Why the First Amendment Is the Best Amendment: Part 6

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(Photo: Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images)
(Photo: Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images)

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — The First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The struggle against Islamism can be summarised as a struggle over whether or not the First Amendment is a good idea. The First Amendment enshrines freedom of religion and conscience as a matter of law. By contrast, Islamism is about control: over thought and deed.

But to understand how this conflict came about, we have to backup a little bit.

This is the sixth in a eight-part series explaining how and why the First Amendment came about, why it never developed Islamic countries and why Islamists oppose the principle today.


Part Six: Enlightenment and Colonialism (1776-1914)

When the French army under Napoleon took Alexandria in 1798, for the first time since the Crusades, the heartlands of the Middle East were under the control of Christian powers. That is why 1798 is considered by historians to be the beginning of modern Middle Eastern history,

Yet Napoleon, in proclamations to the Egyptian people, did not speak as a Christian conqueror. Instead he attacked the Ottomans, and stressed France’s track record of religious pluralism. He stressed his respect for Mohammad and for Islam. Similarly he exhorted his soldiers to respect the Muslim faith. This was in keeping with French Enlightenment ideals, akin to those encapsulated in the First Amendment.

None of this professed pluralism prevented the Egyptians from rising up against him. Nor did it prevent Napoleon from massacring the rebels as they begged for mercy while holed up in the Great Mosque of Cairo.

Over the next century after Napoleon’s invasion, Britain, France and other colonial states would fight proxy wars around the world with rival powers, many of them Muslim, who were backed by either Britain or France in exchange for military, technological, financial or diplomatic support.

This had already been going on during the 17th century to a limited degree, but it became widespread in the 18th century.

So in Egypt, Britain supported the Ottomans against the French, destroying Napoleon’s fleet in the Battle of the Nile. In India, the French supported Tipu Sultan, king of Mysore, while the British supported his rival, the Nizam of Hyderabad. But religious and dynastic differences were not only exploited by the Europeans. The rulers of the various Muslim kingdoms were not hapless dupes, but fully aware and  active rulers who, on many occasions, called in European powers to settle their scores.

In particular, the Ottoman sultan, Mahmud II, had no compunction in appealing to the great powers. He begged them to save his throne and the territorial integrity of his empire from the ambitious Muhammed Ali, pasha of Egypt. Ali set Egypt on a modernizing course, building a modern army and an industrial base (although at great cost to the ordinary people of Egypt) in order to build for himself an independent power base out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.

Colonialism would never have been possible without the active support and collaboration of Muslim leaders at the highest levels of their respective governments. Nor would it have been possible without the loyal service of hundreds of thousands of Muslim soldiers who fought and died for their colonial overlords.

During this period, many Muslim states actively attempted to copy European modes of government, dress and education, believing that to do so would save their kingdoms from the colonial tide. This involved setting up modern bureaucracies, European model schools, European militaries with academies for the officer corps, standardized uniforms, European-style drills and (most importantly) European modern artillery corps. This was most notable in the Ottoman Empire, where the sultans had long-participated in the shifting alliances of European politics and, to a large extent, regarded themselves as European monarchs.

These modernizing attempts were closer to the “Enlightened absolutism” of the 18th century rather than the democratic Enlightenment values of the American and French revolutions.

But they were unable to do so effectively. The Mughal Empire failed to update its army, which remained reliant on feudal levies. Muslim states also spent significant resources fighting each other, and at no point was there any unity in the face of European aggression.

The Europeans in the main believed that as truth and civilization spread, superstitious religion would melt away. European colonialist theorists developed the ideas of using the power of reason to extricate society from the prison of established religious dogma into a “civilizing mission.”

This they brought forward into Muslim lands (as well as non-Muslim Hindu, Christian and animist-majority countries). While, like Napoleon, they usually took the trouble not to restrict worship of the religion of Islam, this was mostly not out of any respect for the faith, but as a practical measure to forestall rebellion. The notion was one of positive progress, exported to uncivilized countries by a beneficent Western power.

However, their new world of rationality was bounded by bigotry and racism. Spurred on by misinterpretations of the biologist Charles Darwin, the learned men of the West came to accept as fact ideas of distinctions in quality between the races and between the ideas of the different races as a result.

British Colonial Administrator Lord Macaulay, in his Minutes of Indian Education (1835) wrote, “It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say, that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England.”

This bigoted attitude created a paradox in Enlightenment thought. Freedom existed, but only for property-owning white Christian males. Other groups were gradually included, as proponents of Enlightenment ideas forcefully stripped away the privileges of the entrenched classes.

In America, this took the form of manifest destiny. Under this doctrine, the United States military extended the dominion of the “Star Spangled Banner” from sea to shining sea. It brutally eradicated all Native American tribes in its path, confining the shattered few survivors to humiliation in reservations. Notoriously at Wounded Knee, in 1890, the United States military massacred at least 150 Lakota Sioux, including many women and children.

Nor was the First Amendment extended to black Americans. Even after the abolition of slavery following the Civil War (1861-1865), black people did not have the same legal rights as white people until well into the 20th century. Socially, culturally and politically, black Americans still face discrimination in various subtle forms to this day.

It is this form of “liberal imperialism” that many left-wing figures are objecting to when they hit back against Western proclamations of exporting Western ideas about human rights to Muslim-majority countries.

Islam, by contrast, was used by many anti-colonial leaders as a rallying cry. Leaders such as Emir Abdelkader in Algeria presented themselves as holy warriors, defending Islam and their people against infidel invaders to great effect. Nor was his jihad anything like the terrorist groups we see today. It was a traditional insurgency which targeted the French military. Abdelkader was praised for his commitment to human rights. Prince Diponegro in Indonesia made similar assertions during the Java War in 1830.

In the popular consciousness of many, Islam then became associated with political resistance to European domination.

Resolving the disparity between the lofty ideals of the First Amendment, and the brutal reality of American and European states, would take another hundred years.


In Part 7, we will look at what happened when the tragedies of World War One and Two destroyed the confident world of the 19th century and how the ideals of the First Amendment dealt with the challenge of communism. Click here to read Part 7.



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Debates on Islamism: Hijab

What We Can Learn From Jefferson and the Barbary States


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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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