by Lawrence A. Peskin on Jun 12, 2009
President Obama went to Egypt ten days ago to create common ground between America and Islam. In the process he whitewashed America’s early, troubled history with the Islamic world.
In his speech at Cairo University the president noted that “Islam has always been a part of America’s story.” He cited Morocco’s early recognition of American independence in 1778. He also reminded his audience of the U.S.-Tripoli treaty of 1796-97, which denied that the United States bore any “enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity of Muslims.
In so doing, the president created a mythic tale of longstanding friendship and understanding on the part of Americans and Islamic North Africans. Although it may have diplomatic uses, this tale has little historical basis.
President Obama correctly stated that Morocco was the first nation to recognize American independence. However, he omitted the fact that shortly thereafter Moroccans captured an American ship and its crew to force the United States to sign a pay-for-peace treaty with Morocco’s ruler.
The payment did stop Morocco from capturing more Americans, but soon its next-door neighbor, Algeria, began capturing American ships. Ultimately it held more than 100 American crew members for ransom, some for a dozen years. Nor did a similar arrangement with Tripoli stop that country from capturing more Americans.
The president’s speech implied that the Tripoli treaty was an example of early American-Islamic tolerance. He correctly noted that the treaty asserted that the United States had no conflict with Islam, but he omitted the treaty’s assertion that “the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian Religion.” Quoting these words would have won points in Cairo but would have infuriated the Christian right at home.
Despite the president’s implication, the United States did not assert its acceptance of Islam and its non-Christian character as an early statement of toleration or proto-secular humanism. Rather, it was a strategy to dissuade North Africans from attacking American ships. Under the Constitution, the United States had no established religion. Therefore,it was not technically a Christian state and, arguably, not a legitimate target of the jihad against Christians that Islamic states used to justify attacking European ships.
Speaking to his Cairo audience, President Obama had good reasons to use Moroccan recognition of the United States and the Tripoli treaty as an early example of American friendship with Islam. However, the diplomacy of the 1790s did not lead to tolerance or friendship. Islamic states, including Tripoli, continued to capture American ships. And, as the United States built a more powerful navy, it frequently sent warships to North Africa.
In fact, the United States fought its first overseas wars against Tripoli in 1801-05 and Algeria in 1815. In the end, it was because of these military and naval victories, rather than the diplomacy of the 1790s, that the North Africans stopped capturing American vessels.
It’s easy to understand why the president didn’t want to provide his Cairo audience with the details of this story of fear, violence and American military triumph. What’s more interesting is that the president felt the need to refer to early American-Islamic contact at all.
President Obama touts himself as an agent of change, both at home and in the Middle East. In his speech he called for a “new beginning” in American-Islamic relations, based on “mutual interest and respect.” But, along with this plea to rectify a past filled with violence and intolerance, he rewrote early American-Islamic history to create a mythic past of friendship and tolerance.
The president no doubt hoped this rhetoric would convince his conservative audience that his “new beginning” might not be so radical after all. Instead, it would just mark a return to a more peaceful, tolerant past.
It’s bad history, but if the president can convince the Islamic world it will be brilliant diplomacy.
Lawrence A. Peskin is an associate professor of history at Morgan State University in Baltimore and author of “Captives and Countrymen: Barbary Slavery and the American Public, 1785-1816” (2009).