Thomas Jefferson Wasn't an Anti-Islamic Crusader


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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Michael Hutchinson - 3/23/2011

I find it to be astounding how people will rant and rave about Islam's denunciation of the Trinity. This is probably the biggest reason for attack against it. They will not consider leveling the same attacks against Thomas Jefferson who also refused to believe in the Trinity. Although he differs with Muslims on several doctrines, I would dare to call him "Muslim" in his ways of thinking. Muslim means someone who is peaceful and submits to God. Jefferson did just that in his wonderful views on society, and ways to treat people. Like the Qur'an, he proposed to abolish slavery. May God smile upon us the same way he did to Jefferson. Thank you for the article.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/13/2010

".....Franklin's rumored, but widely accepted, prophecy!"

Elliott Aron Green - 10/12/2010

Dear `Umar, la habibna:

As a native, I think that you are wrong about Benjamin Franklin. Yes, I am a native, believe it or not. I am a native of Philadelphia, more precisely, of South Philadelphia [Je suis homme du Midi]. Now Franklin is a local hero there in Philadelphia. He lived there most of his life. Many places and institutions are named for him and associated with him. According to records kept in Philadelphia, Franklin contributed money to the local synagogue, congregation Mikve Israel [= Hope of Israel]. So I do not put any trust in the Judeophobic document that you refer to, which is generally believed by historians to be a forgery. Sorry to disappoint.

Best Wishes,

omar ibrahim baker - 10/12/2010

To call on President Jefferson to bolster this inane and certainly anti American interests mania denotes not only feeble mindedness and utter disrespect for the intelligence of the American public but also a childish attempt to even the American "historical" odds, or is score ?, of historical anti Judaism by some of America’s founding fathers; mainly Benjamin Franklin's rumored, but widely accepted, prophecy!
The utter inanity of the whole thing is not as plain as one may expect if we consider some of the responses it elicits.

Elliott Aron Green - 10/11/2010

But Lisa, what do you make of the American friendship for Saudi Arabia and Syria over the years, to the detriment of Israel, for example?? Are you aware of how the Saudis and other rulers of oil rich Arab countries benefited financially from US Treasury subsidies paid to these Arab rulers through ARAMCO and other oil companies, on the grounds of the Foreign Tax Credit law??

Now hundreds of thousands of Muslims --if not a million or two or more-- have been killed in Iraq in the past 40 years, mostly by Saddam Hussein'a army. No doubt you can enlighten us as to the US responsibility for everything untoward that happens to any Arab or Muslim anywhere. But how do you tie the US to or implicate the US in all the slaughter committed by Saddam's forces against fellow Arabs and fellow Muslims before the US intervention in 1991, called the First Gulf War?? Now you could say that Saddam was really a Quaker pacifist and didn't have a single drop of blood staining his moral record. Or you could say that Saddam was really an American agent. But then you might be asked to prove that and anyhow, you would disappoint Omar for thinking such thoughts. Or you might have another explanation.

Lisa Kazmier - 10/11/2010

You mostly tiptoe around your biggest point: that some major players in this country are not archenemies of colonialism and probably there were longstanding interests here that never were. Decolonization after 1945 was a Cold War tactic that enhanced American hegemony; whereas some believed it was more, others never did.

I think Islamophobia is a danger to the US but because it colors the worldview of those who want to spend more blood/treasure, the danger is that it will be more than that.

omar ibrahim baker - 10/11/2010

As far as Moslems are concerned Islamophobia is, ultimately, an unpleasant nuisance; a nuisance for American Moslems with obstacles put in place to hinder the construction of Mosques etc and an unpleasantness for Moslems visiting the USA manifested mainly as incivility and bad manners as at Nejjad’s reception at Columbia University and of non VIPS at JFK!
It certainly IS NOT a question of life and death nor does it foretell a great menace.
Politically the worst that the USA could do it already did:
in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan etc; and the USA will find out sooner than later, after payment in blood and treasure, the error of its ways and policies.
The Afghanistan reconsideration is just a start.
As far as the USA/Islam/Moslems relations are concerned the phobia is not only heartily reciprocated by all Moslems BUT all Moslems are now unanimous in their vehement enmity to the USA!

That is a real pity for both!

*For Moslems: for the lost opportunity to be friendly with a major power but particularly
*For the USA who
a-at one time was held in great respect and admiration in Islamdom as the reputed archenemy of colonialism
b-for the fact that there is no real, genuine American reason for the USA NOT to be friendly with Islamdom; a friendliness that would have been heartily reciprocated!

The present state of affairs undoubtedly makes of the present prevalent Islamophopia in the USA the brain child and oeuvre of a party serving other ulterior purposes to whom USA interests and political standing is, at best, of secondary importance.

As an indicator of how far non American influences can and do distort and manipulate America and American policies Islamophobia is primarily a danger to the USA and a warning of worst things to come should it be, as it was during the Bush/Wolfowitz Administration, the prime mover behind USA policies.

John D. Beatty - 10/11/2010

Because if more than one motive were contemplated by the Abers and Becks of the world they would not be able to continue to polarize it into "us" vs "them" camps.

This is why Facetwit "freinding" is so popular: conservative "with us or agin us" and its liberal analogue "part of the solution or part of the problem" is ingrained into our sound-bite culture. Real thought and depth beyond defending slogans is beyond both extremes.

Elliott Aron Green - 10/11/2010

Ms Aber points out pecuniary motives for Barbary Piracy, based on her reading of a book by Frank Lambert. No doubt there were such motives. And the Dey of Algiers and the Bey of Tripoli most certainly wanted to accumulate capital. But why does Lambert or Ms Aber believe that greed for gold and slaves forecloses religious motives?

I have not read Lanbert's book, but an author closer in time to the heyday of the Barbary Pirates, French historian and diplomat, Cesar Famin, argues precisely that the Barbary piracy was motivated by religious motives, by Islamic jihad. See his book:
Cesar Famin, Histoire de la rivalite et du protectorat des eglises chretiennes en Orient (Paris 1853)]

I don't see why one motive excludes the other. At the same time, we might recall that the Barbary states, all but Morocco that was independent, were parts of the Ottoman Empire --which encouraged such piracy. So Morocco could go its separate way, to an extent, and make special treaties with Spain and with the new United States. Which didn't mean that it stopped its piracy.

On one point, I have seen it argued that in the 17th and 18th centuries Britain and France did not mind the Barbary pirates, since the British and French had big ships that could defend themselves against the pirates, whereas the smaller ships of Italians, Spaniards, Greeks, etc. were prey to the pirates. This induced maritime shippers and exporters to use the bigger ships of the British and French for shipping their goods, rather than the smaller, more vulnerable boats. So the Barbary pirates in effect aided the maritime commercial supremacy of Britain and France.

Again, why does one motive --religion or Islamic jihad [see Quran 9:29]-- foreclose another --loot, money, gold, slaves, greed??