Letter to the Editor: Pirates, Peace Treaties, and Prejudice

Thursday, June 25, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

"I ♥ Islam": spotted on the streets of Temara, Morocco
Last week I noticed an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun called "Rewriting the History of America and Islam" (Viewpoint; June 18, 2009). Written by a local academic, the piece outlined some of the sordid history behind America's early relations with Morocco—cited by President Obama in his Cairo speech as "the first nation to recognize my country."

The author's efforts to educate were well-intentioned, but part of me worried that local readers in Baltimore (admittedly not a hub of knowledge on the Islamic world) might misinterpret his message. The other part of me just wanted my name in the paper. Perhaps that second part shown through more strongly, or perhaps when I submitted my letter to the editor, he or she merely determined that the Sun's readership would be more interested in reading a series of typo-laden letters about pit bulls, drag racing, or the constitutional right to tax-free plastic shopping bags.

Oh well. Here's my letter:
As a Baltimore native now resettled in Morocco, I would like to thank Professor Lawrence A. Peskin for his effort to help Americans contextualize the recent hype about America’s long-standing relationship with Morocco and, by extension, the Muslim world at large.

Prof. Peskin notes that the hype began with President Obama's address to the Muslim world, in which he mentioned that Morocco was the first country to recognize the legitimacy of the young United States of America (via a treaty designed to halt pirate attacks on American ships).

Moroccans were, predictably, excited to earn Obama's special recognition. But as I watched the speech live here in Rabat, I wondered how Americans back home would react to the President's attempt to extend the olive branch.

Prof. Peski'’s fuller perspective on early US-Morocco relations can help to inform such reactions; it provides a useful alternative to the rosy, "whitewashed" account of this history. But in rejecting the President's diplomatically driven narrative, we must not go overboard and misinterpret America's rocky relations with one North African sultanate as evidence of a longstanding—or worse, an innate and inescapable—rift with the entire Muslim world.

The "Islamic states" of 18th century North Africa which Prof. Peskin mentions were a far cry from the mythic caliphate for which some of today's militant Islamists strive. In fact, most were coastal fiefdoms, whose rulers held only marginal sway over much of their supposed territory, and even less over their subjects' religious beliefs. On this periphery of the Muslim world, native Jewish and Christian populations mingled with Muslims of all shades, and would have been just as likely to take part in the piracy. (Profits—not prophets—were the ultimate motivation, after all.)

Today, the plundering corsairs and double-crossing sultans are history, and neither one should prejudice our views of Muslims or lead us to believe that conflict between America and the Muslim world is our eternal fate.

That a Muslim country was the first to recognize American independence was, in the end, an accident of history. By welcoming dialogue with the Muslim world, we can ensure that such accidents do not define our future.

2 comments:

Reid Prentice said...

Well written and reasoned, Andrew. Too bad you couldn't spin this as some sort of commentary on the state of the Ravens O-line = guaranteed publication.
Thanks for double-posting your blogs to Facebook. I've enjoyed checking in on you via the net every now and again.
/R

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Thanks for reading, Reid :)
Good to hear from you, and I hope all is going well out west!

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