The Shores of Tripoli: The Libyan Tragedy and Our Historically Challenged President

In a frequently misquoted line from the Life of Reason, George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  Cultural amnesia, helpless or deliberate, does enable people to rewrite history without compunction, and it also makes it easy for others to believe the fiction as fact, or to suppose in a “nunc pro tunc” way that projects our assumptions onto the ways things were seen in the past. I should guess that most of our leaders in government today could not pass the qualifying examination in history as was required for a high school diploma in the State of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.  I cite the example of a speech of President Obama at the fourth annual “Iftar” dinner, a feast at the end of a day of Ramadan fasting, for assembled Muslims in the White House on August 10 in this year of 2012:

As I’ve noted before, Thomas Jefferson once held a sunset dinner here with an envoy from Tunisia—perhaps the first Iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago. And some of you, as you arrived tonight, may have seen our special display, courtesy of our friends at the Library of Congress—the Koran that belonged to Thomas Jefferson. And that’s a reminder, along with the generations of patriotic Muslims in America, that Islam—like so many faiths—is part of our national story.

The miscalculation about the role of Muslims in our nation’s history was mentioned previously in President Obama’s speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 in which he said he was speaking “as a student of history.” As the “Arab Spring” looks increasingly like an autumn headed for winter, it may go in the annals of presidential speeches as the one most tightly packed with mistakes of historical fact: “Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President John Adams wrote, ‘The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.’ … And when the first Muslim-American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers—Thomas Jefferson—kept in his personal library.”

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

If I felt confident that President Obama could name some of the Hasmonean kings, I could point out that while they were “a part of the story” of Christianity, they were not so in a positive light. This might put into a better perspective any notion that the Treaty of Tripoli was anything like a free trade agreement, or that the Tunisian envoy’s dinner with Jefferson was a pleasant interlude, or that Jefferson’s purchase of “Holy Koran” was part of his quest for oriental wisdom. For one thing, Jefferson’s copy was an English translation published in 1734 by George Sale. As it was not in Arabic, it was not any more authentic in the opinion of Muslims than is Farrakhan’s “Nation of Islam” which the first Muslim congressman to whom Obama alluded, Keith Ellison,  assisted in some of its activities before he abjured it during his election campaign.

In the eighteenth century, Tripoli, along with the other Barbary Coast lands of Tunis and Algiers (being North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire) and Morocco, had been centers of piracy, preying with a special lust on the ships of the fledgling United States. In March of 1785, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams met in London with the representative of the Dey of Algiers to Britain, Sidi Haji Abdul Rahman Adja. They posed the simple question: Why were the Muslims so hostile to a new country that had done them no injury? Adams joined Jefferson in reporting to Congress through a letter to John Jay who was then Secretary of Foreign Affairs, that “Islam was founded on the Laws of their Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have acknowledged 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 Musselman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to paradise.”

For Jefferson, Islam was a curiosity and beyond the pale of reason, but its anti-clericalism and disdain for Christianity had a wry appeal, as it also had to Voltaire, for its destructive influence on the old system of Western beliefs. Considering the vast fortunes being lost to the Barbary pirates, and the thousands of Europeans and Americans being captured for slavery, Congress favored appeasement, by bribing the pirates in the form of annual tribute.  Jefferson objected: “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute.” Adams approved the payoff money, saying “We ought not to fight them at all unless we determine to fight them forever.” Tripoli broke its truce and Jefferson launched the Tripolitan War as soon as he became president, though it was not officially declared by Congress. Probably the most significant event at the start of Jefferson’s administration was the dispatch of U.S. vessels, to the Barbary coast, and the march of Army and Marines across the desert from Egypt into Tripolitania, freeing Americans enslaved by the Muslims. There were degrees of enslavement, and not all were repugnant: rather like Joseph in Egypt, it was possible for some to attain rank, like John Leander Cathcart a United States citizen (having emigrated from Ireland) who worked his way up from keeper of the royal zoo to become a chief clerk to the Dey of Algiers

Jefferson did not arrange an Iftar dinner for what Obama in his 2010 Iftar address called “the first Muslim ambassador to the United States.”  Sidi Soliman Mell-imelli was not an ambassador but a temporary envoy from the Bey of Tunis.  Thus “ambassador” was qualified as “envoy” in Obama’s 2012 Iftar address, which also added “perhaps” to the claim that Jefferson’s dinner for the envoy was an Iftar. Mell-imelli spent six months in Washington, fascinating the locals with his charming ways and exotic dress of a scarlet robe, a turban of twenty yards of fabric, and yellow shoes. Indulging the occult, he wrapped Dolly Madison in his cloak, assuring her that it would guarantee the birth of a son.  In this he failed.  While not formally acceding to Mell-imelli’s request that concubines be supplied to his hotel, the State Department was able to find a Greek woman named Georgia to keep him company. Secretary of State Madison advised Jefferson that it would be wise to let “pass unnoticed the unique conduct” of this representative of the Barbary states.  Mell-imelli may have dined at the Executive Mansion more than once, and customarily at the 3:30 PM dinner hour.  In Ramadan, he asked to be excused, so Jefferson delayed the dinner for several hours, with no change in menu and without any notion of catering a ritual feast. Cathcart, who had been liberated and returned to the United States, was an escort for Mell-imelli and his retinue, because of his acquired Arabic.  He noted that the envoy’s party did not follow the Islamic rules of temperance and was happy to be acquitted of his charge.  Mell-imelli’s congeniality did not extend to a delegation of Cherokee Indians whom he called “vile heretics” for following neither Moses or Jesus. He told Jefferson that he doubted that these Cherokees had descended from Adam.

While these matters may have been so submerged in arcane history that they fail to appear on Presidential teleprompters,  it is fair to read John Adam’s sense of Islam in what John Quincy Adams distilled:

The precept of the Koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Moslem creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.

Adams was not only aware that Islam promoted history’s largest slave system, including over a million Europeans and tens of millions of Africans, but had even nibbled at New Englanders.  In 1625, Governor William Bradford lamented that one of the Massachusetts Bays Colony’s ships, in the English Channel within view of Plymouth, had been boarded by Turks who took the captain and crew as slaves to Morocco. The sultan there Moulay Ismail, pride of the Alaoutie  dynasty, kept 25,000 white slaves. He was known to test his latest axes and knives on slaves, but for that purpose he used Africans.

In his most recent Iftar speech, President Obama said “Indeed, you know that the Koran teaches, ‘Be it man or woman, each of you is equal to the other.’  Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children slaves in Sudan Chad, Niger, Mali and Mauritania do not know that. In the nineteenth century, Saint Josephine Bakhita was enslaved by Arab traders in Sudan and forced to convert to Islam. Her saga is a reminder that President Obama’s exegesis of the Koran is nuanced. That is especially unfortunate for women and should be a concern to those like Sandra Fluke who spoke at the recent Democrat convention of a Republican “war against women.” Sura 4 of the Koran tells Muslim men: “Forbidden to you also are married women, except those who are in your hands as slaves.”  Unlike the Christian scriptures whose portents are interpreted by the same Church that canonized them, the Koran claims to be the very dictation of the Almighty, not one single letter of which can be changed. This then makes Sura 9 awkward for citation in an after-dinner speech: “Believers! Wage war against such of the infidels as are your neighbors, and let them find you rigorous; and know that God is with those who fear him.” Happily when Thomas Jefferson hosted his Non-Iftar dinner, he did not quote  the 47th Sutra in his Non-Koran: “When you encounter the infidels, strike off their heads until you have made a great slaughter among them, and of the rest make fast the fetters.”

How former presidents should occupy their time in retirement is not indicated by the Constitution, and they are free agents in that regard. They could spend some of their days boning up on history, but it would be better if they had known some history before being elected to become part of it.


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...