The Barbary Wars are a period of much modern polemic in the West, specifically the United States. Islamophobes and racists such as the late Christopher Hitchens popularized the notion that today’s “War on Terror” is just the most current manifestation of a long, continuous and unbroken history of conflict pitting the United States against Islam or so-called “Islamic terrorism” to use their language. In their telling the aggressors have always been Muslims, driven by Islamic doctrine and an urge to take over the West.
The ahistorical use of the Barbary wars fails to account for the nuances of the time period and the motives of Barbary, and other states in the Mediterranean Sea. The following excerpt from “The Wars of the Barbary Pirates: To the Shores of Tripoli: The Rise of the US Navy and Marines” critiques the distortions of Islamophobic propagandists who seek to satisfy contemporary political agendas, i.e. unending wars in Muslim majority nations.
“Even when light is shone on this long-forgotten period, reality is occasionally distorted by those who would seek to satisfy a political agenda rather than establish historical fact. In no way is this more obviously so than with respect to the role – or lack thereof – played by religion in America’s wars against the Barbary States. Despite the many parallels recently drawn between these conflicts and that between United States and al-Qaeda, the historical record does not lend itself to comparison. In short, the Barbary Wars, did not constitute, as at least one author maintains, “America’s first war on terror.” America did not perceive itself at war with terrorists, however defined, and while piracy was clearly a scourge to American trade, the religious component to the wars was confined to the Barbary States’ notion that Christians, being infidels, were inferior to Muslims. In recognizing this, one must not ignore the fact, that conversely, Christians felt themselves superior, morally and theologically speaking, to their Muslim opponents, as is clear from contemporary literature.
Yet however much the two sides condemned the other as deviants from the one true faith, they did not emphasize differences of religion in any more than peripheral terms – much less claim them as a motive for war. The Barbary States were not theocracies, with Muslim clerics controlling the levers of power. There was no “jihad,” except insofar as the stirring of religious hatred served the interests of powers bent on profit. Nor had the United States, specifically founded on the basis of a separation of church and state, any religious agenda to pursue. It, too, sought profit, but in the form of free trade rather than piracy.
If a degree of hypocrisy creeps into the debate over the motives behind America’s wars against the Barbary States, no more is this so than with respect to the issue of white slavery. Morally reprehensible though the enslavement of Christians by Muslims certainly was, it was no more unpalatable than the Western practice of enslaving black Africans. Slaves on American plantations had virtually no prospect of eventual release (known as manumission): they were denied citizenship, and their inferior status also denied them recourse to the judicial system to challenge the legal basis that categorized them as property rather than as people. Nor did sharing a common Christian faith – clearly interpreted differently by slaves and slave-owners – protect them from bondage.
By contrast, not only did the Barbary States decline to enslave co-religionists, they had a vested interest in releasing slaves, for freedom came at the price of ransom, for the purpose of which the captives had been taken in first place. If, pending their release, the white slaves held by the Barbary States were put to hard labor, poorly fed, and subjected to abuse, the same was true for slaves in South Carolina or Jamaica – the difference being that whereas a white slave in North Africa could hold out some hope of eventual release, the same could not be said for his black counterpart in North America. It is important, moreover, to compare the scale of slavery as practiced, for instance, in the United States on the one hand, and Algiers on the other. Whereas in 1790 there were nearly 700,000 slaves in America, there were only 3,000 in Algiers. Even an aggregate total for the whole of North Africa would not begin to approach the scale of slavery as conducted in the United States alone, not to mention the West Indies and other parts of the New World. Western powers situated on the Atlantic seaboard, practically all of which themselves practiced slavery, naturally did not recognize this apparent paradox.”