“The first Muslim ambassador to the United States, from Tunisia, was hosted by President Jefferson, who arranged a sunset dinner for his guest because it was Ramadan — making it the first known iftar at the White House, more than 200 years ago.” — Barack Obama, speaking on August 14, 2010, at the “Annual Iftar Dinner” at the White House
Really? Is that what happened? Was there a “first known iftar at the White House” given by none other than President Thomas Jefferson for the “first Muslim ambassador to the United States”? That’s what Barack Obama and his dutiful speechwriters told the Muslims in attendance at the 2010 “Annual Iftar Dinner,” knowing full well that the remarks would be published for all to see. Apparently Obama, and those who wrote this speech for him, and others who vetted it, find nothing wrong with attempting to convince Americans, as part of their policy of trying to win Muslim hearts and Muslim minds, that American history itself can be rewritten. A little insidious nunc pro tunc backdating, to rewrite American history. And that rewrite of American history has the goal of convincing Americans, in order to please Muslims, that the United States and Islam, that Americans and Muslims, go way back.
As Obama so unforgettably put it in his Cairo Speech (possibly the most inaccurate, the most cavalier about historical truth, of any speech by any President in American history):
As a student of history, I also know civilization’s debt to Islam. It was Islam — at places like Al-Azhar — that carried the light of learning through so many centuries, paving the way for Europe’s Renaissance and Enlightenment. It was innovation in Muslim communities — (applause) — it was innovation in Muslim communities that developed the order of algebra; our magnetic compass and tools of navigation; our mastery of pens and printing; our understanding of how disease spreads and how it can be healed. Islamic culture has given us majestic arches and soaring spires; timeless poetry and cherished music; elegant calligraphy and places of peaceful contemplation. And throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality. (Applause.)
I also know that Islam has always been a part of America’s story. The first nation to recognize my country was Morocco. In signing the Treaty of Tripoli in 1796, our second President, John Adams, wrote, “The United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims.” And since our founding, American Muslims have enriched the United States. They have fought in our wars, they have served in our government, they have stood for civil rights, they have started businesses, they have taught at our universities, they’ve excelled in our sports arenas, they’ve won Nobel Prizes, built our tallest building, and lit the Olympic Torch. And when the first Muslim American was recently elected to Congress, he took the oath to defend our Constitution using the same Holy Koran that one of our Founding Fathers — Thomas Jefferson — kept in his personal library. (Applause.)
We could go through those two appalling paragraphs with such historians and keen students of history as Gibbon, John Quincy Adams, Tocqueville, Jacob Burckhardt, and Winston Churchill, but that is for another occasion. We could point out that the highly selective quotation – for example from John Adams, whose views on Islam are falsely implied by quoting such a statement as “the United States has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims” which was mere pleasing rhetoric, and that phrase “in itself” left open the possibility of other reasons for enmity, including Muslim hostility. Not John Adams himself but his son John Quincy Adams (our most learned President), who was far more knowledgeable about Islam, was to write about that:
The precept of the koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Moslem creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.
But John Adams himself drew conclusions about Muslims and Islam that were far from favorable. John Adams’ unfavorable view of Islam was obscured and turned on its head by Obama, in quoting that single phrase that was part of negotiations-cum-treaty designed to free American ships and seaman from the ever-present threat of attack by Muslim pirates in North Africa (known to history as the Barbary Pirates). John Adams’ unfavorable view of Islam was shared by all those who, in the young Republic, had any dealings at all with Muslim envoys. Thomas Jefferson had a copy of the Qur’an in his library not because he was an admirer of that book, or the faith of Islam, but because he was both curious and cultivated. Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison used Jefferson’s own copy of the Qur’an. Yet that copy, since it was translated into English by George Sale, has for most devout Muslims no validity whatsoever, for the Qur’an must be read and understood in Arabic. A Qur’an in a language other than Arabic cannot even be called the “Holy Qur’an,” though apparently Obama, and his speechwriters, did not know this, in their fulsome description of Jefferson’s copy of the Sale translation that was appropriated by Representative Ellison for his own crude and transparent political ploy. Obama wrongly refers to Sales’ version as the “Holy Qur’an,” and every Muslim at that dinner knew such a book could not possibly be called that. A small mistake, but then there are so many mistakes, and Obama and his speechwriters are so eager to please, and yet so ignorant withal, that these mistakes add up.
There is not a single American statesman or traveler or diplomat in the days of the early Republic who had a good word for Islam. Look high, look low, consult whatever you want in the National Archives or the Library of Congress, and you will not find any such testimony. And the very idea that someday Muslims, adherents of the fanatical faith of Islam, would be here and would dare to invoke the Freedom of Conscience that is guaranteed by our First Amendment, through both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses, would have struck them as impossible. For everyone knew then, as so many now apparently do not know, that Islam itself inculcates not freedom of conscience, but blind, unquestioning submission of the individual Muslim to Authority, that is, the Authority of the Qur’an, as glossed by the Sunnah, and the Authority of the Shari’a, the Holy Law of Islam to which all Muslim law codes are supposed to aspire and, ideally, to be modeled on, the Holy Law which embodies, in codified form, the texts and tenets and attitudes of Islam. This, too, Barack Obama and his speechwriters, and such people as John Brennan, Deputy Special Assistant For Homeland Security and Terrorism to the President, apparently do not know.
But let’s return to that assertion about Jefferson’s “Iftar Dinner,” or rather, to that dinner that Barack Obama would have us all believe was the first “Iftar Dinner” at the White House way back in 1805. What actually happened was this.
The American navy, fed up with the constant depredations by Muslim corsairs, who were not so much pirates as Muslims who were encouraged to prey on Christian shipping, and who at times even recorded the areas of the Mediterranean where they planned to go in search of Christian prey, seized a ship that belonged to those who were ruled by the Bey of Tunis. And the Bey of Tunis wanted that ship back. He sent to Washington, for six months, a temporary envoy, one Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, who was not, pace Obama, “the first Muslim ambassador to the United States,” but, rather, a temporary envoy.
Here, from the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia, is a bit of the background to the story:
The crisis with Tunis erupted when the USS Constitution captured Tunisian vessels attempting to run the American blockade of Tripoli. The bey of Tunis threatened war and sent Mellimelli to the United States to negotiate full restitution for the captured vessels and to barter for tribute.
The backdrop to this state visit was the ongoing conflict between the United States and the Barbary states, autonomous provinces of the Ottoman Empire that rimmed the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. Soon after the Revolutionary War and the consequent loss of the British navy’s protection, American merchant vessels had become prey for Barbary corsairs. Jefferson was outraged by the demands of ransom for civilians captured from American vessels and the Barbary states’ expectation of annual tribute to be paid as insurance against future seizures. He took an uncharacteristically hawkish position against the prevailing thought that it was cheaper to pay tribute than maintain a navy to protect shipping from piracy.
Jefferson balked at paying tribute but accepted the expectation that the host government would cover all expenses for such an emissary. He arranged for Mellimelli and his 11 attendants to be housed at a Washington hotel, and rationalized that the sale of the four horses and other fine gifts sent by the bey of Tunis would cover costs. Mellimelli’s request for “concubines” as a part of his accommodations was left to Secretary of State James Madison. Jefferson assured one senator that obtaining peace with the Barbary powers was important enough to “pass unnoticed the irregular conduct of their ministers.”
Despite whispers regarding his conduct, Mellimelli received invitations to numerous dinners and balls, and according to one Washington hostess was “the lion of the season.” At the president’s New Year’s Day levee the Tunisian envoy provided “its most brilliant and splendid spectacle,” and added to his melodramatic image at a later dinner party hosted by the secretary of state. Upon learning that the Madisons were unhappy at being childless, Mellimelli flung his “magical” cloak around Dolley Madison and murmured an incantation that promised she would bear a male child. His conjuring, however, did not work.
Differences in culture and customs stirred interest on both sides. Mellimelli’s generous use of scented rose oil was noted by many of those who met him, and guards had to be posted outside his lodgings to turn away the curious. For his part, the Tunisian was surprised at the social freedom women enjoyed in America and was especially intrigued by several delegations of Native Americans from the western territories then visiting Washington. Mellimelli inquired which prophet the Indians followed: Moses, Jesus Christ or Mohammed. When he was told none of them, that they worshiped “the Great Sprit” alone, he was reported to have pronounced them “vile hereticks.”
So that’s it. Sidi Soliman Mellimelli installed himself for six months at a Washington hotel, for which the American government apparently picked up the tab. And as to that request for “concubines,” apparently Jefferson asked the Secretary of State, James Madison, to attend to the matter. It’s amusing to note how little the behavior of Muslim and Arab rulers has changed. It is only we who do not see them, or allow ourselves to see them, as primitive and exotic creatures to be amused by or often contemptuous of, but not as creatures to whom we need accord any undo respect, for their sole claim on our attention is that some of them, through an accident of geology, have acquired a lot of money. And there are people in Washington who are happy, in their desire to do well themselves, to convince the American government that it must bend over backwards in treating of Arabs and Muslims. There is no need to do so, and it is easy to show why not. In fact, the description of Mellimelli’s requests may put many in mind of how so many Muslim and Arab rulers, including “plucky little king” Hussein of Jordan, when they used to come to Washington, would have round-the-clock escort girls service them in their hotel rooms. But what was most maddening was that the bills were paid by the ever-compliant C.I.A. I presume the oil money has made that, in some cases, no longer necessary.
Sidi Soliman Mellimelli was quite an exotic specimen:
The curious were not to be disappointed by the appearance of the first Muslim envoy to the United States – a large figure with a full dark beard dressed in robes of richly embroidered fabrics and a turban of fine white muslin.
Over the next six months, this exotic representative from a distant and unfamiliar culture would add spice to the Washington social season but also test the diplomatic abilities of President Jefferson.
During the six solar months Mellimelli was here, the lunar month of Ramadan occurred. And as it happens, during that Ramadan observed by Mellimelli, but naturally unobserved, hardly noticed, by the Americans, President Jefferson invited Sidi Soliman Mellimelli for dinner at the White House. He probably during that six-month period had done it more than once. Mellimelli replied that he could not come at the appointed hour of three thirty in the afternoon (our ancestors rose much earlier, and ate much earlier, and went to bed much earlier, in the pre-Edison days of their existence). That time fell, for him, but not for Thomas Jefferson or anyone else in the United States of America, during the fasting period of the month of Ramadan. He replied that he could not come at the hour set, that is, at half-past three, but only after sundown.
Jefferson, a courteous man, simply moved the dinner forward by a few hours. He didn’t change the menu, he didn’t change anything else. And moving the dinner forward by a few hours hardly turns that dinner into a soi-disant “Iftar Dinner.” Barack Obama’s trying to do so, trying that is, to rewrite American history, with some nunc-pro-tunc backdating, in order to flatter or please his Muslim guests, is false. And, being false, is also disgusting. It is disgusting for an American President to misrepresent American history to Americans, including all the schoolchildren who are now being subject to all kinds of Islamic propaganda, cunningly woven into the newly-mandated textbooks, that so favorably misrepresent Islam, as here.
Now there is a kind of coda to this dismal tale, and it is provided by the New York Times, which likes to put on airs and think of itself as “the newspaper of record,” whatever that means. The Times carried a front-page story on August 14, 2010, written by one Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and no doubt gone over by many vigilant editors. This story contains a predictably glowing account of Barack Obama’s remarks at the “Annual Iftar Dinner.” Here is the paragraph that caught my eye:
In hosting the iftar, Mr. Obama was following a White House tradition that, while sporadic, dates to Thomas Jefferson, who held a sunset dinner for the first Muslim ambassador to the United States. President George W. Bush hosted iftars annually.
Question for Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and for her editors at The New York Times: You report that there is a “White Hosue tradition that, while sporadic, dates to Thomas Jefferson.” I claim that you are wrong. I claim that there is no White House Tradition at all about Iftar Dinners. I claim that Thomas Jefferson, in moving forward by a few hours a dinner that changed in no other respect, for Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, was not providing the first of the “Annual Iftar Dinners” that, the New York Times tells us, has since Jefferson’s non-existent “Iftar Dinner,” have been observed “sporadically.”
When, then, was the next in this long, but “sporadic” series of iftar dinners? I can find no record of any, for roughly the next two hundred years, until we come to the fall of the year 2001, that is, just after the deadliest attack on American civilians ever recorded, an attack carried out by a novemdectet of Muslims acting according to their understanding of the very same texts — Qur’an,Hadith, Sira — that all Muslims read, an understanding that many have demonstrated since that they share, not least in the spontaneous celebrations that were immediately held in Cairo, and Riyadh, and Jeddah, and in Ramallah, and Gaza, and Damascus, and Baghdad, and all over the place, where Muslims felt that they had won a victory over those accursed kuffar, those ingrates, those Infidels. And it was President George Bush who decided that, to win Muslim “trust” or to end Muslim “mistrust” — I forget which — so that we could, non-Muslim and Muslim, collaborate on defeating those “violent extremists” who had “hijacked a great religion,” started this sporadic ball unsporadically rolling. And he did it, by golly, he did. He hosted an Iftar Dinner with all the fixins. It was held just the month after the attacks prompted by Islamic texts and tenets and attitudes on the World Trade Center, on the Pentagon, on a plane’s doomed pilots and passengers over a field in Pennsylvania.
And thus it is, that ever since 2001, we have had iftar dinner after iftar dinner. But it was not Jefferson or any other of our cultivated and learned Presidents, who started this “tradition” that has been observed only “sporadically” — i.e., never — until George Bush came along, unless we are to count as an “iftar dinner” what was merely seen, by Jefferson, as a dinner given at a time convenient for his not-too-honored guest.
Yes, and how splendidly Bush, and now Obama, have proven to Muslims that there are no hard feelings. Do you think the three trillion dollars spent in Iraq and now in Afghanistan (not counting the hundreds of billions that, over time, have gone to Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, even the “Palestinian” territories), have done that? It has all been designed to improve the lot of Muslims on the unproven assumption that this will make them less attentive to the texts, the ideology, of their Total Belief-System, and hence more willing to grandly concede to us Infidels a territory of our own, a place in the sun of our own. Yes, George Bush, that profound student of history and of ideas, kept telling us, in those first few months after 9/11/2001, that as far as he was concerned, by gum, Islam was a religion of “peace and tolerance.” And just to prove it, by golly, he’d put on an Iftar Dinner with all the fixins. And that’s just what he did. And that’s how the “tradition” that Sheryl Gay Stolberg, and her many vetting editors at the newspaper of comical record, The New York Times, began. It’s all of nine years old, through the disastrous presidencies of Bush and now of Obama.
And stop rewriting history, in ways little and big, about the American “connection” to Islam – including that absurd attempt on the front page of The New York Times just yesterday, to run a story on Christians from the Middle East, fleeing Islam and Muslims for the United States (as they fled, too, to South America, or to Australia) and appropriating the history of Arabic-speaking Maronite and Orthodox immigrants in that story on “Little Syria” to make American readers think that “see, Arabs, Muslim Arabs, go a long way back in New York City, so let’s not get so hot and bothered about a little mosque someone wants to build.” Was there ever such deceit, day after day, than in the way The New York Times has become a willing collaborator with the O.I.C., and others who want nonstop Mister Feelgood stories about Islam in America?
I have a request for The New York Times. It’s a most modest one. All I ask — I never ask, or expect, very much — is that the editors of The New York Times apologize for that paper’s misapplication of the adjective “sporadic” in the front-page story by Sheryl Stolberg on the “Annual Iftar” dinner.
Put up, or shut up, dear newspaper of record. Tell us when that “tradition” of “Iftar Dinners” truly began. Cite those Presidents who held dinners that they considered to be “Iftar Dinners.” Give us chapter, give us verse. And if, as I believe, that hollow and recent and transparently determined-to-win-Muslim-hearts-and-minds “tradition” began in 2001, then tell us. And since your story was on the front page, do what the lawyers do when they have to make legal announcements, and put your retraction, eat your humble pie, right on the front page.
A failure to do so will be further, and for some the final confirmation, of the sorry record of The New York Times in its coverage of Islam. Most readers with some sense of what Islam is all about, even those who lack detailed knowledge, are now ready to take any coverage of the matter in The New York Times with a grain – with a Pinch – of salt.
Clio, Muse of History, is a stern mistress. Subscribers to stories that live and die between editions may forget or forgive, but Mnemosyne does neither. If I were the “newspaper of record,” I’d want to propitiate not the gods, but the most vigilant and meticulous of muses. If I were Pinch Sulzberger, I’d be mortally embarrassed, and determined to make amends. But then, I have standards.