When Cultures Collide

The Barbary Wars of the early 1800s were America’s first encounter with Islam. Barbary corsairs and crews were engaged in the capture of merchant ships off the Barbary Coast. This not only involved the capture of ships and property, but also the taking of crew members for ransom and slave trade. The North African Ottoman provinces of Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and the Sultanate of Morocco were the source of this maritime profiteering. They became the scourge of the Mediterranean. It is estimated that between the 16th and 19th centuries, 1 to 1.25 million Europeans were captured and sold into slavery. (1) The ransom component became a major source of wealth for ruling Muslims. In 1795 alone, our government paid 1 million dollars to Algiers for the release of 115 American Sailors, — this amounted, at the time, to one-sixth of the United States budget. In 1786, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams went to London to negotiate with the ambassador of Tripoli, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman (or Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja). When asked by Jefferson & Adams as to why the Barbary Provinces chose to engage in hostile acts on a nation that had caused them no injury, this was the ambassador’s response as recorded by Thomas Jefferson:

It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise. He said, also, that the man who was the first to board a vessel had one slave over and above his share, and that when they sprang to the deck of an enemy’s ship, every sailor held a dagger in each hand and a third in his mouth; which usually struck such terror into the foe that they cried out for quarter at once.” (2)

On the advice of John Adams, the United States continued to pay tribute until an adequate navy could be built. The Department of the Navy was eventually formed in 1798. Tribute and ransom amounted to approximately 10% of government revenues up and until 1800. In 1802, Congress finally authorized, then President, Thomas Jefferson to take action to protect United States commerce and seamen. A war on Tripoli was waged. Our history books, streets, towns, and geographical areas now carry some of the names from the struggle, — Captain Willian Bainbridge, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, the USS Philadelphia, and the USS intrepid, and the US Marine Corp was born.

The bigger question needs to be asked, “With what were we struggling against?” If one were to make a comparison, America was, again, waging a conflict with the same forces that inspired the Revolutionary War, — enthroned monarchy and state-sponsored religion. The conflicts with Barbary Provinces embodied the twin justifications of oppression through a recognized state religion, and the divine right of rulers. It was, and remains today, an ideological chasm, — a conflict between cultures, and faiths. To understand the differences, one needs a working knowledge of the principles documented in our Declaration of Independence. For this essay, let’s focus on “equality,” and “natural law” as originally defined by the Founders.

The first paragraph of The Declaration of Independence lays the foundation for separation from England and The Crown. Not being accorded the same rights as Englishmen, the colonists were compelled to lay out their reasons for succession from England. It states that a people are of “separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitles them.” What follows in the second paragraph is, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Natural Law and the reference to Nature’s God is the moral component from which our rights are made manifest. Being born into a Judeo-Christian culture, and studied in Classical Western History, — the Founders had an understanding of “free agency.” “EQUALITY” meaning all men (people) are born free and independent of one another, none being naturally subordinated to another. At the same time, liberty is not license to trample on the rights of others. An example is that one’s right to life implies a duty to not commit murder, — or to carry it further, one’s pursuit of happiness should never trample on another’s right to life. With natural / unalienable rights comes a duty to preserve the rights of others. It is, also, clearly pointed out that no nation should declare dominion over another. The Declaration of Independence became the “WHY” of our nation’s creation. Our Constitution became the “HOW” our rights would be protected, — we were to be ruled by a written document through the “rule of law.” The idea of Monarchy and Devine Right of Rule were cast off.

Not a lot has changed since the ambassador of Tripoli’s statement in 1786 to Jefferson and Adams. If one is not a believer in Islam, you are a “kafir.” Islam divides humanity into two divisions, — those who are believers in Mohammed as the prophet of Allah, and those who are unbelievers. Our founding documents, of course, make no such distinction. In the case of Islam, the term “unbeliever” is not neutral. “A kafir is not merely someone who does not agree with Islam, but a kafir is evil, disgusting, the lowest form of life.  Kafirs can be tortured, killed, lied to and cheated. So the usual word “unbeliever” does not reflect the political reality of Islam.” An “infidel with diminished rights” would be a better description. The following quotes from the Koran will give us a snap shot of what Jefferson and Adams faced in the early 1800s, and what we face today.

3:28 — Believers should not take kafirs as friends in preference to other believers. Those who do this will have none of Allah’s protection and will only have themselves as guards. Allah warns you to fear Him for all will return to Him.”

9:29 — Make war on those who have received the Scriptures [Jews and Christians] but do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day. They do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden. The Christians and Jews do not follow the religion of truth until they submit and pay the poll tax [jizya], and they are humiliated.”

33:60 — They [kafirs] will be cursed, and wherever they are found, they will be seized and murdered. It was Allah’s same practice with those who came before them, and you will find no change in Allah’s ways.”

A provision for the infidel in Islam is the practice of Dhimmitude, — Dhimmi is the subordinate legal status given to the kafir to ‘protect’ him. Why is protection needed? Because Muslims are called upon to kill infidels as the general rule.” This protection is offered in exchange for the jizyah, the Islamic tax, and a reduced level of cultural freedom and benefits. These concepts fall under Islamic sharia, — Islamic law. There is a movement to establish Sharia courts in America. It becomes apparent that Islam is not just a religious movement, but a social, political, — and in the case of terrorism, a military movement, as well. To establish separate Sharia courts would be to establish a nation within a nation, and United States laws no longer universally applicable.

Contrast this with the context of “equality” and “unalienable rights” in our Declaration of Independence, and you have a socio-political movement that is conflicted with our own. It is a worldview that has no sense of “duty” to preserve the rights of nonbelievers, — infidels. As pointed out in previous essays, — not all ideas or thoughts are equal, — neither are they neutral. When the doctrines, laws, and practices of one culture collide with another’s, friction and conflict will result. The ability to practice one’s faith does not give one the right to undermine or circumvent the laws protecting the rights of all people. Further, no special interest group should be allowed to arbitrarily replace the Constitution with their own cultural law. There are multiple nations that practice Islam and sharia law, but neither are the basis for our Declaration of Independence and Constitution. Those who wish to live under Islamic law should migrate to Islamic nations that practice it and seek legal status there. The concepts of Sharia, Dhimmitude, and the jizyah are not compatible with our founding documents. To insist on immigration in the name of diversity without assimilation and naturalization is the import of cultural conflict. I would, instead, prefer to live in liberty and peace with those who believe in equality and unalienable rights as defined by our founding documents.


(1) Reference: Davis, Robert. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500–1800.

(2) “American Peace Commissioners to John Jay,” March 28, 1786, “Thomas Jefferson Papers,” Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651–1827, Library of Congress. LoC: March 28, 1786 (handwritten).

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