The Origins of Islamic Terrorism in the United States

Author- Kenny Zeng

Following the catastrophic attacks that occurred on September the 11th of 2001; the American people have continuously pondered on whether a hatred exists between the Islamic world and the West. Even before the attacks of September 11th, Americans tend to vaguely forget that Islamic terrorism has plagued the West for millennia. For example, in the late 1970s, Americans vaguely remember that the United States experienced a hostage crisis in 1979.  More precisely, with the emergence of the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, Shia Muslims, who adhered to the orders of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, captured exactly fifty-two American diplomats at an American embassy in Tehran. At the same time, these Islamic followers, or Iranian citizens held these diplomats in hostage for four hundred and forty-four days. This example is only one of a thousand cases where Islamic terrorism has stricken the West. Interestingly, even before the Hostage Crisis of 1979, Americans failed to notice that the origins that Islamic terrorism has inflicted with the United States go as far back as the period of the Early Republic. Therefore, this article shall briefly trace the origins of how in the Early Republic, which spans from the year 1789 to 1823 helped to illuminate the abhorrent interrelationship that has sprung up between the West and the Islamic world. Ultimately, this article shall demonstrate how Islam is the antithesis of the libertarianism philosophy, where libertarianism advocates strongly for a limited government, and the preservation of civil liberties.   

First, in the Colonial Period, before the United States declared independence from Great Britain in the year 1776, the British already established a naval hegemony throughout the shores. At this time, European Powers, such as the French and Spanish recognized that the British Navy was a dominant force to be reckoned with in the world. As a result of this recognition, the British protected its interests and the livelihood of its citizens at home and its colonies. However, once the United States successfully attained independence from the British in the early 1780s, the new nation lost that protection that the British once provided.  Simply put, following the American Revolution, the nation had to deal with threats both foreign and domestic, without the aid of the British Empire.

Therefore, following the War of Independence, which occurred in the early 1780s, the nation began to experience its first taste of Islamic Terrorism. American merchants at this time began to trade with European Powers to expand and flourish its thriving economy. However, at the same time, Barbary Pirates, or Ottoman corsairs, which composed of pirates and privateers began to pillage American merchants. These pirates, or the subjects of the Ottoman Empire, settled mainly in Northern Africa, specifically in the modern nations of Morocco, Algeria, and Libya. They settled in the port cities of SaléRabatAlgiersTunis, and Tripoli. Since Islam became the state religion in the Ottoman Empire for centuries, these Barbary pirates also adhered to the Islamic faith. However, the American merchants, where Britain used to control, acceded to the Christian faith.  As a result of the differing religions that coexisted, the Barbary Pirates continued to pillage American merchant ships whenever these ships arrived in the Mediterranean. And as a consequence of these different faiths, these Barbary Pirates would continue to sabotage American shipping at the seas, especially the Mediterranean to enter the Strait of Gibraltar. Also, these Pirates attempted to capture these American merchants in order turn them into slaves.

Simultaneously, once the American Revolution ended in the early 1780s, the United States signed the Treaty of Paris in 1783. This treaty led the British government to recognize the United States as a new nation. Also, this agreement permitted the United States to navigate the waters that the British once restricted. From there, the United States would have to decide on how to safely protect its citizens from savage attacks from the Barbary Pirates. Unfortunately, the United States would continue to experience constant pillaging from these Muslim Pirates. During the height of the pillages, The Continental Congress sent three delegates to negotiate with the leaders of the Barbary Pirates. Specifically, the Congress sent John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to Paris to negotiate with Sidi Haji Abdrahaman, who served as a Tripoli envoy to London. Following the meeting, The Tripoli representative explained to Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams that their Holy Quran justified their actions. According to a letter that Jefferson wrote to John Jay,

The ambassador answered us that [the 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.

  As mentioned before, these Barbary pirates, who adhered to the Islamic faith, justified their actions through their faith. For example, these pirates cited verses from Quran to justify their pillages. As one can conclude, this practice of quoting from the Koran is not recent; this practice has been done for centuries. Also, the idea of citing verses to justify their murderous actions is the antithesis of libertarianism. Here, Islam from this scenario violates one’s freedom of expression. Specifically, their followers were determined to capture by force their captives, mainly the merchants, to forcefully convert the prisoners to Islam. On the other hand, if the merchants failed to convert to Islam, then their lives would be placed in danger.

At the same time, as the Pirates continued to pillage merchant ships, the American government was highly in debt, which resulted from the American Revolution. The American government had no navy and money to fight off these foreign threats. Therefore, following the diplomatic meeting between the American government and the Barbary Pirates in the 1780s, George Washington, who served as the First President of the United States adopted a policy to appease these Barbary Pirates. More precisely, Washington feared that if the American government failed to pay monetary tribute to these Pirates, American merchants risked constant attacks from the pirates. At the same time, it is significant to understand that the young American nation lacked a navy to confront Islamic terrorism. The country has fought valiantly to attain independence from the British. In order to fight the British Navy, the Americans turned to the French, who served as an alliance with the Americans and possessed a powerful navy as well. However, once the American Revolution ended, the Americans lacked a powerful naval power to confront its enemies in the seas. Therefore, the pirates would be able to pillage the lives of American merchants, which devastated American shipping.

Furthermore, as we progress to the early John Adams administration, Adams had to decide on how to confront the persistent attacks from the Barbary Pirates. Therefore, Adams made a persuasive argument, by specifically asking Congress for money to constructing a navy. Congress adhered to the orders from Adams and Adams is regarded as the Father of the American Navy. Unfortunately, even though the United States built a navy, President John Adams would continue to follow his predecessor’s policy of appeasement, where the federal government continued a policy of appeasement, by paying tribute to these Barbary Pirates. The reason why President Adams continued to pay tribute to the pirates was that of the Treaty of Tripoli (1796), which the American government and the Ottoman Tripolitania signed that ideally secured commercial shipping rights in the Mediterranean and protected American ships against the Pirates. The policy seemed to work well, only if the American government continued to pay tribute, or a Jizya, which was a tax upon dhimmis, or second class citizens.

On the other hand, once Thomas Jefferson wins the Election of 1800 against John Adams, he completely reverses policies that his predecessors set. Specifically, in contrast to the Washington and Adams administration, where they continued to pay tribute to the Barbary Pirates, Jefferson ends this policy. As a result, once the Pirates sensed that the Americans failed to pay tribute, they resumed with their usual policy of pillaging American merchant ships and declared war on the United States. Once President Jefferson secured funding from the Congress, he sent the American navy to confront the Barbary Pirates. Therefore, the number of attacks from these pirates stopped temporarily once the American government exercised a little force to confront its enemies.   

Furthermore, during the second term of the Jefferson Presidency, which lasted from 1805 to 1809, the nation experienced a sense of peace where the pillaging stopped. However, once James Madison, who served as the Fourth President of the United States assumed office, he directed the navy to fight in the War of 1812. Apparently, at this time, the Barbary Pirates tried to pillage American merchant shipping. Simply put, they continued to justify that their religion taught them to attack non-believers on the seas consistently. More precisely, these pirates, who still adhered to the Islamic faith, continued to cause more causalities. But, once the United States signed the Treaty of Ghent in 1815, which officially ended the War of 1812, Madison yet again sent the Navy to confront the Barbary Pirates and won. This was known as the Second Barbary War.

In conclusion, it is crucial for not only Americans but even for libertarians to understand that Islamic terrorism has affected Western civilizations for centuries. In the libertarian philosophy, which actively advocates for a form of a limited government and the preservation of one’s civil liberties, Islam, as practiced by the Barbary Pirates violates this doctrine. These pirates, who proudly pillaged American ships, consistently cited the Quran as a justification to inflict terror upon the Western World. Also, libertarians also stress that a taxation is a form of theft. At the same time, as demonstrated by the Muslim Barbary Pirates, they also consistently advocated for the American taxpayers in the Early Republic to forcefully and violently steal the personal property of Americans.  As our nation progressed to the present day, Islamic terrorism has continued to rear its ugly head where they still advocate for the death of non-believers. Therefore, it is crucial to understand that the only way to confront any enemy is to acknowledge them. At the same time, it is important to comprehend that one needs to be able to express one’s mind freely, as libertarianism stresses, without fearing the backlash that one may experience from critics.    

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One thought on “The Origins of Islamic Terrorism in the United States

  1. Great Article! Nicely put together with a good thesis argument and facts.Thanks for helping reshape the fragile minds and perspectives of many Americans who may be unaware on the subject of Islamic terrorism in the United States.


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