Has the United States ever engaged in a crusade against Islam? No, never. And, what's more, one of the country's earliest diplomatic documents rejects this very idea.
Exactly 210 years ago this week, toward the end of George Washington's second presidential administration, a document was signed with the first of two Barbary Pirate states. Awkwardly titled the "Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed at Tripoli November 4, 1796 (3 Ramada I, A. H. 1211), and at Algiers January 3, 1797 (4 Rajab, A. H. 1211)," it contains an extraordinary statement of peaceful intent toward Islam.
The agreement's 11th article (out of twelve) reads:
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 Musselmen, — and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahomitan 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.
In June 1797, the Senate unanimously ratified this treaty, which President John Adams immediately signed into law, making it an authoritative expression of American policy.
In 2006, as voices increasingly present the "war on terror" as tantamount to a war on Islam or Muslims, it bears notice that several of the Founding Fathers publicly declared they had no enmity "against the laws, religion or tranquility" of Muslims. This antique treaty implicitly supports my argument that the United States is not fighting Islam the religion but radical Islam, a totalitarian ideology that did not even exist in 1796.
Beyond shaping relations with Muslims, the statement that "the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion" has for 210 years been used as a proof text by those who argue that, in the words of a 1995 article by Steven Morris, "The Founding Fathers Were Not Christians."
But a curious story lies behind the remarkable 11th article. The official text of the signed treaty was in Arabic, not English; the English wording quoted above was provided by the famed diplomat who negotiated it, Joel Barlow (1754-1812), then the American consul-general in Algiers. The U.S. government has always treated his translation as its official text, reprinting it countless times.
There are just two problems with it.
First, as noted by David Hunter Miller (1875-1961), an expert on American treaties, "the Barlow translation is at best a poor attempt at a paraphrase or summary of the sense of the Arabic." Second, the great Dutch orientalist Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje (1857-1936), reviewed the Arabic text in 1930, retranslated it, and found no 11th article. "The eleventh article of the Barlow translation has no equivalent whatever in the Arabic," he wrote. Rather, the Arabic text at this spot reprints a grandiloquent letter from the pasha of Algiers to the pasha of Tripoli.
Snouck Hurgronje dismisses this letter as "nonsensical." It "gives notice of the treaty of peace concluded with the Americans and recommends its observation. Three fourths of the letter consists of an introduction, drawn up by a stupid secretary who just knew a certain number of bombastic words and expressions occurring in solemn documents, but entirely failed to catch their real meaning."
These many years later, how such a major discrepancy came to be is cloaked in obscurity and it "seemingly must remain so," Hunter Miller wrote in 1931. "Nothing in the diplomatic correspondence of the time throws any light whatever on the point."
But the textual anomaly does have symbolic significance. For 210 long years, the American government has bound itself to a friendly attitude toward Islam, without Muslims having signed on to reciprocate, or without their even being aware of this promise. The seeming agreement by both parties not to let any "pretext arising from religious opinions" to interrupt harmonious relations, it turns out, is a purely unilateral American commitment.
And this one-sided legacy continues to the present. The Bush administration responded to acts of unprovoked Muslim aggression not with hostility toward Islam but with offers of financial aid and attempts to build democracy in the Muslim world.