More than the Roman emperors, the Popes, the English monarchs, the czars and czarinas, the sultans and the Chinese emperors, the American presidency is unique in the political history of the world. Reacting against both the weakness of the executives in the states under the Articles of Confederation, and the arbitrary prerogatives of the English monarchy, the Framers of the American Republic sought to merge two opposing principles: a vigorous unitary executive within a limited and limiting constitutional republic. Whether their experiment was successful or not has depended from the start largely on the personality and character of those who occupied the office.
In 711 A.D., a Muslim raiding party, made up mostly of recently conquered and converted Berbers, crossed to Spain from Africa and unexpectedly defeated Roderic, the king of the Visigoths. This represented the farthest western expansion of the Ummayad Empire, which had come to power in 656 in the first Islamic Civil War, and whose seat was in Greek-speaking Damascus.
Muhammad was a great man, at least as history traditionally defines greatness. Sure, there are revisionist academics who suggest that he was, more or less, a created figure who arose out of the politics and culture of northern Arabia, but we can, and perforce must as a practical matter, accept the received picture of him as affirmed by Islamic history. As such, he reformed, rechanneled, and revolutionized the ancient and primitive culture of Arabia to set it on course to become one of the world’s great civilizations.
In February of 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt traveled to Yalta and ceded geopolitical control of Eastern Europe to Joseph Stalin. At the conference, Winston Churchill could do nothing. In return for the Soviet dictator’s promise of allowing Poland to hold elections to set its postwar political course (and a vague assurance of democratic elections in the other countries occupied by Red Army troops at the close of World War II), the allies let him keep possession of the eastern part of Poland. This was, in effect, ratification of Stalin’s 1939-1941 territorial gains as the ally of Adolf Hitler.
Churchill had consistently attempted to block Stalin’s expansionism, but with the American President distancing himself from Britain, Stalin had little trouble setting himself up for a postwar empire taking in not only Eastern but parts of Central Europe.
Today, with the “framework of understanding” between the United States and Iran on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Barack Obama has devised his own Yalta.
Denise A. Spellberg, Associate Professor of history and Middle eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of the highly regarded work, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr. She was involved in controversy in 2008, when she reviewed the galleys of a novel, The Jewel of Medina, for Random House, and criticized the work on many grounds including warning a number of times that the book might instigate violence among some Muslims, specifically against Random House and its employees. Random House then withdrew publication of the book, but the novel was subsequently published in a number of countries, including the United States.
In this work with the eye-startling title, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, Spellberg investigates all manner of references among the founding generation to Islam in order to assert two themes 1) that the founders’ references to “imaginary Muslims” led them to include other minorities, such as Jews, Catholic Christians, and Deists, as full citizens, and 2) that America is now in the grip of “Islamophobia,” and many Americans are attempting to “disenfranchise” Muslims from their rights as full citizens.