By Craig J. Cantoni
April 19, 2007
Who was the greatest appeaser of Muslim
extremists in history? Was it the French, the Germans, Barbara Streisand,
Nancy Pelosi, or Jimmy Carter?
The answer is Thomas Jefferson.
Which Americans were the greatest proponents
of imposing Christian and Western values on Arabs and Muslims? Was it southern
Bible-thumpers, born-again evangelicals, the Religious Right, or Texas neo-cons?
The answer is East Coast Protestants in
the early nineteenth century.
Except for the Bush administration and the
hundreds of members of Congress who voted for the invasion of Iraq, most
Americans have some familiarity with the history of the Middle East in the
twentieth century and thus know how the West had failed time and time again to
bring peace, prosperity and Western values to a region steeped in the opposite
values. But few probably know the history of American involvement in the
Middle East right after the birth of the United States and throughout the
Oh, sure, they may know that the Marine
hymn glorifies the landing of Marines at Tripoli
in 1804 to stop the Barbary States
from taking American ships and imprisoning and torturing American sailors. But
they probably don’t know about the years of tributes (extortion and ransom
money) paid to Muslim regimes before and even after the landing. (At one point
in the Jefferson administration, the tributes
totaled ten percent of the federal government’s budget.)
Other tidbits from the book:
- East Coast Christians were so enamored
with the Old Testament and Jewish traditions that they gave biblical names to
American towns and began a movement to restore a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Known as
“restorationists,” one of them was a professor of Hebrew at New York University,
George Bush, a forebear of the two presidents of the same name.
- Simultaneously, a large movement sprang
up to send missionaries to the Middle East to
convert Muslims and Eastern Orthodox Arabs to Christianity. The movement had
widespread support and funding from the public, the tacit approval of the U.S.
government, and encouragement from newspapers of the day.
- The missionaries were shocked by what
they saw in the Middle East. They
characterized Muslims and Bedouins as ruthless, barbaric, and untrustworthy.
And they characterized Islam as a phony religion. They also were quite
hypocritical, in that they criticized slavery and oppression in the Middle East
while slavery was thriving in the antebellum United States and while Native
Americans were being oppressed.
- Famous author and Puritan Herman
Melville was one of the few who saw the folly in the missionary movement.
Journeying to the Middle East, he concluded
that the missionaries couldn’t convert Eastern Orthodox Arabs and Muslims into
American-style Protestants. “Might as well attempt to convert bricks into
bride-cake as the Orientals into Christians,” he wrote.
- Back then, the situation in Beirut was no different
from the situation there today. Muslims, Druze and Christians were at each other’s
- There also is nothing new about the U.S. government supporting regime changes in the
Middle East and giving financial and military
aid to despots. It did plenty of that in the nineteenth century. For example
the U.S. participated in an
Egyptian expeditionary force into Sudan, massacring native tribes
along the way.
- Nor is there anything new about the U.S. and France being at loggerheads over their
respective interests in the Middle East. One
of the biggest bones of contention was France’s
use of Egyptian troops in its conquest of Mexico.
George Santayana wrote the famous dictum
about being doomed to repeat history. As Power,
Faith, and Fantasy shows, we’ve certainly done that in the rat-hole
of the Middle East.
An author and columnist, Mr. Cantoni can
be reached at email@example.com.