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  • Early America Confronts Arabian Deys and Nights
  • David Grimsted (bio)
Robert J. Allison. The Crescent Obscured: The United States and the Muslim World, 1776–1815. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. xviii + 266 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $35.00.

Francis Scott Key, good patriot and poor poet, before he perpetrated our national anthem, practiced by composing celebratory lyrics about Stephen Decatur’s success in the war with Tripoli:

In conflict resistless each toil they endur’d Till their foes shrunk dismay’d from the war’s desolation. And pale beam’d the crescent, its splendor obscur’d By the light of the star-spangl’d flag of our nation.

Robert Allison derives his title from this rhyme, though Decatur’s smoke, from burning an American frigate the Tripolitans had captured when it grounded, at best briefly obscured the crescent as symbol of Muslim power.

Allison’s straightforward and uncomplicatedly graceful account of American involvement with Islam in the early national era diverges from earlier such histories in two ways. He concentrates less on the political than on the literary results of the struggle. He also puts his story in the context not only of the conflicts with the Barbary powers, but of clashing Christian-Muslim world views. Allison saw a hatred of “progress and liberty” in Iran at the time of its 1978 revolution; later in his studies, “images of the Muslim world appeared everywhere I turned in the early history of the American republic” (pp. xiii–xiv). These impressions led Allison to place his data into a centuries-old Islam-Christian conflict, a fight between “civilization and what the newly civilized world would define as barbarism,” with Muslim nations giving “a lesson for Americans in what not to do” (pp. xv, xvii). In this broad context, Allison constructs an American success story with the United States pursuing and subduing “this enemy more relentlessly than the Europeans had done” (p. xv).

Allison’s evidence poorly supports his more expansive claims, especially [End Page 226] that the Americans in the Barbary War “humbled the ancient enemies of Christian civilizations” (p. 34). In fact, only Pope Puis VII saw the conflict in religious terms, and even cultural distinctions were ambiguous, despite stereotypes of Islamic/Turkish decadence. All of Allison’s American sources regarded the conflict as a matter of money, with commercial protection as the goal, centering on the issue of whether war or bribery offered the cheapest price tag for safety. Allison’s emphasis on Thomas Jefferson as the wise architect of American policy makes his argument for religious war especially odd. At the time, Jefferson was much more dedicated to humbling the ancient friends of Christianity in New England, whom he believed the truly dangerous enemies of American liberty, progress, and rationalism.

Allison’s telling of the diplomatic/political/military story is less richly thoughtful than that of Ray Irwin, written some sixty-five years ago, not only or even primarily because Irwin’s is more complete. 1 Irwin is also more sensitive to the moral and human complexities of the situation. Allison makes a very linear and progressive argument: Jefferson (in the Virginian’s own words) always favored a policy of “peace thro’ the medium of war” as dictated by “our Honor as well as our Avarice” (p. 8). While accepting an American policy of paying for protection that lasted until his administration, Jefferson as president turned to resistance. For Allison, the peace with Tripoli in 1805 marked the United States’ success where Europe had long failed to curb Barbary “piracy” and the protection racket tied to it. This interpretation drastically simplifies traditional European responses, the nature of the peace treaty, and the American policy of continuing to pay tribute after the war. Most European shipping nations, especially smaller ones such as Denmark, Portugal, Sardinia, and Sweden, had long practiced a policy like that of the United States: some intimidation, and occasional fighting to minimize the tribute they paid. The treaty that Jefferson accepted gave up the remarkable inland victory that had been gained, showed no interest in the Arab allies that had made this possible, neglected promises to a pretender (in a secret provision that Jefferson did...

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