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"The Islam of Democracy":

An odd-sounding phrase I saw in a late 1700s American polemic, Columbian Centinel, June 18, 1791:

We are told, that the copy from which an edition of this work [Paine's Common Sense] was reprinted at Philadelphia, was furnished by the Secretary of State [Jefferson], and was accompanied by a letter, from which the following extract has been published in most of our newspapers. "I am extremely pleased to find that it is to be re-printed here, and that something is at length to be publicly said, against the political heresies which have sprung up among us. I have no doubt our citizens will rally a second time round the standard of Common Sense."

I confess, Sir, I am somewhat at a loss to determine, what this very respectable gentleman means by political heresies. Does he consider this pamphlet of Mr. Paine's as the canonical book of political scripture? As containing the true doctrine of popular infallibility, from which it would be heretical to depart in one single point? The expressions, indeed, imply more; they seem, like the Arabian prophet, to call upon all true believers in the Islam of democracy, to draw their swords, and, in the fervour of their devotion, to compel all their countrymen to cry out, "There is but one Goddess of Liberty, and Common Sense is her prophet."

The author was Publicola, which is generally thought to be a pseudonym for John Quincy Adams (see, e.g., N.H. Gazette, Sept. 10, 1827), then just shy of his 24th birthday. Also, according to Robert J. Allison's The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World 40 (2000), the "heretic Jefferson had in mind" was Jefferson's rival and John Q. Adams' father, John Adams.

Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Interesting. I think it works if you translate "Islam" as "intolerant, rigid faith". For many Protestants, "Papacy" might have been an approximate equivalent, but in this context "Islam" was no doubt politically safer, there being many American Catholics but virtually no Muslims, and perhaps less apt, since by that time the influence of the Catholic church had waned considerably, while the Muslim world and in particular the Barbary Pirates were salient.
7.8.2008 2:08pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Oops, sorry, above I meant that "Papacy" was less apt than "Islam", not the other way around.
7.8.2008 2:09pm
BGates:
there being many American Catholics - not in 1791, there weren't. Given that "Papacy" would have been less apt than "Islam", why bring it up?
7.8.2008 2:18pm
glangston (mail):
It seems instructional on the patriotic issue too. We need a moratorium on this for the election.
7.8.2008 2:20pm
beamish:
This would be very early use of the word 'Islam' in English to refer to the doctrine of Muhammed. The first citation that the OED gives for 'Islam' in that sense is from 1818. (It also gives an earlier, obsolete, sense of 'a Muslim person'.) I think that Madison may have known that 'Islam' means 'surrending' in Arabic and conceivably expected his readers to know that as well. It may be a kind of play on words between that meaning and the still inchoate use of the word to refer to the doctrine.
7.8.2008 2:38pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
BGates,

I mistakenly took the pamphlet to have been published in 1827, not 1791. Even in 1791, although only about 1% of Americans were Catholic, there was a substantial concentration in Maryland, and of course there were a lot more Catholics than Muslims.

The reason that I brought up the Papacy was simply to make the point that any group perceived as rigid, intolerant, and having (had) the ability to enforce its orthodoxy forcibly might have been used in such a statement. Islam was the ideal choice for such a metaphor since it had a reputation for violent intolerance of heresy, was salient, and was sufficiently foreign to the overwhelming majority of Americans that no backlash against this usage could be expected.
7.8.2008 2:40pm
wuzzagrunt (mail):

glangston (mail):
It seems instructional on the patriotic issue too. We need a moratorium on this for the election.


That's usually what people say when they don't think their patriotism can stand any significant scrutiny.

Note: I am not accusing you--I don't know you--but am thinking more of someone like John Kerry, who constantly demanded that people stop questioning his patriotism when nobody had.
7.8.2008 2:44pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
wuzzagrunt,

Wasn't one of the things that the Swiftboaters questioned John Kerry's patriotism, along with his courage?
7.8.2008 2:50pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Many American Founders had a very positive view of Islam. See for instance, this link. My friend Tom Van Dyke notes this may be because they had only a superficial knowledge of the faith.

It could be that given America's key Founders tended to believe in a unitary not a Trinity God, and Islam likewise believes in a unitary not a Trinity God, they were intrigued by Islam. They also tended to believe that most or all world religions, including Islam, worshipped the same God. As John Adams put it:

"It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world."

-- John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.
7.8.2008 2:56pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Benjamin Franklin used the word "Islamism" to refer to the doctrine in his letter "On the Slave-Trade" to the editor of the Federal Gazette of March 23d, 1790, just before he died:

they are brought into a land where the Sun of Islamism gives forth its Light
7.8.2008 3:07pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
I don't know the detailed history of American views of Islam in that period, but certainly by a few decades later views seem to have become quite negative. John Quincy Adams, for example, had very nasty things to say about Islam in his "Unsigned essays dealing with the Russo-Turkish War, and on Greece" of 1827-29. See: here.
7.8.2008 3:14pm
JB:
In 1791 the only contact most Americans had had with Islam was in the form of Barbary pirates capturing merchant vessels. We fought a series of wars, and paid rather a lot of tribute, over that in the ensuing decades.

To certain segments of the population, Islam had very specific negative connotations at the time.
7.8.2008 3:14pm
JB:
On the other hand among the first countries to recognize our independence was Morocco.
7.8.2008 3:15pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Here is a quotation from Ben Franklin that seems to draw an equivalence between evangelical Christianity and Islam; he speaks of both in a seemingly positive sense. The context is he was discussing his role in building a meeting house where George Whitefield (an 18th Century "Great Awakening" evangelical) would preach.


Both house and ground were vested in trustees, expressly for the use of any preacher of any religious persuasion who might desire to say something to the people at Philadelphia; the design in building not being to accommodate any particular sect, but the inhabitants in general; so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.
7.8.2008 3:17pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
JB,

It's funny that Adams and Jefferson fought the brunt of those wars and had nary a bad word to say about Islam. To the contrary, they viewed Islam similar to how they viewed Christianity as teaching "Truth" at heart but corrupted by dogma.
7.8.2008 3:20pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
John Rowe,

I don't see that any inference about Franklin's view of Islam can be drawn from that passage. Isn't he just saying that the anybody at all was allowed to use the meeting house, and using the example of the Mufti of Constantinople to make the point that the speaker need not even be a Christian but might be an advocate of a religion perceived as foreign if not hostile?
7.8.2008 3:24pm
wooga:
I'm fairly certain that the founders were far more educated in religion than 99% of today's population. Any formal religious education is bound to spend some time examining the other monotheistic traditions - either by reading the source texts (translated or not) or reading various commentators on those traditions. Religious belief at the founding was nothing like today's wishy washy 'everyone gets to interpret it their own way' version. It was deeply tied to the religious texts.

So I would say that the founders had a much more educated understanding of Islam (because they actually looked at underlying religious texts instead of popular gossip) than just the Barbary pirates.

That means that JQAdams did indeed intend to refer to Islam as the most extreme example of intolerance towards dissent, going so far as to command the affirmative hunting and extermination of nonbelievers. That's what the Islamic works state, and JQAdams didn't have to worry about CAIR labeling him an Islamophobe.
7.8.2008 3:28pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
John Rowe,

The site to which you link doesn't, as far as I can see, show that the Founders had positive views of Islam. There is one quotation there of someone praising Islamic morals, but all of the other examples merely demonstrate that the Founders believed in religious tolerance. Religious tolerance does not by any means imply a liking for the religions tolerated. I for example, am of roughly the same view as Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, et al., that religion is in general a poisonous superstition, and have no love for either Islam or Christianity, but believe in religious tolerance in that I don't think that people should be persecuted for their religious views. When Thomas Jefferson said that he would hire a Muslim if he were a good worker, he wasn't expressing approval of Islam. Jefferson no doubt would equally well have hired a Baptist, and very likely did, although it is clear that he abhorred their religious views.
7.8.2008 3:32pm
wooga:
Jon Rowe,
Stating that we are so tolerant that we would even let such an intolerant man as the Mufti of Constantinople preach in our building... does not really sound like a complimentary statement about Islam.

Franklin did not like Islam by any means, and used it (as JQAdams did here) as a rhetorical device to mock his opponents. Sort of like invoking Hitler on teh internets nowadays. For example, Franklin's tract on "Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim" was meant to mock the pro-slavery position -- as if saying that the pro-slavery people were acting just like the hyperbolic intolerant villains of the day - the mussulmen.

Jefferson and Adams also reported to Congress on Islam re the Barbary situation, and they also pointed out the violently intolerant nature of Islam:

The ambassador answered us that [the right] was founded on the Laws of the Prophet, that it was written in their Koran, that all nations who should not have answered their authority were sinners, that it was their right and duty to make war upon them wherever they could be found, and to make slaves of all they could take as prisoners, and that every Mussulman who should be slain in battle was sure to go to Paradise.


I do not see how you reach your conclusion that "Adams and Jefferson... had nary a bad word to say about Islam."
7.8.2008 3:46pm
BGates:
The reason that I brought up the Papacy was...
I think the real answer comes a few comments later:
religion is in general a poisonous superstition.
That Martin Luther King was a real SOB, huh?
7.8.2008 3:46pm
PatHMV (mail) (www):
wooga... That's not how I took Franklin's passage. Rather, he seems to be saying that we are so tolerant that we would let our temple be used even by a minister of such a strange, unfamiliar, and minor (in terms of worshiping population in America) religion as Islam. There's nothing in the statement about the open-access, all-purpose religious building that says or implies any characterization of Islam, positive or negative, other than that there are few adherents of the faith here in this country.
7.8.2008 4:02pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

The reason that I brought up the Papacy was...
I think the real answer comes a few comments later:
religion is in general a poisonous superstition.
That Martin Luther King was a real SOB, huh?


BGates,

Too bad you've got no argument for your assumption. I brought up the Papacy for the reasons I have given. You've given not the slightest reason to disbelieve them. Your fantasies are your problem.

As to whether MLK was an SOB, nothing I've said implies that. Although he invoked religion, the good things he did were not in any way dependent on his religion. Christianity is of course quite compatible with slavery and racism. The bigots he was fighting were virtually all believing and practicing Christians. Among his allies Jews, some believing, some secular, were very prominent. They did not support him because they believed in his religion.
7.8.2008 4:02pm
wooga:

The reason that I brought up the Papacy was...
I think the real answer comes a few comments later:
religion is in general a poisonous superstition.
That Martin Luther King was a real SOB, huh?

Not as much as Martin Luther... :)
7.8.2008 4:02pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
PathMV,

I don't think that Wooga is claiming that the passage about the meeting hall itself shows a negative view of Islam. It seems to me that we are in agreement as to the meaning of that passage. Wooga's further claim that Adams and Jefferson held negative views of Islam, with which I agree, is based on other evidence, some of which Wooga cites in that post.
7.8.2008 4:07pm
td:
JQA's use of Islam might have been an intentional dig at TJ, who was the leading US advocate of a naval war with the Barbary pirates (as opposed to paying annual tribute to Tripoli, Algiers and Tunis, which was US policy at the time). As Ambassador to France (and later, Sec. of State), TJ was heavily involved in the negotiations with those three principalities over the matter of tribute.

I also find it interesting that JQA so adeptly aped Islan's central formula and trusted his readers to get the reference, considering Islam's doctrine of salvation through jihad/martydom was news to the new Republic's official class when TJ and JA reported it to congress just a few years prior (see wooga @ 2:46).
7.8.2008 4:10pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Bill,

Re Franklin, if one were an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, I would think "Churches" would be the place to preach "religious Truth," and as such you wouldn't allow someone to preach a particular religious truth unless you thought it was valid.

How many of today's evangelical or conservative Catholic Churches would let a Muslim take the stand and preach Islam to them, unless of course it was in the context of a debate where they were there to explain to him why he was wrong.
7.8.2008 4:13pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Re the report to the Congress on Islam:

I see them making a descriptive report regarding a number of fanatical Muslims that they encountered. I absolutely don't see them as taking such experiences and making a blanket negative judgment on the religion, which they didn't.

They dealt with Christian fanatics as well and had terrible things to say about them. Remember to them, most or all world religions contained truth at heart but were corrupted by dogma, including and especially Christianity (this is not just an "assertion" on my part; I've got a mountain of evidence for this).

"It has pleased the Providence of the first Cause, the Universal Cause, that Abraham should give religion not only to Hebrews but to Christians and Mahomitans, the greatest part of the modern civilized world."

-- John Adams to M.M. Noah, July 31, 1818.
7.8.2008 4:20pm
vivictius (mail):
Jon, more then then number of Muslims who would let Christians preach at them in a mosque.
7.8.2008 4:26pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Vivictius,

You might be right, but that just underscores my original point (after my friend Tom Van Dyke) that the FFs really didn't understand what Islam was about. They really did believe most or all world religions, including Islam, were valid ways to God and preached the same truth at heart as Christianity. And btw, that truth was not "Jesus is the only way or God Incarnate," but rather the existence of a future state of rewards and punishments, and a benevolent God who wants men to worship Him and treat one another with justice.

That was the universal truth that, according to Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin, connected all world religions.
7.8.2008 4:30pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
The following is from Thomas Jefferson's 1809 letter to James Fishback showing just what he learned after fighting the Barbary pirates:

Every religion consists of moral precepts, and of dogmas. In the first they all agree. All forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness &ca. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, and happiness in society. In their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same. These respect vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society. Yet these are the questions on which have hung the bitter schisms of Nazarenes, Socinians, Arians, Athanasians in former times, and now of Trinitarians, Unitarians, Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers &c. Among the Mahometans we are told that thousands fell victims to the dispute whether the first or second toe of Mahomet was longest; and what blood, how many human lives have the words 'this do in remembrance of me' cost the Christian world! We all agree in the obligation of the moral precepts of Jesus; but we schismatize and lose ourselves in subtleties about his nature, his conception maculate or immaculate, whether he was a god or not a god, whether his votaries are to be initiated by simple aspersion, by immersion, or without water; whether his priests must be robed in white, in black, or not robed at all; whether we are to use our own reason, or the reason of others, in the opinions we form, or as to the evidence we are to believe. It is on questions of this, and still less importance, that such oceans of human blood have been spilt, and whole regions of the earth have been desolated by wars and persecutions, in which human ingenuity has been exhausted in inventing new tortures for their brethren. It is time then to become sensible how insoluble these questions are by minds like ours, how unimportant, and how mischievous; and to consign them to the sleep of death, never to be awakened from it. ... We see good men in all religions, and as many in one as another. It is then a matter of principle with me to avoid disturbing the tranquility of others by the expression of any opinion on the [unimportant points] innocent questions on which we schismatize, and think it enough to hold fast to those moral precepts which are of the essence of Christianity, and of all other religions. [My emphasis.]
7.8.2008 4:40pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Jon Rowe,

Like Jefferson, I too see "good men in all religions", but that doesn't mean that I in any approve of their religions. In my view, it is because people are basically decent and this shines through, in some individuals, in spite of their religion and other cultural practices and ideologies. It isn't that all religions are basically good, it is that people are basically good.

Jefferson is, I think, actually wrong about the role of moral precepts in Islam, since in Islam the sorts of generic moral precepts that he mentions are overridden when it comes to conflict between Islam and non-Muslims, but even if one recognizes such precepts in all religions, we must, and Jefferson did, also recognize that particular religions contain lots of other beliefs and practices, many of which may be quite obnoxious. Recognizing a common moral core does not make a religion good.

Jefferson's suggestion that one ought not to quibble about the various doctrines on which religions differ was one that he followed in the sense that he did not engage in doctrinal disputes, but that does not mean that he did not prefer some forms of religion to others. He was quite overtly criticial of mainstream Christianity and of any kind of religious intolerance.
7.8.2008 5:06pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
Jon Rowe,


Re Franklin, if one were an orthodox Trinitarian Christian, I would think "Churches" would be the place to preach "religious Truth," and as such you wouldn't allow someone to preach a particular religious truth unless you thought it was valid.


How many of today's evangelical or conservative Catholic Churches would let a Muslim take the stand and preach Islam to them, unless of course it was in the context of a debate where they were there to explain to him why he was wrong.


I'm not sure I see your point. Franklin was not an orthodox Trinitarian Christian. He was a self-proclaimed deist

I would think that few if any evangelical or conservative Catholic Churches would allow a Muslim to preach Islam to them. But how is that relevant to this discussion?
7.8.2008 5:14pm
cjwynes (mail):
John Quincy Adams seems like a pretty good writer at age 24. That's easily more clever than 99% of everything ever written about our present administration in that publication's modern equivalent, the blogs. (Not including VC commenters, naturally.)
7.8.2008 5:25pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Franklin called himself a deist, but also a "unitarian" and also presented his heterodox theology under the auspices of "Christianity."

The point is relevant because Franklin believed most or all world religions, including Islam were valid ways to God and drew equivalences between Christianity and non-Christian religions. At least, that's what I've found in looking through the historical record. And the quotation (taken with others) supports that conclusion.

Franklin was not a strict Deist like Thomas Paine. He actually had harsh works of criticism for Paine. I'd term Franklin either "unitarian" or "theistic rationalist" not "deist."
7.8.2008 5:30pm
LM (mail):
Jefferson's dishonest defense of Islam many not prove his sympathy for the terrorists and multi-culturalists bent on destroying our liberty, but it was irrefutably the product of a pre-9/11 mentality.
7.8.2008 6:03pm
LM (mail):
many not
7.8.2008 6:06pm
Jon Rowe (mail) (www):
Here is Ben Franklin's letter to Ezra Stiles where he clarifies his religion but doesn't quite sound like either a strict deist or an orthodox Christian:


You desire to know something of my Religion. It is the first time I have been questioned upon it: But I do not take your Curiosity amiss, and shall endeavour in a few Words to gratify it. Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them. As to Jesus of Nazareth, my Opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho' it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble. I see no harm however in its being believed, if that Belief has the good Consequence as probably it has, of making his Doctrines more respected and better observed, especially as I do not perceive that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the Believers, in his Government of the World, with any particular Marks of his Displeasure. I shall only add respecting myself, that having experienced the Goodness of that Being, in conducting me prosperously thro' a long Life, I have no doubt of its Continuance in the next, tho' without the smallest Conceit of meriting such Goodness.


He doesn't quite sound like a cold deist. But also notice, what he focuses on as the product of sound religion connects Christianity to outside religious system. If rather he focused on those doctrines of orthodoxy that he "doubts" because they were part of the "corrupting changes" Christianity, his creed would be more exclusive. What his (and Jefferson's and Adams') spiritual mentor Joseph Priestley termed "the corruptions of Christianity" were those doctrines of orthodoxy that hold Jesus divine and the exclusive path to God.

I know some traditionally minded Christians who like this letter because it shows Franklin wasn't quite a "strict Deist." Yet, most of those Christians inform me if at death you don't believe in Jesus' divinity or His exclusive way to the Father, you won't be happy when you meet Him. But Franklin was too "busy" to worry about that.
7.8.2008 6:51pm
mischief (mail):

Benjamin Franklin used the word "Islamism" to refer to the doctrine in his letter "On the Slave-Trade" to the editor of the Federal Gazette of March 23d, 1790, just before he died:



they are brought into a land where the Sun of Islamism gives forth its Light




Here's the letter.

He was quoting someone else
7.9.2008 12:01pm
Steph (mail):
"John Quincy Adams seems like a pretty good writer at age 24."

Yes well given that he was secritary to the U.S. Minsiter (aka Ambasidor) to the Russian Court at age 14 that to surprising. The way we treat teenagers as children is a scandal.
7.9.2008 1:24pm