Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Barbary Pirates: Mujahedeen or Moolah-Hunting?

Image from Wikipedia

Ian W. Toll has an interesting New York Times article, "The Shores of Tripoli" (December 10, 2010), that reviews a recent book by Adrian Tinniswood, Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the Seventeenth-Century Mediterranean. I've not read the book, but I probably ought to, for it sounds fascinating. I'm particularly intrigued by Toll's remarks on the motivating force behind Barbary piracy:
Because the Barbary states were Islamic, and their victims predominantly Christian, the conflict was understood on both sides as a clash of civilizations. In the Islamic world, the corsairs were hailed as "mujahedeen" who had devoted themselves to "sea-jihad" against Christian encroachments. Europeans deplored "Mahometan tyranny" and conflated Islam and piracy as if they were one and the same -- "the present terror of the world." But once the veneer of religious purpose was stripped away, Barbary piracy was a commercial enterprise, offering a handsome livelihood to those dusty, sun-drenched city-states for the better part of three centuries.
What intrigues me is the move that Toll makes from stating that "[i]n the Islamic world, the corsairs were hailed as 'mujahedeen' . . . devoted . . . to 'sea-jihad' against" non-Muslims to asserting that "once the veneer of religious purpose was stripped away, Barbary piracy was a commercial enterprise." Perhaps Tinniswood makes this case, and he might even do so effectively, but I have to wonder if Toll's move in calling the religious motivation a "veneer" isn't somewhat hasty. Instead of a choice between religion and money as motivation, doesn't a third possibility exist, namely, that both were motives? Jihad has often been about seeking the spoils of war through attacking infidels -- killing two birds with one stone. Muhammad himself carried out what he called divinely sanctioned raids on Meccan caravans to provide the spoils of war for his community of Medinan Muslims. Was his claim of divine legitimation merely a veneer?

In my opinion, to speak in terms of "veneer of religious purpose" that must be "stripped away" usually betrays a reductionist account of religion, whereby religious action in the world is almost always to be attributed exclusively to some economic, or otherwise secular motive, combined with the assumption that true religion is private, spiritual devotion cut off from practical matters and therefore not of the world. I doubt that this distinction between veneer and private, between false and true religion is generally valid, and it certainly isn't valid for Islam, which has rather specific rules about practical, political, economic, and military matters, among other things.

We see a similar tendency today, in that local jihads are attributed almost entirely to local conditions -- often poverty or discrimination or repression -- reducing religious action to something secular and even ignoring the ways in which local jihads receive support and even inspiration from nonlocal Islamists.

Not that I would deny local conditions or mixed motives. The world is a complex place.

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At 3:57 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

Because the [pirates] were Islamic, and their victims predominantly Christian, the conflict was understood on both sides as a clash of civilizations

It can be clearly confirmed through Torquato Tasso's long poem Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered), 1581. But it was linked to more than pirates. E.g. in 1558 the southern Italian city of Salerno was attacked by the muslims (Turks): violence, blood, forced conversions followed... It was a shock. Tasso's own sister could flee by a hair's breadth.

In spite of this, Tasso's description of the Muslim world is much less one-sided than expected.


Agree with your critical comments on the issue of "veneer".

At 4:19 PM, Anonymous dhr said...

read "Sorrento" instead of "Salerno"

At 4:46 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

There's a tendency among secular historians to think that religion is a mask for material motives, but I think that the world is more complex than that.

Glad you agree . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:17 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Although, from a different standpoint, everything (religion, economy, psychology...) is a "veneer".

At 6:25 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Is that standpoint also veneer?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 7:00 AM, Anonymous dhr said...

Of course!

At 7:41 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Veneer goes deep . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 12:02 PM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Pearl Harbor

At 12:09 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

CIV, you must have meant this comment for a different entry.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:46 AM, Blogger Conservative in Virginia said...

Dang. You're right. This dumb blogger takes me off onto some blogger page when I sign in to make a comment. Then I guess I mixed up the various posts, since I'd read several of them in a row. Well, so much for making a pithy comment.

At 2:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Yeah, it had me stumped for a while . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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