For More Than 200 Years, America Has Shunned A ‘War On Islam’

A small but dangerous group of Islamic extremists, operating out of the shadows of brutal dictatorships and striking out at the international community. Multiple undeclared wars over more than a decade that entangle the United States against this group and its allies and occasion rhetoric about the clash of religions and civilizations—rhetoric that a presidential administration is quick to counter with clarity and force. Refugees fleeing these war-torn Muslim nations in search of a new start and better life in America. The turn of the 19th century sure sounds familiar—and has a great deal to teach us here in the 21st.

In the late 18th and early 19th century, a number of North African nations were ruled by dictatorial leaders whose territories came to be known under the collective heading of the Barbary States. These leaders, such as Yusuf Karamanli (who ruled as the Pasha of Tripoli in what would become modern-day Libya), were in league with groups of nautical raiders who frequently attacked ships throughout the Mediterranean and beyond in order to finance their operations, and who came to be known as the Barbary Pirates.

In the final years of the 18th century and throughout the first two decades of the 19th century, the United States was drawn into multiple, semi-undeclared military conflicts with these Barbary Pirates. The first such Barbary War was conducted by the Jefferson administration against Karamanli’s Tripoli between 1801 and 1805, supported by congressional acts that stopped short of declaring war but authorized activities such as seizing ships and supplies. The Second Barbary War (1815) was fought by the Madison administration (with more overt congressional sanction) a decade later against Algiers, which had sided with England during the recently concluded War of 1812 and was continuing to harass American shipping.

The specific causes and histories of each Barbary War, and of the conflicts that led up to and followed them, were various and complex. Yet from the earliest such conflicts the U.S. government had made one thing very explicit and clear: the battles were not in any way between religions or civilizations. In 1796, the Washington administration sent his old Army colleague David Humphreys and other ambassadors to North Africa to negotiate a treaty with the Barbary States; the resulting document came to be known as the Treaty of Tripoli, and was sent to the Senate by new President John Adams and unanimously ratified in the summer of 1797.


The USS Philadelphia burning at the Battle of Tripoli Harbor during the First Barbary War in 1804

That treaty opened with a clear statement of the goal, “a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship” between the nations. And in Article 11, it addressed directly the issue of religion:

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 Musselmen, and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan 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.

Those interruptions, when they arose a few years later, had no more to do with religion or a clash of civilizations than did these late 18th century issues.

The evolving U.S. relationship with the Barbary States didn’t just affect our foreign policy. During the Revolution, the North African nation of Morocco was the first in the world to recognize the new United States (in 1777); the two nations would subsequently sign a Treaty of Friendship in 1786, with John Adams and Thomas Jefferson signing for the United States. Thanks to this enduring relationship, when a number of Moroccan Muslims—“Moors,” as they were known in the language of era—sought to flee the rising power and brutality of the Barbary States, they chose America as their destination. Many of these refugees settled in Charleston, South Carolina, helping comprise the state’s burgeoning Moorish community that would become the subject of one of South Carolina’s first post-Constitution laws, the Moors Sundry Act of 1790.

There are no easy answers to the international issues and conflicts facing the United States and our allies in 2015, nor simple solutions for the communities of refugees fleeing those conflicts. Yet as our histories illustrate, any answers that include either a “war with Islam” or a refusal to accept such refugees in the United States will represent a significant and troubling break from some of our foundational moments and ideals.

Ben Railton is an Associate Professor of English and American Studies at Fitchburg State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.

Photo credit: AP

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