Of letters recently received from Seacoast readers, two totally misread, misunderstood, or deliberately misrepresented my words and intentions.
I am going to devote this column to respond to them.
A recent column on Muslim encounters with America became an inspiration for a letter-writer who seized upon my anodyne comments about President Thomas Jefferson, his Qur’an, and conflict with the Barbary pirates to charge that I had failed to reveal certain facts, which to his mind, if disclosed, could only lead to the conclusion that the Barbary pirates were terrorists inspired by Islam to fight against America. He missed the point of my column, which was a historical introduction to Muslim encounters with America, not maritime history.
Such a response highlights how, when one allows oneself to view the world from a narrow 21st-century Western perspective – especially from a post 9/11 world view that has come to define all Muslims as terrorists – without consideration of facts or context, one risks embracing narratives that contradict history.
The Barbary corsairs weren’t terrorists. They were equal opportunity pirates who terrorized shipping in the Mediterranean and along North Africa’s Atlantic Coast — including against Americans.
The Continental Congress founded the Continental Marines on Nov. 10, 1775, and in 1776, in the Bahamas, Marines spearheaded the first American landing on foreign soil.
After the Revolutionary War, the Navy and Marines were disbanded and America had neither Navy nor Marines until 1794.
In 1798, President John Adams signed legislation creating the Marine Corps primarily to deal with France, which was interfering with American merchant shipping. After the “Quasi-War,” America turned its attention to the Barbary pirates, who were preying upon American merchant shipping.
Piracy existed before the Barbary corsairs, well before Islam, perhaps as early as the late Bronze Age. Christian pirates, like the Maltese corsairs who operated under the authority of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, were equally adept at taking Muslims as slaves. Paul Cassar wrote in the Catholic Historical Review (1960):
“Christian corsairs from the West ventured eastward to plunder Turkish ships and possessions in the Levant, while Moslem sea-robbers from the Barbary coasts attacked European shipping and ports.”
The Maltese corsairs gave from their treasure to the nuns of the Convent of St. Ursula in Valletta, “who pray continuously for victory against the Infidel.”
Livorno, Tuscany, hosted one of Europe’s primary slave markets, where Muslim and Christian slaves were sold alongside each other. The profitable trade of the corsairs in slaves and booty was faith-neutral: even Jews were, as described in the Jewish Virtual Library, “involved in the slave trade, providing ransom money for Christians imprisoned in North Africa and handling the return of ransomed Moors.”
Telling such stories is almost too easy — they don’t advance understanding. Tit-for-tat history doesn’t move anything forward, and trying to create Islamaphobic memes out of ancient history is counter-productive.
Of those who attacked Derna, just 10 were Marines — the other 500 were mercenaries, including Muslims, who fought alongside the Marines against other Muslims. Derna (in Cyrenaica) is 800 miles away from Tripoli (in Tripolitania). The “Shores of Tripoli” refers to the Ottoman combined provinces of “Cyrenaica and Tripolitania” not to the city of Tripoli.
True, Barbary corsairs tried to use Scripture to justify their piracy. It’s a familiar meme. In America, for example, Scripture has been used to burn witches, enforce slavery and promote the genocide of Native Americans and/or dispossession of their lands.
It was business, not personal. The pirates of the Mediterranean had a simple business plan: Countries that didn’t pay tribute got attacked — those that paid, as Spain, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands (and, for a while, the United States) often did, had safe passage.
In response, countries that became more powerful than the corsairs attacked the Barbary Coast and enforced surrenders and cease-fires.
The Barbary Wars weren’t about terrorism.
Another reader describes a racial provocation as “some inconsequential, minor irritant by exaggerating and generalizing a racial incident.” How, I wonder, does he think that seeing a Confederate flag waved in front of our White House, occupied by an African-American, is inconsequential?
He asks “Muslims responsible for the September 11th attacks to apologize.” First, please stop asking for apologies from innocent people, including Muslims, for acts they didn’t commit or support.
Second, of those responsible for 9/11, the terrorists in the airplanes are dead and many of those that planned the attacks, including Osama bin Laden, have been killed or captured. As for condemnations of terrorism: They are rife on the Internet and several Web sites aggregate them.
Then, when he writes, “Maybe the Muslims in this country could be convinced to understand Americans better,” he deliberately ignores the fact that most Muslims in America are Americans. They – and I – don’t need to be lectured about what it means to be American.
What does it mean to be American? When a writer claims that America provides more dignity and humanity and is more caring for those in need, he misses my point: It’s not about other nations. It’s about us — what we are capable of and how we must hold ourselves accountable when we fall short.
Is it exceptional to be second-to-last among 35 developed countries in childhood poverty? Is it exceptional to be 53rd globally in life expectancy? Is it exceptional to be 17th (out of 40) in educational performance? Is it exceptional that Americans have higher health costs and worse medical outcomes than almost anywhere else in the developed world or that we’re the only developed nation that doesn’t guarantee citizens health care?
No, it’s not easy to “preach,” as a letter writer charges, week after week about hospitality, dignity, social justice, fairness and truth.
Those are virtues that are our core values: they should come normally to people but, with comfort, myopia and privilege, appear increasingly harder to access. Reading challenges from the Other can’t be easy either, but it’s part of who we are.
Remember when “flesh-colored” Band-Aids came only in one color — the color of a white person’s flesh? That world is done — thank goodness!
Within one paragraph of a letter, “The fact that Jefferson owned a Koran as part of his extensive 6,000-book personal library is irrelevant. What is significant is that the main influence Muslims had on early American history had been acts of terrorism,” rests the root of ignorant responses seen through Exceptionalist and Orientalist prisms: beliefs in mythologies and false narratives and an arrogant hubristic xenophobia.
The reality and brilliance of our forefathers was not whether they knew any Muslims, liked them, or even trusted them. Their brilliance was incorporated into a vision that for America’s promise to be fulfilled everyone, including “Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians” was welcome in the public square; that even, as Benjamin Franklin wrote, “if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a Missionary to preach Mahometanism to us, he would find a Pulpit at his Service.”
That Jefferson, in the midst of conflict with hostile Barbary States, understood the value of hospitality by hosting an “Iftar” for a Muslim envoy exemplifies what it means to be American.
The first Muslim who set foot in America was probably a slave from West Africa and his descendants — Muslims, Christians, Unitarians, secular humanists, whoever, wherever they are — live among us today as our neighbors, friends and colleagues, and are an immutable part of our American Dream.
Such is truth.
This column appeared originally in the Portsmouth Herald.