A Brief History of Muslims in America (Part 5 of 10)

This series of posts is adapted from a presentation I delivered to the Atlanta Freethought Society on May 13, 2018. I should offer the following caveats: I am neither an historian nor a scholar; therefore, this information is admittedly incomplete and may contain errors. I welcome any corrections or comments.

Part 5: The Barbary Wars

In 1777 Morocco’s sultan Muhammad III declared that American ships could safely use Moroccan ports, and in 1786 Morocco became the first country to recognize the independence of the United States. The Moroccan–American Treaty of Friendship was negotiated by Thomas Barclay, and signed by Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and the sultan.

Despite this early friendship with the Islamic world, the United States soon found itself in conflict with Muslim states. For years the so-called Barbary States—Tunis, Algiers and Tripoli–had engaged in piracy, kidnapping and the outright enslavement of Europeans captured on the open sea. Many European governments, as well as the newly minted United States, paid out what amounted to protection money for their merchant fleets in the Mediterranean.

In 1786, when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were stationed overseas as American commissioners, they visited Tripoli’s ambassador in London, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, for the purpose of discussing the justification of these payments.

Adams later wrote: “We took the liberty to make some inquiries concerning the Grounds of their pretentions to make war upon Nations who had done them no Injury, and observed that we considered all mankind as our friends who had done us no wrong, nor had given us any provocation. The Ambassador answered us that it was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as Prisoners, and that every Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”

For some time after that, the United States continued to pay this tribute, but eventually the sums became so burdensome the government decided it was cheaper just to go to war. Between 1801 and 1815 the US fought two wars with the Barbary States. (Indeed, Decatur, Georgia is named for Commodore Stephen Decatur, who was crucial to the successful conclusion of the Second Barbary War.)

One outcome of the Barbary Wars was the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, commonly called the Treaty of Tripoli. It was signed in 1796, then ratified unanimously and without debate by the US Senate, and signed by President John Adams in 1797. What’s most notable about this document is the text included in Article 11:

“As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

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