Belief  /  Audio

Islam and the U.S.

What does it mean to be Muslim in America? And how has the practice of Islam in the U.S. changed over time?

PETER: One of those treaties was the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli, which fell apart as soon as Jefferson became president four years later. He refused to pay any more tributes, and in response, Tripoli declared war. It was actually another negotiating tactic, but Jefferson took the declaration at face value. Just a few months into his presidency, the US was at war with the Barbary states. It was America’s first conflict in the Islamic world.

FRANK COGLIANO: Since 2001, there’s been a spate of scholarship and publications and online commentary presenting the Barbary War and the First Barbary Wars as the first Wars on Terror, as though we get the antecedents to our contemporary conflict there. I just don’t think that’s the case. I think although religion is an element of these conflicts, as far as the Barbary states are concerned, this is a financial transaction. They’re seeking to raise money and revenue, and this is how they do it. They’re essentially taxing people, ships that pass by their coast.

And for the United States, it’s not a conflict of religion. As the 1796 treaty with Tripoli stipulates– and that was negotiated on behalf of John Adams– the United States was not founded as a Christian country, and it has no conflict with Islam. And I think that characterizes most of what’s going on in this period. This is about trade. This is about power.

PETER: And I can quote from that treaty, ratified by the Senate. “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, 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.”

And it suggests, though, that Tripoli might have thought that there was a religious element, and that’s why that explicit declaration that religion is not important was made.

FRANK COGLIANO: Yes, that’s true. I mean, when Jefferson and Adams held negotiations with the Tripolitan ambassador in London in 1786, this issue came up. You know, they asked. They said, basically, what’s your problem with us? Why are you doing this?