The president in Cairo this morning:
… Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” … And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson – kept in his personal library.
Hmmm. A couple of years ago, Chris Hitchens wrote an interesting article in Slate called ”Jefferson’s Quran — What the Founder Really Thought about Islam.” Before getting to the third president, and the second, Hitchens expounds on Keith Ellison, our first Muslim-American congressman to whom President Obama made fleeting but serviceable mention:
In the first place, concern over Ellison’s political and religious background has little to do with his formal adherence to Islam. In his student days and subsequently, he was a supporter of Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam, a racist and crackpot cult organization that is in schism with the Muslim faith and even with the Sunni orthodoxy now preached by the son of the NOI’s popularizer Elijah Muhammad. Farrakhan’s sect explicitly describes a large part of the human species—the so-called white part—as an invention of the devil and has issued tirades against the Jews that exceed what even the most fanatical Islamists have said. Farrakhan himself has boasted of the “punishment” meted out to Malcolm X by armed gangsters of the NOI (see the brilliant documentary Brother Minister: The Assassination of Malcolm X, which catches him in the act of doing this). If Ellison now wants to use his faith to justify an appeal to pluralism and inclusiveness and diversity, he needs to repudiate the Nation of Islam, and in much more unambivalent terms than any I have yet heard from him.
Then Hitch moves on. While I recommend the full article, be forewarned if this sort of thing agitates you that it is replete with the standard Hitchens hostility to religion. Still, as usual, it’s fascinating, especially this bit of history that Obama somehow failed to mention this morning when revisiting (or I should say, revisioning) Adams, Jefferson, and that oh-so-warm relationship between the Morocco and the fledgling United States:
[I]n 1786, the new United States found that it was having to deal very directly with the tenets of the Muslim religion. The Barbary states of North Africa (or, if you prefer, the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, plus Morocco) were using the ports of today’s Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia to wage a war of piracy and enslavement against all shipping that passed through the Strait of Gibraltar. Thousands of vessels were taken, and more than a million Europeans and Americans sold into slavery. The fledgling United States of America was in an especially difficult position, having forfeited the protection of the British Royal Navy. Under this pressure, Congress gave assent to the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Jefferson’s friend Joel Barlow, which stated roundly that “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.” This has often been taken as a secular affirmation, which it probably was, but the difficulty for secularists is that it also attempted to buy off the Muslim pirates by the payment of tribute. That this might not be so easy was discovered by Jefferson and John Adams when they went to call on Tripoli’s envoy to London, Ambassador Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. They asked him by what right he extorted money and took slaves in this way. As Jefferson later reported to Secretary of State John Jay, and to the Congress:
The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered 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 Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.
Medieval as it is, this has a modern ring to it. Abdrahaman did not fail to add that a commission paid directly to Tripoli—and another paid to himself—would secure some temporary lenience. I believe on the evidence that it was at this moment that Jefferson decided to make war on the Muslim states of North Africa as soon as the opportunity presented itself. And, even if I am wrong, we can be sure that the dispatch of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps to the Barbary shore was the first and most important act of his presidency. It took several years of bombardment before the practice of kidnap and piracy and slavery was put down, but put down it was, Quranic justification or not.
FWIW, I own two copies of the Qur’an in my personal library. I’m not surprised Thomas Jefferson owned (at least) one. Every American who wants to grapple with the situation in the world should own one. Otherwise, you’ll have to rely on the accounts of people who are not always motivated to be complete and accurate.