The Treaty of Tripoli was approved in 1796– this was to be a Treaty of peace and amity between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Tripoli (part of the Ottoman Empire). Its intent was to bring to an end three centuries of Muslim, government sanctioned piracy by the nations of the Barbary Coast of North Africa – what we today call the Maghreb i.e. Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Before then, any ship passing through the Mediterranean and many of the settlements along both the Mediterranean and the North Atlantic coast was subject to constant harassment by Barbary pirates. Thousands of ships were lost to piracy, entire stretches of European coastlands were uninhabitable and this was wholly because of the constant raids carried out by Arab slavers. Those attacks enriched the Ottoman Empire with European slaves and goods. Often, hostages were taken for the purpose of extracting enormous ransoms from their respective governments, communities and families. If unable to pay the tribute that was demanded for their lives, hostages not already allocated to the lucrative business of slavery, were consigned to slave markets, often they died while awaiting their freedom. During this three century period at least one and a quarter million European slaves are believed to have been lost to the Ottoman Slave Trade and the general Muslim market in North Africa and the Middle East.
The Treaty of Tripoli was violated during two significant periods at the start of the nineteenth century and led to both the First and the Second Barbary Wars.
We have failed to learn from this period of history that unless governments are willing to accept whatever consequences follow on from acquiescence to threats, intimidation and violence the ultimate result of failing to act against a rogue nation is escalating demands. Says Luis Fleischman in a report for the Center for Security Policy: “Weakness generates a morbid pleasure on the other side. It is always weakness that invites more violence because it makes it easier for the perpetrator to carry it out.”
It is a lesson from history that we have failed to learn, to our cost, in the war against the pirates that plague the Horn of Africa (principally along the Coast off Somalia).
But perhaps the most controversial result that emerged from the Treaty of Tripoli is what is referred to in Article 11 of the treaty. “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Muslims,—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Muslim nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
The usual interpretation is that this was no more than the reaffirmation of the principle of ‘Separation of Religion and State’ by the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. But a single question in popular culture often expresses the theory that this single document and its single paragraph (Article 11) has a pivotal role in guiding the US Department of State in its relationship with the whole of the Muslim world and has continued to do so since its signing 216 years ago.
This unwillingness to take sides in ethical disputes between Western nations and the Muslim world are more than reluctance to pass judgement according to our own values. They demonstrate weakness and intellectual cowardice. They send a message to those with whom we have the strongest of objections to their behavior that we will not act against them even when they abuse us in our own homes. This does not show our cultural superiority or our legal excellence in managing our differences in our multicultural societies. Instead it shows that we don’t care and that does make us appear weak.
Ultimately, history is based on what we choose to do. Inaction sends an equally clear message.
And so, to return to what is referred to by many historians as the Muslim Slave Trade, and if we isolate it and instead refer to the more specific Arab Slave Trade, between the 7th and the 20th century this one particular economic enterprise (the Arab slave trade) stole mores souls than the Atlantic Slave Trade and it killed far more human beings. For every slave that made it to the markets, four or five people died. The current estimate is that this particular trade saw somewhere between eleven million and up to forty million people seized from their homes and taken into slavery.
“If Christianity was responsible for the Atlantic slave trade, it was also Christians who led the campaign to abolish the Slave trade and then slavery itself. In Islam, slavery was never the moral, political and economic issue it was in the West, where it engendered a multitude of tracts and books in denunciation of the institution.” (Ronald Segal ‘Islam’s Black Slaves’).
And the institution of slavery informs, educates and reinforces the believer in their attitudes and behaviors towards the ‘other.’ Ridicule is a central component of literary incitement and it leads to genocide – in Hitler’s Germany it was ‘the Jew’ portrayed as ‘rat’ (bringer of plagues). In much of Islamic holy literature it is both Christian and Jew who are portrayed as monkey, ape, pig or dog. As recently as January 2014 Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave a televised speech in which he called Israel the “rabid dog” of the Middle East. The Koran and its affiliated literature are replete with contemptuous anthropomorphic references to the infidel.
In the West we discuss inequality as if it is White, Middle class and a product of Judeo-Christian civilization. Perhaps the philosophical idea of equality and its absence is, in itself, indeed a product of that synthesis. But so what? It exists without our airing it so it is only when we discuss it that we consider our treatment of others in both the past and in the present time. It is only thus that we are able to judge our culpability and pronounce judgement on our ethical failures. Then it is possible to appreciate a need for change. This is something that is largely if not wholly absent from any local or national dialogue in the Muslim world.
The question that we should be asking is: how, can we raise the bar on what may be discussed in society, without causing a major crisis in our relationship with the Muslim world? And if we cannot avoid such a rupture, is it worth it?
I suspect that that last question would never have occurred to the Abolitionists in the USA, or to Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce in England. And if it did occur to them they would have known in their hearts and their minds that such a question was never truly worthy of asking.