The Shores of Tripoli

I have a good net.friend who happens to be a vocal conservative. While we don’t see eye to eye on many political issues, our conversations are always food for thought. It’s iron sharpening iron. One of the articles he brought to my attention, recently, left me a bit worried. It attempts to link Al Qaeda to the Barbary pirates that threatened American shipping interests in the late 1700s. It’s not a bizarre connection, as there are some similarities between Bush’s “Take no prisoners” approach and Jefferson’s “No compromise” attitude towards the pirate states.

The article goes much farther, though, and argues that the pirates were part of a larger Muslim holy war against the West.

They weren’t “pirates” at all, in the traditional sense, Jefferson noticed. They didn’t drink and chase women and they really weren’t out to strike it rich. Instead, their motivation was strictly religious. They bought and sold slaves, to be sure. They looted ships. But they used their booty to buy guns, ships, cannon and ammunition.

Like those we call “terrorists” today, they saw themselves engaged in jihad and called themselves “mujahiddin.”

Now, aside from the absurd contention that “Pirates” have to drink and chase women and, presumably, wear eye patches and carry parrots, the article’s take on the Barbary pirates’ motivation is contradicted by other writers on the subject. Witness a recent Washington Post article that touches on the topic, but dismisses the ‘religious war’ angle:

For one thing, although the Barbary pirates were good at instilling terror – using cannons and scimitars – they were not waging a holy war against Americans. They were opportunists, historians say. They first declared war against us in 1785 – when Algeria seized two American vessels off Portugal, imprisoning 21 people – and goaded us into combat again in 1801 and 1815.

They considered themselves “privateers,” authorized to confiscate ships and crews just as other feuding countries did. Their enemy? Any nation that hadn’t negotiated peace treaties with their rulers in Tunis, Tripoli, Algiers and Morocco. For centuries their pirates shook down European nations for ransom and tribute money.

“This was a protection racket,” notes Richard B. Parker, former U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon and Morocco, who is writing a history titled “Uncle Sam in Barbary.” “They didn’t have political objectives, they just wanted money.”

Now, WorldNetDaily has never bben what I would call an unbiased news source. This article seems to be blatantly false, however, trying to turn a centuries old military conflict over right-of-way on the ocean into a religious war. Later on, the WorldNetDaily article goes even farther to establish the false link:

[Paying tribute to the pirate states] didn’t make sense to Jefferson. He recognized the purchase of peace from the Muslims only worked temporarily. They would always find an excuse to break an agreement, blame the Europeans and demand higher tribute.

After three months researching the history of militant Islam, he came up with a very different policy to deal with the terrorists. But he didn’t get to implement until years later.

Again, in my research I found nothing that implied Jefferson “researched Islam” for months to come to his conclusions. On the contrary, according to the Library of Congress: “As early as 1784 Congress followed the tradition of the European shipping powers and appropriated $80,000 as tribute to the Barbary states. It directed its ministers in Europe, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to begin negotiations with them. Trouble began the next year, in July 1785, when Algerians captured two American ships and the dey of Algiers held their crews of twenty-one people for a ransom of nearly $60,000.”

War came when the Barbary states jacked up their prices and kidnapped the crews of more American ships, trying to milk the young country for even more tribute. While the article acknowledges we worked with them for a while, it implies that Jefferson was a realist president who fought to attack the “terrorists” while Congress waffled.

The affair never hinted at a “Culture war,” any more than the conflicts that had ravaged Europe for centuries were “Culture wars.” It was the last dying gasps of the old world’s state-sponsored piracy, in which one country authorized privateers to sieze the ships of its enemies. I wonder, though – is this article, and the several like it that have started sprouting up around the web, the first wave of an attempt to link the current war on terror to that early conflict in America’s first years as an independent nation? It has a lot of resonance (“Jefferson refused to appease state-sponsored terrorism,” says the WorldNetDaily article), but precious little historical backing.

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