February 13, 2014

How I Helped a Young Man Understand a Central Fact About the Koran

Earlier tonight I worked late and gave one of my workmates a ride home. On the way, I was telling him about a book I am reading: The Pirate Coast. I said, "It's an interesting story and well-written. You know the Marines Hymn? From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli? The book is about how the United States Marines defeated Tripoli and why. Do you know the story?"

"No, I don't think so," he replied. "Where's Tripoli?"

"It's where Libya is now. Used to be called Tripoli. This is back in the early 1800s. It's North Africa, along the coast of the Mediterranean. The countries along the whole North African coast had been conquered by Muslim warriors centuries before, and they were all making pretty good money capturing ships traveling off their coast. There have always been lots of ships carrying goods to and fro in the Mediterranean. So these pirates would seize ships, take all the goods and the ships and then either ransom the crew or enslave them. When a country complained, they said, 'We will not attack ships from your country if you pay us this much money per year.' Eleven European countries took this deal. And the United States also paid the tribute money because they didn't have a navy to speak of, so they couldn't defend themselves militarily. We were a new country and didn't have much money, and paying the tribute was cheaper than raising a navy."

I'm a fast talker and he seemed to be enjoying the story, so I kept going. I should mention that he and I have never talked about Islam before. He was relatively new at work and he and I had excellent rapport.

The reason I'm telling you this story is that I realized afterward that I had given him some important basic information about Islam without him ever even knowing that's what I was doing. He is very laid back, and kind of reminds me of a younger version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski — kind of a live-and-let-live sort of fellow, and if I had come at him head-on with information about Islamic doctrine, I feel sure he would have resisted. But I didn't do that and he didn't resist, and I don't think he will ever look at Islam the same way again.

Anyway, I told him, "The story takes place when Thomas Jefferson was president. But before he became president, he was the American ambassador to France and he met the ambassador to Tripoli. He and John Adams sat down with Tripoli's ambassador and asked him, 'Why does your country attack our ships? We've never done anything to you.' The ambassador said, 'Our Koran commands us to make war on the infidels.'

"Jefferson found this hard to believe, so he bought a copy of the Koran and read it. As far as I know, he's the only president who ever did this. I read the Koran myself, and let me tell you, it is a shocker. Jefferson found out that the Tripoli ambassador was telling the truth. It is a Muslim's duty to make war on infidels until the whole world is Islamic. It is not optional, according to the Koran. It is an obligation of all Muslims."

My workmate looked surprised at this, but I didn't pause. I said, "So when Jefferson became president, he knew that Tripoli was not someone the U.S. would be able to negotiate with. There was no 'working things out' like he might do with a European country. So he started finding the funds to build up a navy powerful enough to defeat Tripoli.

"But the book is really about a guy named William Eaton, who was very bothered by the fact that the United States was paying tribute. It irked him to no end, and he came up with a plan to defeat Tripoli, and against all odds, and through the most unlikely alliances and through sheer determination, he and a small number of Marines managed to actually do it. It's a great book. History is always stranger than you'd expect."

Of all the different ways I have used to help my fellow non-Muslim citizens understand Islamic doctrine, this method has consistently worked the best: Simply talk about an interesting book I'm currently reading, and add in a few fundamental facts in the middle in such a way that they don't want to argue with me because they want to hear the rest of the story. So they are left with this disturbing piece of information about Islamic doctrine, delivered in a very convincing manner (in this case, the Koran's ugly secrets were confirmed by Thomas Jefferson and me), and all done within a context of good rapport and in a way that remains completely non-confrontational.

This won't work for every circumstance or every person, certainly, but when it happens, it is a beautiful thing.

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