Huffington Post Religion, by Craig Considine, Trinity College (Dublin, Ireland, Feb. 18, 2013) — George Washington’s birthday, celebrated annually on Feb. 22, is an opportunity to reflect upon his exemplary character and the example he set for future generations of Americans. While much is known about Washington’s military service and political career, less is known about his attitude towards religious freedom and his relationships with Muslims. Looking closely at his personal documents, letters, and activities, we can see that Washington was indeed a proponent of religious tolerance and a friend to the Muslims in his midst. […]
In late 1777, Washington’s army suffered defeat after defeat against the British and were forced to surrender the major city of Philadelphia to the enemy. Washington’s worst day during the Revolutionary War came as his men were encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, on December 19 of that year. Washington stressed in a letter to his friend George Clinton of “the dreadful situation … for want of provisions, and the miserable prospects before us, with respect to futurity.” Just as his army reached its most desperate state, Washington learned of the news of a Muslim man named Sultain Sidi Muhammad ben Abdallah of Morocco, who showed interest in helping the Americans in their fight against the British Empire.
Upon learning of Washington’s conflict, Abdallah assisted Washington by listing the newly independent United States of America as a country whose trading ships would be welcomed in the ports of Morocco, a move which offered the potential for supplies to be shipped to Washington’s army. In 1778, shortly after his initial effort to help Washington, Abdallah appointed Etienne d’Audibert Caille, a French merchant, to serve as an ambassador to unrepresented countries such as the United States of America. These early diplomatic relations between the United States of America and Morocco culminated in the ratification of the Treaty of Marrakech in 1786, which remains to this day the longest standing foreign relations treaty in American history.
Congress found the Treaty of Marrakech so satisfactory that is passed a note of thanks to Thomas Barclay, a diplomat at the American consulate in Paris, France, for his effort in finalizing the agreements. In reflecting on his experience while negotiating with Moroccans, Barclay wrote that Abdallah “acted in a manner most gracious … and I really believe the Americans possess as much of his respect and regards as does any Christian nation whatsoever.” Barclay said that Abdallah was a “just man, according to this idea of justice, of great personal courage, liberal to a degree, a lover of his people, [and] stern.”
In effect, the Treaty of Marrakech demonstrates that Washington and other members of Congress had no reservations with trusting or entering into a friendship with Muslims. The treaty is also evidence of how Washington and other early Americans judged foreign leaders not on the basis of their religious beliefs, but on the sincerity and strength of their character and conduct.
Washington’s appreciation for Abdallah was reaffirmed in a personal letter, dated December 1, 1789, which he sent directly to Abdallah’s court. In addition to ensuring America’s commitment to maintaining “peace and friendship” with Morocco, Washington stated that Americans would “gradually become useful to [their] friends.” Washington told Abdallah that so long as he was President of the Untied States of America, he would “not cease to promote every Measure that may conduct to the Friendship and Harmony, which so happily subsist between your Empire and [Americans].”
After the death of Abdallah in 1790, the Treaty of Marrakech was validated by Morocco’s new sultan, Moulay Suliman, who made it clear in a letter to the American consulate at Gibraltor that “we are at peace, tranquility and friendship with you in the same manner as you were with our father who is in glory.” Suliman added: “the Americans, I find, are the Christian nation my father most esteemed … I am the same with them, as my father and I trust they will be so with me … With good relations thus reaffirmed.” This official correspondence between American and Moroccan officials shows how both parties regarded each others’ faith with the utmost respect.
Washington’s tolerance of and friendships with Muslims may be a product of his adherence to the principles of Enlightenment, which emphasized a concern for human rights and freedom of choice. Washington believed that every person was “accountable to God alone for his religious opinions” and should “be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.” Washington’s tolerance of Muslims, and indeed of all religions, also manifests in a personal letter from 1783, in which he made it clear that the United States of America would be “open to receive … the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions, whom we shall welcome to participation of all our rights and privileges … They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christians of any sect.”
One of Washington’s most inspiring letters was addressed to the Hebrew Congregation of Rhode Island in 1783. Washington told these early Jewish Americans that he hoped that “the children of the stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, [would] continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of their inhabitants,” which insinuates that Washington would sympathize with Islam as well because Islam also holds Abraham in high esteem for founding the monotheistic tradition. In reaching out to the early Jewish American community, Washington makes the point that the more vulnerable religious groups in American society would be protected and safeguarded under the freedoms granted by the Constitution of the United States of America.
The most important lesson learned in studying Washington’s life lies in the realization that he and the other founding fathers never intended for America to become a nation that would struggle with religious bigotry. Washington made it clear in a letter to Edward Newnham in 1792 that quarrels over religious differences were “the most inveterate and distressing, and ought most to be deprecated.” He was explicit in his recommendation to avoid religious disputes because he felt that such problems “endanger the peace of society.”
It is possible that Washington’s friendship with Muslims is a result of his adherence to the rational principles of Deism, which emphasize a belief in God and not necessarily a belief in religion. Others might argue that it is his Christian faith that encouraged Washington to refrain from religious disputes. While we cannot be certain as to the reasons why Washington entered so graciously into friendships with Muslims, one could argue with credence that Washington saw no room for bigotry and religious persecution in the United States of America. Though Americans have not always followed the example put forth by Washington, a close reflection upon his life and his friendships with Muslims may help to reinvigorate Washington’s legacy, renew the pluralist vision put forth by the founding fathers, and establish the United States of America as the exceptional country it was destined to be.
Craig Considine is currently a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He served as film director and research assistant to Ambassador Akbar Ahmed’s unprecedented study Journey into America: The Challenge of Islam. Craig’s film-work and photography has been vetted by CNN and his numerous articles on issues relating to religion and American society have been published around the world. He also holds an MS.c. in International Relations from the University of London. Craig’s a native of Needham, Massachusetts.