Decatur Boarding the Tripolitan Gunboat (1804), by Dennis Malone Carter
Source: Naval Historical Center, Dept. of the Navy, Washington
Many people seem to believe that the violent struggle between America and the Islamic world began on that fateful day in September, 2001. But, as a matter of fact, there's a crucial historical context to the present conflict which predates 9/11.
Indeed, whilst some commentators argue that the US inadvertently helped to create IS due to its actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, it's actually more accurate to say that the Arab-Muslim world has determined (and provoked) US armed foreign policy from the very beginning. To understand why this is so, it's necessary to look back to the time of the so-called Barbary Wars at the beginning of the 19th century ...
Deprived of Royal Navy protection following victory in the War of Independence, American merchant shipping became increasingly vulnerable to the attentions of those powers and pirates who controlled the seas along the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Not only were cargoes looted, but crews and passengers were kidnapped and either held for ransom, or sold into slavery.
Thus, as early as the 1780s, America was obliged either to take military action, or submit to Arab aggression and the payment of ever-increasing sums of protection money, or 'tribute' as it was known.
Rightly, I believe, under the presidency of Thomas Jefferson, the US decided it had to fight. For not only is it mistaken and shameful to give into extortion, but there were also terrible reports at the time concerning the mistreatment of captured American citizens. And so a fleet was constructed and a new, permanent force of marines assembled.
Of course, Jefferson was primarily keen to secure American access to free trade routes and was not particularly interested in fighting a holy war or crusade against the Muslim states per se. However, as Christopher Hitchens points out, he must surely have remembered what he was told in 1785 when he and John Adams met with Tripoli's ambassador to London, Abd Al-Rahman: demanding to know by what right the Barbary states behaved as they did towards a newly born secular republic which had no quarrel with the Arab-Muslim world, they were informed that God gave them this authority and that it was written in the Quran that they were free to enslave or murder infidels.
Faced with such religious mania and intransigence, conflict was unavoidable. And so, between 1801 and 1805, was fought the first Barbary War. This was followed by a second skirmish over the same issues, directed by James Madison, in 1815. American victory not only meant the US no longer had to pay a percentage of its GNP to rogue states, it also helped bring about an end to piracy in the region which obviously benefited many other nations, including the UK.
We should be grateful, therefore, for the courage of US marines on the shores of Tripoli two centuries ago. And we should be grateful that America is still prepared to step up when needs be and send its servicemen and women into battle.