This is an article by Eric Wojciechowski. It appears in the current issue of American Atheist magazine. American Atheist magazine is available at Barnes & Noble and Book World bookstores in the U.S. and at Chapters/Indigo bookstores in Canada. Go to Atheists.org to subscribe or to join American Atheists. Members receive free digital subscription. It’s also available from iTunes.
On September 11, 2001, the United States was given a taste of what Europe and the Middle East has been suffering, in one form or another, for the past thousand years: the unbending wrath of religious extremists. Religious conflict is what drove settlers to New World in the first place, and up until 9/11, America managed to leave the overseas religious disputes and violence behind. The U.S. does have its own soiled background of anti-Catholicism during the influx of Irish immigrants in the 1800s, as well as a history of less-than-welcoming attitudes toward Jewish newcomers. More recently, the assassinations and clinic-bombings committed by anti-abortion activists have been carried out in the name of religious extremism. But otherwise, America’s pre-9/11 mindset has been that religious violence generally happened “over there.” So when planes piloted by hijackers with a seventh-century ideology came crashing into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the world got a little smaller and America entered into the conflict that today shows no signs of stopping.
This contemporary conflict is actually the second time that the United States has been troubled by terrorism justified by the tenets of Islam. For decades before its founding, as well as for some years after, the United States was plagued with the same enemy it faces today, and the first leader to take the necessary steps to try and end it once and for all was Thomas Jefferson.
Before the British Colonies became the United States, colonial merchant vessels were protected from pirates by British and French ships. But after winning its independence, the U.S. was on its own. America’s first loss to Islamic terrorism came in 1784, when Muslim pirates from North Africa seized the Betsey in Mediterranean waters. It was a practice that had been going on against European vessels since the sixteenth century. As coincidence would have it, 1784 was also the year that Thomas Jefferson took up his position as Minister of France, settled into his new European home, and began to negotiate a deal to stop these seizures.
The European solution to North African piracy was to pay a tribute to the sovereign of the Barbary (present-day Morocco, Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia). In return, they’d leave Europe’s shipping trade alone. But it was up to each country to settle its own treaties and payments, and if a country fell behind on a payment, it risked losing its ships to seizure. With no financial power to pay the tributes demanded by the Barbary, the Unites States found itself helpless. The only alternative was to wage war, but the young country didn’t have a navy yet.
In 1785, Jefferson met up with John Adams (the first U.S. ambassador to Britain) in England and was introduced to Abd al-Rahman, the ambassador of Tripoli. It was first of only two times that Jefferson was knowingly in the company of a Muslim. Jefferson and Adams took the occasion to ask on what grounds Tripoli was seizing American merchant ships. In a letter to Secretary of Foreign Affairs John Jay, Jefferson and Adams explained, “the Ambassador answered us, that it was founded on the law of their great Profet: that it was written in the Koran, that all Nations who should not have acknowledged their Authority were sinners: that it was their right & duty to make war upon them whenever they could be found, & to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners; & that every Mussalman [Muslim] who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Jefferson attempted to create a coalition of tribute-paying European countries who would each contribute one or more war ships and jointly patrol the Mediterranean for Barbary pirates. Sometime before July 4, 1786, Jefferson drafted the Proposed Convention against the Barbary States to arrange the matter. It would be the first formal attempt at what is today advocated by Atheist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. In a 2010 Wall Street Journal commentary, Hirsi Ali called for the media “to do stories of Muhammad where his image is shown as much as possible. These stories do not have to be negative or insulting, they just need to spread the risk. The aim is to confront hypersensitive Muslims with more targets than they can possibly contend with.” Jefferson’s proposal to spread the risk was met with a lack of interest from both the American Congress and European nations. As a result, America continued to lose ships to Barbary piracy for several more years.
It wasn’t until Jefferson became president that the U.S. ceased paying tribute and quietly launched the newly formed American navy to combat, particularly, the aggression from Tripoli. Thus began the first Barbary War in 1801, which ended in 1805 with a treaty that put a stop to the tributes and cleared the Mediterranean for the safe passage of American merchant ships. (In 1807, Algiers started taking American ships again, and it took until 1815 for America to address it militarily. This second Barbary War lasted two days and finally put an end to piracy from North Africa.)
Yet despite being told by the Ambassador of Tripoli in 1785 that all of it was justified by the tenets of Islam, Jefferson didn’t take him at his word. Jefferson felt the real reason was just good old-fashioned economics and geopolitics. In Jefferson’s autobiography, he simply referred to them as “lawless pirates,” not Muslims obeying their holy book. Whether Jefferson was right or wrong, the ambassador said their piracy was justified by divine will, and there’s no reason not to take the ambassador at his word.
Jefferson was the only founding father to take an active interest in Islam. He purchased his own copy of the Koran long before America’s encounters with the Barbary. His copy of George Sale’s English translation of the Koran was shipped from London in 1765 and can be viewed today at the Library of Congress. There is some speculation that this is a second copy because Jefferson possibly lost his first copy in the May 26, 1771, fire at his mother’s home. The Koran in the Library of Congress contains no written notes or comments by Jefferson (possibly because it’s a second copy), and his initials are his only inscription, although they appear curiously close to some verses regarding warfare.
Jefferson wrote no essays or letters on Islam, and he did not do to the Koran what he did to the New Testament, which was to literally cut out all the miracles and hocus-pocus parts. His re-write of the New Testament, commonly called the Jefferson Bible, was completed around 1819 and is currently held at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. Considering his in-depth interest in religion, his near silence on Islam is interesting. This does not mean he had no opinion of Islam. According to Denise A. Spellberg, author of Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founding Fathers, Jefferson “did subscribe to the anti-Islamic views of most of his contemporaries, and in politics he made effective use of the rhetoric they inspired.”
By 1776, most Americans considered Islam to be a made-up religion by Muhammad, a false prophet. One of the passages that Jefferson copied into his Legal Commonplace Book is Voltaire’s insistence that “the Saracens [Muslims] wanted no science except the Alcoran [Koran].” In a 1785 letter to John Page, Jefferson wrote that the Ottomans were “…a set of Barbarians with whom an opposition to all science is an article of religion.” Jefferson also believed Islam to be a stifler of free inquiry. Spellberg seems mystified by this stance, given the fact that Jefferson was well aware of the many contributions Islamic adherents had made to science. My speculation is that Jefferson wasn’t contemplating what Islam used to be, but what Islam was in his time. Scientific inquiry had been on the decline in Islamic nations for over two hundred years when Jefferson began his work separating church from government in the United States. Like creationism today, when facts start interfering with scripture, sometimes the facts have to go. So perhaps that’s why Jefferson and Voltaire were characterizing Islam as anti-science and anti-free inquiry.
Despite Jefferson being told by the ambassador of Tripoli that the Koran justified their piracy, and despite his own opinion of Islam, Jefferson did not consider every Muslim to be a threat. I suspect this was based on his belief that a person’s morality is not based on their religion. In an August 6, 1818, letter to Mrs. M. Harrison Smith, he wrote, “I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives…For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me.”
And in the first volume of his Memoir, Correspondence, and Miscellanies, Jefferson wrote about the debates in the Virginia General Assembly when drafting the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, which was passed in 1789. He had this to say about an amendment that was proposed for the preamble to mention Jesus Christ as the author of their religion: “[It] was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jews and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”
Jefferson understood what many of us know today: Islam is the problem, not Muslims. The two can be separated. In a 1788 letter to James Madison, he wrote, “The declaration that religious faith shall be unpunished does not give immunity to criminal acts dictated by religious error.” Looking at the First Barbary War, it now becomes clear. The piracy of the Barbary States, regardless of reasoning, needed to be met with a repelling force. The opinions of Muhammad as written in the Koran were beside the point.
The First Barbary War, Jefferson’s handling of the situation, and his attitude about Islam in general is an excellent lesson for today. Whereas the events of September 11, 2001, were launched by a small group of nineteen hijackers and their handlers with a budget of only $400,000, this new menace holds large swaths of land, resources, and money. It’s beginning to look like a Barbary redux, but on a scale that has the potential to be massively more destructive than anything those states ever accomplished. Last summer, the civil war in Syria spawned the monster that would become the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Formerly allied with al-Qaeda, this faction has grown far beyond small groups hiding in caves. As of this writing, they control huge areas of Syria and Iraq while claiming provinces in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Algeria with more to surely follow if they continue their aggressions. Boko Haram of Nigeria has pledged its allegiance to ISIS. So have other groups from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Indonesia, and the Philippines. But unlike the Barbary, which was content to expand its territory no further than North Africa, ISIS recognizes no borders and proclaims it a duty to Allah to continue these assaults and seizures until the entire world is under its control.
We face the same danger today as then by assuming the worst of all Muslims. Even before the Barbary Wars, Americans (and Europeans) did not have a favorable opinion of them or Islam. After the First Barbary War, the first American edition of the Koran was published. Perhaps because of the war, an audience was made to want to know more. The introduction to that edition begins, “This book is a long conference of God, the angels, and Mohomet, which that false prophet very grossly invented” and ends with, “Thou wilt wonder that such absurdities have infected the best part of the world, and wilt avouch, that the knowledge of what is contained in this book, will render that law contemptible.” Clearly, the opinion of Islam remained quite negative in a Protestant-dominated population.
With history as our best teacher, how should we steer into the future? Do we start appeasing the Islamic State with payments of ransom when they take hostages? The Obama Administration validated this option in June. No matter what, we must be tolerant of Muslims at home who participate in American secular society. We should open up, encourage conversations, and join with those who are a part of our free and democratic society. The first step begins with any neighbors you already have. What would Jefferson do? We already know.
Eric Wojciechowski writes from his home state of Michigan, where he lives with his wife and two children. He has engaged in the study of religion, mythology, and other woo-woo topics for over twenty-five years.