Religion

Hitchens on Jefferson on the Koran

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Christopher Hitchens peers a bit closer at what exactly was going on when Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the newly-minted, first-ever Muslim congressman, took his oath of office on Thomas Jefferson's copy of the Koran :

in 1786, the new United States found that it was having to deal very directly with the tenets of the Muslim religion. The Barbary states of North Africa (or, if you prefer, the North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, plus Morocco) were using the ports of today's Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia to wage a war of piracy and enslavement against all shipping that passed through the Strait of Gibraltar….The fledgling United States of America was in an especially difficult position, having forfeited the protection of the British Royal Navy. Under this pressure, Congress gave assent to the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Jefferson's friend Joel Barlow, which stated roundly that "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." This has often been taken as a secular affirmation, which it probably was, but the difficulty for secularists is that it also attempted to buy off the Muslim pirates by the payment of tribute.

Read the whole thing here.

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  1. Hitchens can be a great, snappy writer, but his article just seemed incoherent. First, he starts off with the excellent point that the problem with Ellison is not his faith, but his past association with the National of Islam. The rest of the article, with its discussions of Jefferson’s views on religion and on the Barbary pirates, while interesting, hardly seems relevant to Ellison one way or another. I read it quickly yesterday. Did I miss something?

  2. Keith Ellison if a fucking act. He will self-destruct in the near future. He will not win a second term.

  3. I’m sure we’re all glad to hear that.

  4. Hitch is recycling research he did for book on Jefferson that he released a couple of years ago by applying it to Ellison’s use of Jefferson’s Koran.

    The book is pretty good, and the article as it’s child is informative. It’s kind of a phone-in though.

    At least he isn’t talking women’s sense of humor again. That was sooo bad.

  5. I’m going to rely on reader’s gestalt of perception to get around my having forgot to click “Preview” on that last post.

  6. Imagine the uproar among the “politically correct” if Christian nations of the time had been involved in some kind of slave trade.

  7. Jim Henley

    I get the irony of the fact that Christian nations of the time were engaged in the slave trade, but I’m not sure what point you are making.

    Otherwise, the point about “the difficulty for secularists is that it also attempted to buy off the Muslim pirates by the payment of tribute” is interesting from a perspective that many of the things we laud in the past did not arise from ‘noble sentiments’ but from expediency and messy compromises.

  8. Jim Henley,
    I hope that was meant as irony.

  9. Aresen, to be frank, I’m not completely sure what Hitchens’ or Katherine’s point is either. But Hitchens characterizes the Barbary Piracy wrangle as the US having to “deal with the tenets of the Muslim religion,” presumably because TMR legitamized preying on the Dar el Harb or whatever. So it certainly seems relevant that Christian nations themselves had countenanced both slave trading and piracy when expedient: the US was still issuing letters of marque in the Civil War. Plus there was the whole massively colonizing the non-European world effort, then in full swing.

  10. The point I took from it was that many contemporary commentators have made much of Jefferson’s statement that the US was not a Christian nation, which makes the context in which the statement arose relevant.

    My own view, from reading lots of history, is that many of the ideals we cherish arose more or less by accident, not from a grand enlightenment. [eg. The Magna Carta was mostly an attempt by the Barons to get control of England, not some noble statement of human rights.]

  11. Larry, you didn’t miss anything, it was snappy and interesting, making a lot of points about things that are only loosely connected.

    Best move was sending the Marines to Tripoli, the bribery was not bright.

  12. “”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.” This has often been taken as a secular affirmation, which it probably was, but the difficulty for secularists is that it also attempted to buy off the Muslim pirates by the payment of tribute.”

    the article was interesting, but I agree that Hitchens’ point was obscure or incoherent. I don’t see why paying off Muslim pirate nations presents any problem for the secularists. in any case, my understanding is that since the treaty was ratified (for whatever reason), it is law under our constitution. therefore: the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. BY LAW.

  13. I don’t think this shows anything except that Jefferson was a realist, rather than an idealist, in foreign policy. He accepted that the USA was in a weak position and said what our stronger enemies wanted to hear so they’d stop bothering us, rather than launching an idealist and impossible war.

    Rather than a statement of ideology, his quote about Islam is rather a “We have nothing against you except your piracy, let’s deal.”

  14. i like hitch except i’m not for the war in iraq which has been his main issue the last few years. i like when he sticks it to religous folks or michael moore or anne coulter.

  15. First couple paragraphs great, rest of the article irrelevant. And note that the headline (probably not written by Hitch, but still) is something like “What Did TJ Really think about Islam?” But the article says nothing (explicitly at any rate) about TJ’s feelings toward the “Mussulmen” (I love that word).

    Moreover, Hitch starts by saying that while using Jefferson’s Koran was clever, it really reveals Ellison to be an idiot too. But why? Because TJ fought a war against a Muslim-run empire that was pirating US ships? So did TJ hate Episcopalians too? He helped to instigate a war of rebellion against the Anglican Church’s home team, after all.

  16. Because “in his student days,” Ellison worked with the NOI on political efforts, we’re supposed to question his faith in the teachings of the Koran? Huh? Jesse Helms sponsored a bill that made the Moonie “True Parents Day” into a federal holiday called “Parents Day.” Are we supposed to conclude from that episode that Helms didn’t really believe in the Bible?

  17. tranquility of Musselmen

    Bill Musselman? The basketball coach? He was anything but tranquil.

  18. Is it not time to apply the razor and produce a reasonable Quran as well?

    Ah, but that begs the question: Is there a market for a near-empty book cover whose pages end at an empty table of contents?

  19. I get the irony of the fact that Christian nations of the time were engaged in the slave trade, but I’m not sure what point you are making.

    Lets not forget that Christian nations were also the sole opposition to the slave trade, at the time.

  20. Lets not forget that Christian nations were also the sole opposition to the slave trade, at the time.

    And eventually the only ones to end it.

  21. Ah, but that begs the question: Is there a market for a near-empty book cover whose pages end at an empty table of contents?

    And the even more obvious question, would anybody do it considering the chance that you would get your head chopped off?

  22. Hitchens, unfortunately, is not exactly a respected Jefferson scholar. Most historians and Jefferson experts regard ‘ole Hitch as something of a liar and a fraud when it comes to such subejcts:
    http://scienceblogs.com/dispatches/2006/11/hitchens_jefferson_and_atheism.php

  23. Excellent article. (BTW, Little Green Footballs beat Hitchens to the punch in having a laugh at Ellison’s use of Jefferson’s Koran.)

    Hitchens makes many points, and underlying it all is his contempt at all religions, which are still messing the world up today. I agree.

    In regards to Islam specifically, Hitchens is linking Jefferson’s need to use force with our current need to use force. Once Jefferson understood he was dealing with unreasonable religious barbarians motivated in their barbarism by their deranged, medievel cult, he realized that trying to secure some “temporary leniency” was not going to do any good. So he built a navy to put a stop to them, and stop them he did even though it took years. What Hitchens is saying is that it was the moment when Jefferson understood what kind of unreasonable religious enemy he was dealing with that he knew he had no other option but to use military force. Similar to today int he wake of 9/11.

    Elements within Islam are as medievel as ever, and we find ourselves having to use military force against an enemy you cannot negotiate or reason with.

  24. The LGF guys are idiots, as always, and the entire line of argument is just plain dumb. But of course, rambling quotes without any knowledge of history is what counts for expertise in rightwing-o-stan.

  25. Whatever you think about LGF in general is irrelevant. LGF and Hitchens are both correct that it’s absurd to act like Jefferson was a fan of the Koran and Islam. In fact, he would’ve loved to take a razor blade and cut out all the most deranged crap in the Koran and create a more reasonable Koran. If we have to live in a world with Islam, then please lets have Islam leave the dark ages and become more compatible with civilization.

    And in fact Jefferson went to war with some Muslims after he understood what kind of medievel mentality he was dealing with in those particular Muslims. Once he knew his enemy, in other words.

    Furthermore, Hitchens points out that Ellison’s Nation of Islam connections shows that Ellison has been part of a cult within Islam that is considered extreme and particularly hateful by even other Muslims. The laughs on Ellison if he thinks Jefferson would’ve been down with his religious views.

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