide with the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, that would honor its democratic rule and recent abolition of slavery. It would also serve as a not-so-subtle send-up to their own authoritarian government.

  • Left: Liberty’s face on Liberty Island, waiting to be attached to Statue. Right: The statue scaffolding in Paris, about halfway completed.

Bartholdi’s initial sketches for the monument that would become the Statue of Liberty bear striking resemblance to his drawings for the Suez Canal sculpture—the final product does, too. And indeed, when the young artist presented his idea to the Egyptian khedive, he described a freed Egyptian female slave. At the time, the country’s population was primarily Muslim, so the veiled Egyptian woman that Bartholdi envisioned has been assumed to symbolize the same religion.

But when Bartholdi presented his vision to the United States, he took a different tack, describing the robed woman as Libertas. “She was the goddess of free slaves in Ancient Rome, and a more universally understood symbol of freedom,” Simonelli explains. “And freedom was a concept the U.S. was very proud of in that moment. They had survived a civil war that could have torn the country apart, but had come out of this trauma with more liberty than they’d had before with abolition.” After much fundraising, the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1886.

Lady Liberty’s stance, mid-step, “has been interpreted to indicate that liberty can’t stand still—she has to keep moving, be dynamic, and change with the times,” Simonelli explains. “Over time, you have to come up with new laws and new ways of preserving and expanding liberty.” As the rallies supporting the freedoms of Americans spread across the country, this notion—and the many facets of freedom that the monument has stood for since its inception—find new urgency.


—Alexxa Gotthardt

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