Tonight I am preparing for a class discussion of chapter four of Frank Lambert’s The Barbary Wars: American Independence in the Atlantic World. In my previous post, I commented on Lambert’s economic (as opposed to religious or “holy war”) interpretation of American diplomacy with the Barbary States. Yet Lambert does not ignore the fact that religion was a factor–albeit a minor one–informing U.S. foreign policy in these Islamic states.
In chapter four, entitled “Cultural Construction,” Lambert makes two arguments that I found interesting and worthy of further exploration.
First, he argues, that some Western thinkers believed that tyranny existed in the Barbary States because Islam “promoted a submissive citizenry, resigned to accept whatever occurred as the will of Allah.” Referencing the French thinker Abbe Constantin-Francois Chasseboeuf de Volney’s Travels Through Egypt and Syria (reprinted in New York in 1798), Lambert writes: “Like Calvinism Abbe Volney argued, Islam taught predestination, the idea that one’s life was foreordained by an omniscient deity and that faithful individuals must accept their fate” (pp.115-116).
The similarities between Calvinism and Islam on predestination is worth mentioning. But it also worth mentioning that North African Muslims may have been more committed to their religious fatalism than American Calvinists, who also utilized their religion to promote liberty and revolution. (I would expect Lambert to agree with me here). Whatever the case, most Americans saw “Christianity as a religion of liberty and Islam as a religion of subjugation.” (p.115)
Speaking of Christianity, particularly Protestantism, as a religion of liberty, I wish Lambert would have made a bit more of the similarities between anti-Islam and anti-Catholicism in the early republic. Once again, Thomas Kidd, in American Christians and Islam , seems to make more of this connection. He quotes Congregational minister Thomas Wells Bray who described Catholics and Muslims as the “the two grand deceivers of mankind, and implacable enemies of Christ.” (p.29).
Finally, I am interested in knowing more about Joel Barlow’s role in the Treaty of Tripoli. What role did his Enlightened/liberal religion play in the Treaty’s religion clause? Mark Noll, in America’s God, suggests in a footnote that Barlow’s deism may have had something to do with the decision to declare that the government of the United States is not a Christian nation.