by Melvin E. Lee
Middle East Quarterly
The fundamental premise of much scholarly examination and public discourse is that grievances with U.S. policies in the Middle East motivate Islamist terrorism. Such assumptions, though, misunderstand the enemy and its nature. In reality, the conflict is sparked not by grievance but rather by incompatibility between Islamist ideology and the natural rights articulated during the European Enlightenment and incorporated into U.S. political culture. Acquiescing to political grievances will not alter the fundamental incompatibility between Lockean precepts of tolerance and current interpretations of Islam: Only Islam's fundamental reform will resolve the conflict.
Many scholars mark the post-World War I partition of the Ottoman Empire as the origin of Islamist opposition to the West. The idea that the Middle East would be a tolerant, prosperous contributor to the global environment today if World War I victors had left intact the Ottoman Empire is a premise in the literature accompanying the rise of twentieth-century jihadism. Historian David Fromkin argued in his influential A Peace to End All Peace that present day Muslim unrest is the direct result of Winston Churchill's early twentieth-century decisions. British journalist Robert Fisk also holds British officials responsible although he prefers to blame Arthur Balfour, foreign secretary between 1916 and 1919. Both authors are wrong, though, to base their theories of grievance on such arbitrary demarcation of eras. The roots of jihadism and its opposition to the United States as part of the non-Muslim West were cast long before World War I erupted. The interaction between the United States and Muslim states and societies dates back to American independence. Contemporary jihadism is not the result of accumulated grievance; rather it has for cultural reasons been an integral factor in Islamic societies' interaction with the United States.
The Die is Cast
Almost immediately after independence, the U.S. government found itself in conflict with the Barbary sheikdoms of Morocco, Tunis, Algiers, and Tripoli. For centuries, these states filled their coffers by piracy, stealing cargoes, enslaving crew, and collecting ransom. European sea-going nations often entered into treaty and tribute arrangements with the Barbary leaders in order to buy immunity and curtail competition. In 1784, Moroccan pirates hijacked the U.S. merchant ship Betsy in the Mediterranean and enslaved her crew. A year later, Algerine pirates seized two more vessels, the Maria from Boston and the Dauphin from Philadelphia. The U.S. ministers to England and France, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson oversaw a peace treaty with Morocco, but the Algerine leadership refused any accommodation. In 1796, President George Washington ordered construction of six warships to form a U.S. navy and to protect U.S. shipping from Barbary pirates. In 1801, in the wake of an upsurge in piracy, President Thomas Jefferson entered into war with Tripoli, bombarding the city three years later and winning the release of American hostages. Peace did not last. With the U.S. military embroiled in the War of 1812, Algerine pirates again began terrorizing American crewmen and disrupting U.S. trade. They miscalculated. In 1815, President James Madison dispatched a squadron of U.S. Navy frigates, which defeated the pirate fleet and won reparations from Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli.