Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Other times, other people

The first Muslim congressman, Keith Ellison, swore his allegiance on a copy of the Koran that had once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. History as synthesis, or ironic twist of fate? Jefferson had the book for a very specific reason: he was doing essential research before calling for war on the Barbary states of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Tripoli. American imperialism ante litteram? Well, no.

For 10 centuries, the barbary pirates had conducted a lucrative slave trade, mainly preying on Africans from the West coast, but also on tens of thousands of Europeans and even Americans. They were under the protection of the Islamic states, one of whose ambassadors, when asked why they enslaved Americans, a people they barely knew, gave the following answer:

[Islam] 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 (Muslim) who should be slain in Battle was sure to go to Paradise.
Jefferson proposed war to protect American trade in the Meditteranean, where it was being decimated. The Congress decided to appease and pay tribute instead. This they did for 15 years.
The payments in ransom and tribute amounted to 20 percent of United States government annual revenues in 1800.
Until Jefferson was elected president and sent in the marines.
In 1805, American Marines marched across the dessert from Egypt into Tripolitania, forcing the surrender of Tripoli and the freeing of all American slaves.

During the Jefferson administration, the Muslim Barbary States, crumbling as a result of intense American naval bombardment and on shore raids by Marines, finally officially agreed to abandon slavery and piracy.

Jefferson's victory over the Muslims lives on today in the Marine Hymn, with the line, "From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our country's battles on the land as on the sea."
The full article is here.

(via Augean Stables)


wodge said...

The USA, however, didn't abolish their own use of slaves until 1865.

And they didn't get round to even attempting to abolish public and private acts of racial discrimination until the 1950s.

NoolaBeulah said...

I posted this one for several reasons. The first was that I had never heard of this war. Next, the irony of Congressman Ellison's choice is so telling of the complexities of this interesting time we are living in. I would imagine that he made this choice to reinforce his compatability of his 'dual' identity of Muslim and American. What better, he must have thought, than a book belonging to one of the founding fathers. And yet even that seemingly tamed object, over 200 years old, merely evokes an age-old conflict.

Another reason is that it is reminder of a fundamental fact. I don't think many would dispute that the ending of Barbary slave-trading marked an improvement in the lives of many people. It would not have ended without the use of force (even if the force was engaged for commercial reasons), just as the decisive act against slavery in the world was enforced by the British Navy.

Which brings up a question. Why has slavery ended in other parts of the world? In the only two cases I know of it came about through a movement based on Christian and enlightenment principles and an incredibly destructive civil war. In both, the societies involved could not continue on the social and economic path they were on without removing it. In this third case, it came about by invasion. Elsewhere? (Not forgetting that slavery still exists in many parts of the world.)