Monday, October 7, 2013

Thomas Jefferson Wasn't an Anti-Islamic Crusader

Thomas Jefferson Wasn't an Anti-Islamic Crusader

by Caitlin Aber

Ms. Aber is an HNN intern.

Islamophobia has spiraled out of control in the United States recently.  Terry Jones, a Christian minister with a small congregation in Florida, caught the world’s attention last month in his failed bid to burn two hundred Qur’ans on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Animosity toward Islam has not been confined to the radical fringes of Christianity; it has also infiltrated the more mainstream political right.  In response to the proposed Muslim community center and mosque near the site of the World Trade Center, Newt Gingrich told Fox News, “Nazis don't have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust museum in Washington.”  Protests to the construction of mosques have erupted elsewhere in the U.S., from California to Wisconsin to Tennessee.  Reflecting the growing tendency to conflate Islam and terrorism, protestors’ signs proclaim “Mosques are monuments to terror,” and “Muhammad=terrorist.”

In these times of irrationality, it is important to address history truthfully. This is precisely what Glenn Beck and others fail to do when they laud Thomas Jefferson as a warrior who battled Islamic extremism.  Discussing the Barbary Wars on his show last year, Beck claimed that Jefferson dispatched the Navy to the Mediterranean in 1801 because he realized “that America would never truly be free if it cowered to terrorists.”  In fact, Thomas Jefferson’s story is much more complicated, and it reveals an important example of religious tolerance.

As a student, the intellectually curious Jefferson purchased a copy of the Qur’an and read it, according to historian Kevin Hayes, “with an open-minded desire to learn more about Islam.”  Few know that his vision of religious freedom in America explicitly included Muslims.  Virginia’s 1779 Bill for the Establishment of Religious Freedom guaranteed, “All men shall be free to profess… their opinions in matters of religion.”  In his autobiography, Jefferson specifically stated that the bill “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”  Religion was to be a universal right.

So why does Glenn Beck think that Thomas Jefferson got it right about Muslims?  False analogies.  The pundit and other conservatives have latched onto America’s early naval struggles against Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, claiming them as a precursor to today’s war on terror.

To be sure, little was defensible about the Barbary corsairs. For hundreds of years, the Barbary nations demanded tribute from European powers in exchange for allowing them to trade freely in Mediterranean waters.  When payment was withheld, they captured and enslaved European sailors, demanding ransom.  After independence from Britain, the United States was left to its own defenses in the Mediterranean.  Seizures of American ships began in 1784 and continued at irregular intervals for the next three decades. Jefferson was an early advocate of war instead of tribute and sent a fleet to combat the Barbary States upon assuming the presidency in 1801.  Although Beck has claimed that “[t]hose Marines fought bravely against Islamic terrorists for fourteen years” the Barbary Wars were actually two separate conflicts:  a war from 1801-1805 and a brief sequel in 1815.
Beck’s history lesson?  “Our enemies today are much like our enemies back then:  Barbaric Islamic terrorists who despise everything that we stand for.”  What is most dishonest about Beck’s stance is the presumed Islamic extremism of “the enemy.”

Conservatives defending this analogy point to a 1786 report written by Jefferson, which recorded a Tripolitan ambassador citing the Qur’an to justify piracy in his attempt to obtain tribute.  Even distorted forms of religion, though, had little to do with the Barbary Wars.  Both sides understood the struggle in largely economic terms.  Although Beck has claimed that “It was Islamic extremists that Thomas Jefferson was going after,” the president was really “after” the right to trade freely in lucrative Mediterranean markets.  Hence America’s peaceful relations with neighboring Morocco after it offered American ships free access to its ports.

As for the Barbary corsairs, they were, in historian Frank Lambert’s words, “capitalists who sought profits from their raids, rather than jihadists seeking a spot in paradise.”  They captured ships to enhance the treasuries of their countries, which, according to Lambert, “were military republics, not Islamic states.”  Far from being a religious fight, he reveals, “[m]any of the ‘pirate’ crews were not even Muslim but out-of-work Christian sailors from places like England.”  Indeed, most Americans considered the English, not Islamists, the insidious enemy lurking behind the Barbary attacks.

A 1796 treaty between the United States and Tripoli noted “the government of the United States… has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility of Musselmen.”  While we cannot say the same for the American people today, we can avoid the temptation of false analogies, distinguish religion from extremism, and interpret history honestly.
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