It Didnâ€™t Start With bin Laden
Religiously motivated terrorism against America isn't new â€” in fact, it dates back hundreds of years.
By Chris Jeub
It may seem like the terrorist war against the United States is only a few weeks old, but radical Muslimsâ€™ hatred of our nation dates back centuries. In fact, itâ€™s not the first time America has faced adversaries who were individual renegades instead of allied nations.
President Thomas Jefferson, for instance, faced threats from Islamic pirates who lived along Africaâ€™s northern coast and daily terrorized European ships. When America won its independence, it too became a target for pirates â€” and Jefferson found himself forced into war.
But war against whom? Unknown pirates? African nations like Tripoli, Tunisia, Morocco and Algiers, which harbored the marauders but did not consider them citizens? Jeffersonâ€™s challenge resembles President Bushâ€™s modern-day dilemma. Like todayâ€™s terrorists, the 19th-century pirates also were Muslims with an animosity toward Christians dating back to the Crusades.
The Muslim faith took root in northwestern Africa in the seventh century, and for generations the region served as a base for piracy â€” the looting and confiscation of ships as well as the murder of crew members. In the 19th century, European and American ships sailing around northern Africa paid tolls to the pirates for safe passage. This reign of terror went largely unchallenged until America took the lead â€” without the initial support of Europe.
War on Christianity
According to David Barton of WallBuilders, a Christian-heritage ministry in Aledo, Texas, the Barbary pirate raids stemmed more from prejudice against Christianity than from economic gain. â€œThe numerous documents surrounding the Barbary Powers Conflict confirm that historically it always was viewed as a conflict between Christian America and Muslim nations,â€ Barton wrote in his 1996 book Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution & Religion.
U.S. Capt. William Eaton, in a letter to the secretary of state in 1805, explained why the Muslims were such dedicated foes:
Taught by revelation that war with the Christians will guarantee the salvation of their souls, and finding so great secular advantages in the observance of this religious duty [the secular advantage of keeping captured cargoes], their inducements to desperate fighting are very powerful.
Indeed, the countries whose ships were attacked â€” England, France, Spain, Denmark and the United States â€” all were predominately Christian. Nonetheless, Barton said, the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli declared the United Statesâ€™ religious neutrality, â€œin an attempt to prevent further escalation of a â€˜Holy Warâ€™ between Christians and Muslims.â€ Article XI of the treaty states that â€œthe government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion . . . it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims].â€
But the 1797 treaty failed, as did others. The Muslims, motivated by religious fervor, continued their attacks.
In 1815, the U.S. government sent a war hero, Stephen Decatur, to negotiate a more forceful treaty. Decatur had demonstrated his ability to thwart Barbary pirates a dozen years earlier; In 1804, on Jeffersonâ€™s orders, he led 74 volunteers into the Tripoli harbor and burned the captured American frigate Philadelphia. British Adm. Lord Nelson called the raid â€œthe most daring act of the age.â€
In the War of 1812, Decatur, the youngest captain in U.S. Navy history, defeated the British frigate Macedonian and brought the enemy vessel safely to the United States. It was the only captured British ship to be refitted and commissioned in the American Navy during that war.
Perhaps it was his reputation for victory that persuaded Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli to agree to Decaturâ€™s terms and put an end to piracy. Perhaps it was his charm. John Quincy Adams described Decatur as â€œkind, warm-hearted, unassuming, gentle and hospitable, beloved in social life and with a soul totally and utterly devoted to his country.â€ Or maybe it was Americaâ€™s naval power that outmatched Tripoliâ€™s.
Whatever the cure, then, we can only pray that todayâ€™s war will rid the world of terrorism as America rid the world of piracy 200 years ago. "