Over at the Huffington Post, Ali A. Rizvi has an eye-opener of a piece about militant Islam.
He starts off with a quote.
“The ambassador answered us that [their right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.”
Guess who? Rizvi reveals that
The above passage is not a reference to a declaration by al Qaeda or some Iranian fatwa. They are the words of Thomas Jefferson, then the U.S. ambassador to France, reporting to Secretary of State John Jay a conversation he’d had with Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja, Tripoli’s envoy to London, in 1786 — more than two and a quarter centuries ago.
That is before al Qaeda and the Taliban, before the creation of Israel or the Arab-Israeli conflict, before Khomeini, before Saudi Arabia, before drones, before most Americans even knew what jihad or Islam was, and, most importantly, well before the United States had engaged in a single military incursion overseas or even had an established foreign policy.
At the time, thousands of American and European trade ships entering the Mediterranean had been targeted by pirates from the Muslim Barbary states (modern-day North Africa). More than a million Westerners had been kidnapped, imprisoned and enslaved. Tripoli was the nexus for these operations. Jefferson’s attempts to negotiate resulted in deadlock, and he was told simply that the kidnapping and enslavement of the infidels would continue, tersely articulated by Adja in the exchange paraphrased above.
Adja’s position wasn’t a random one-off. This conflict continued for years, seminally resulting in the Treaty of Tripoli, signed into law by President John Adams in 1797. Article 11 of the document, a direct product of the United States’ first-ever overseas conflict, contained these famous words, cementing America’s fundamental commitment to secularism:
“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 Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan 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.”
Yes, the establishment of secularism in America back in the 18th century was largely related to a conflict with Islamist jihadism.
So where did Abdul Rahman Adja’s bin Laden-esque words come from?
They couldn’t have been a response to American imperialism (the start of the conflict precedes the presidency of George Washington), U.S. foreign policy, globalization, AIPAC or Islamophobia. Yet his words are virtually identical to those spouted ad nauseum by jihadists today who justify their bellicosity as a reaction to these U.S.-centric factors, which were nonexistent in Adja’s time.
Now, Rizvi reaches his key point. If I could mind-beam it to every person in the West — especially to those who keep insisting that there is some elusive “root cause” to Islamic jihad that transcends religion — I’d be a happy man.
In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings and the foiled al Qaeda-backed plot in Toronto, the “anything but jihad” brigade is out in full force again. If the perpetrators of such attacks say they were influenced by politics, nationalism, money, video games or hip-hop, we take their answers at face value. But when they repeatedly and consistently cite their religious beliefs as their central motivation, we back off, stroke our chins and suspect that there has to be something deeper at play, a “root cause.”
The taboo against criticizing religion is still so astonishingly pervasive that centuries of hard lessons haven’t yet opened our eyes to what has been apparent all along: It is often religion itself, not the “distortion,” “hijacking,” “misrepresentation” or “politicization” of religion, that is the root cause.
Next, here’s Rizvi making short shrift of the feeble accusation every critic of Islam must swat away over and over: that we’re “islamophobes.”
As an atheist Muslim (I’m not a believer, but I love Eid, the feasts of Ramadan and my Muslim family and friends), I could be jailed or executed in my country of birth, the country I grew up in and a host of other Muslim countries around the world for writing this very piece. Obviously, this is an unsettling, scary feeling for me. You may describe that fear as a very literal form of “Islamophobia.” But is that the same thing as anti-Muslim bigotry? No.
Semantics matter here. As much as I have differences with the contents of Islam’s canonical texts, I know that most Muslims are good, peaceful people who have barely read the Quran and seldom follow it except for the occasional cherry-picking and hearsay, much like the adherents of any other religion. Most of the 1 billion Muslims in the world (with the largest populations in Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) don’t even understand Arabic.
My own incredulity over seething Muslim anger against Western makers of cartoons and satirical TV shows always leads me to this question: How puny is your faith that a few words of jest can injure it? How feather-light is your belief in Allah that a cartoonist drawing your prophet warrants you drawing your sword?
Rizvi, however, has a more substantial response:
It is important to understand why criticism, satire or mockery of any ideology isn’t bigoted or racist. Criticizing capitalism does not make you an anti-capitalist “bigot.” Criticizing religious ideology is no different. No one is born pre-circumcised or pre-baptized with a hijab or a yarmulke sewn to their heads.
It is clear now, as it always has been, that ethnicity, gender, age, nationality, educational status, financial status, citizenship status, marital status and family background have little to do with Islamist terrorism. Before the Russian Tsarnaevs from North Caucasus, we’ve had Richard Reid, the Hispanic Jose Padilla, the Nigerian underwear bomber, California’s Adam Gadahn and others. The only common denominator among them is Islamic belief and religious fervor, which is not a race or ethnicity.
The “root causes” of jihadist terrorism are the same today as they were when Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja said those historic words to Thomas Jefferson. We want to be honest about it so that we can actually do something about it.
For the fast-growing secularist/humanist movement, criticism of religion isn’t a demonstration of bigotry but a struggle against it. To us, bigotry against bigotry isn’t bigotry, and intolerance of intolerance isn’t intolerance.
[top image via Naval History and Heritage; bottom image via undhimmi]