At the dawn of a new century, a newly elected United States president was forced to confront a grave threat to the nation–an escalating series of unprovoked attacks on Americans by Muslim terrorists. Worse still, these Islamic partisans operated under the protection and sponsorship of rogue Arab states ruled by ruthless and cunning dictators.
Sluggish in recognizing the full nature of the threat, America entered the war well after the enemy’s call to arms. Poorly planned and feebly executed, the American effort proceeded badly and at great expense–resulting in a hastily negotiated peace and an equally hasty declaration of victory.
As timely and familiar as these events may seem, they occurred more than two centuries ago. The president was Thomas Jefferson, and the terrorists were the Barbary pirates. Unfortunately, many of the easy lessons to be plucked from this experience have yet to be fully learned.
The Barbary states, modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, are collectively known to the Arab world as the Maghrib (“Land of Sunset”), denoting Islam’s territorial holdings west of Egypt. With the advance of Mohammed’s armies into the Christian Levant in the seventh century, the Mediterranean was slowly transformed into the backwater frontier of the battles between crescent and cross. Battles raged on both land and sea, and religious piracy flourished.
The Maghrib served as a staging ground for Muslim piracy throughout the Mediterranean, and even parts of the Atlantic. America’s struggle with the terror of Muslim piracy from the Barbary states began soon after the 13 colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776, and continued for roughly four decades, finally ending in 1815.
Although there is much in the history of America’s wars with the Barbary pirates that is of direct relevance to the current “war on terror,” one aspect seems particularly instructive to informing our understanding of contemporary Islamic terrorists. Very simply put, the Barbary pirates were committed, militant Muslims who meant to do exactly what they said.
Take, for example, the 1786 meeting in London of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, the Tripolitan ambassador to Britain. As American ambassadors to France and Britain respectively, Jefferson and Adams met with Ambassador Adja to negotiate a peace treaty and protect the United States from the threat of Barbary piracy.
These future United States presidents questioned the ambassador as to why his government was so hostile to the new American republic even though America had done nothing to provoke any such animosity. Ambassador Adja answered them, as they reported to the Continental Congress, “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.”
The candor of that Tripolitan ambassador is admirable in its way, but it certainly foreshadows the equally forthright declarations of, say, the Shiite Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1980s and the Sunni Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, not to mention the many pronouncements of their various minions, admirers, and followers. Note that America’s Barbary experience took place well before colonialism entered the lands of Islam, before there were any oil interests dragging the U.S. into the fray, and long before the founding of the state of Israel.
America became entangled in the Islamic world and was dragged into a war with the Barbary states simply because of the religious obligation within Islam to bring belief to those who do not share it. This is not something limited to “radical” or “fundamentalist” Muslims.
Which is not to say that such obligations lead inevitably to physical conflict, at least not in principle. After all peaceful proselytizing among various religious groups continues apace throughout the world, but within the teachings of Islam, and the history of Muslims, this is a well-established militant thread.
The Islamic basis for piracy in the Mediterranean was an old doctrine relating to the physical or armed jihad, or struggle.
To Muslims in the heyday of Barbary piracy, there were, at least in principle, only two forces at play in the world: the Dar al-Islam, or House of Islam, and the Dar al-Harb, or House of War. The House of Islam meant Muslim governance and the unrivaled authority of the sharia, Islam’s complex system of holy law. The House of War was simply everything that fell outside of the House of Islam–that area of the globe not under Muslim authority, where the infidel ruled. For Muslims, these two houses were perpetually at war–at least until mankind should finally embrace Allah and his teachings as revealed through his prophet, Mohammed.
The point of jihad is not to convert by force, but to remove the obstacles to the infidels’ conversion so that they shall either convert or become a dhimmi (a non-Muslim who accepts Islamic dominion) and pay the jizya, or poll tax. The goal is to bring all of the Dar al-Harb into the peace of the Dar al-Islam, and to eradicate unbelief. The Koran also promises rewards to those who fight in the jihad, plunder and glory in this world and the delights of paradise in the next.
Although the piratical activities of Barbary genuinely degenerated over the centuries from pure considerations of the glory of jihad to less grandiose visions of booty and state revenues, it is important to remember that the religious foundations of the institution of piracy remained central.
Even after it became commonplace for the pirate captains or their crew to be renegade Europeans, it was essential that these former Christians “turn Turk” and convert to Islam before they could be accorded the honor of engagement in al-jihad fil-bahr, the holy war at sea.
In fact, the peoples of Barbary continued to consider the pirates as holy warriors even after the Barbary rulers began to allow non-religious commitments to command their strategic use of piracy. The changes that the religious institution of piracy underwent were natural, if pathological. Just as the concept of jihad is invoked by Muslim terrorists today to legitimize suicide bombings of noncombatants for political gain, so too al-jihad fil-bahr, the holy war at sea, served as the cornerstone of the Barbary states’ interaction with Christendom.
In times of conflict, America tends to focus on personalities over ideas or movements, trying to play the man, not the board–as if capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, for example, would instantly end the present conflict. But such thinking loses sight of the fact that ideas have consequences. If one believes that God commands something, this belief is not likely to dissipate just because the person who elucidated it has been silenced. Islam, as a faith, is as essential a feature of the terrorist threat today as it was of the Barbary piracy over two centuries ago.
The Barbary pirates were not a “radical” or “fundamentalist” sect that had twisted religious doctrine for power and politics, or that came to recast aspects of their faith out of some form of insanity. They were simply a North African warrior caste involved in an armed jihad–a mainstream Muslim doctrine. This is how the Muslims understood Barbary piracy and armed jihad at the time, and, indeed, how the physical jihad has been understood since Mohammed revealed it as the prophecy of Allah.
Obviously, and thankfully, not every Muslim is obligated, or even really inclined, to take up this jihad. Indeed, many Muslims are loath to personally embrace this physical struggle. But that does not mean they are all opposed to such a struggle any more than the choice of many Westerners not to join the police force or the armed services means they do not support those institutions.
Whether “insurgents” are fighting in Iraq or “rebels” and “militants” are skirmishing in Chechnya or Hamas “activists” are detonating themselves in Israel, Westerners seem unwilling to bring attention to the most salient feature of all these groups: They claim to be acting in the name of Islam.
It is very easy to chalk it all up to regional squabbles, economic depression, racism, or post-colonial nationalistic self-determinism. Such explanations undoubtedly enter into part of the equation–they are already part of the propaganda that clouds contemporary analysis. But as Thomas Jefferson and John Adams came to learn back in 1786, the situation becomes a lot clearer when you listen to the stated intentions and motivations of the terrorists and take them at face value.
–Joshua E. London is the author of Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation (John Wiley & Sons, September 2005); for more about the book visit