Thursday, January 30, 2003

Islam and Dhimmitude, by Bat Ye'or addresses several questions: "If Jews and Christians are or recently were oppressed under Islam, why don't we hear them complaining?", "Why, given their history of oppressing Christians and Jews, do we find so much support for Muslims in the West?", and "What causes the current anti-semitism in the MidEast and Europe?"

First things first: the book is hard to read. I don't think English is her first language (she was born in Egypt); though her English is much better than my French. The book is both scholarly and polemical, with both copious references and very strong language. Her focus is the fate of the Jews.

A dhimmi is a Jew, Christian, or Zoroastrian who, as part of a conquered people, agrees to accept protection from Muslims and a revocation of a standing death sentence by paying special taxes and accepting strict and humiliating limits on his activity. The much-touted Muslim tolerance and welcoming of other religions turns out to have been limited pretty much to two times and places: Persia during the 'Abbasid era (when, curiously enough, Muslims were still a minority among Christians and Zoroastrians, and it probably wasn't a smart idea to try to get too oppressive) and the Turkish part of the Ottoman empire in the 1400-1600 era.

A lot of the humiliating dhimmi rules were borrowed from the Byzantine empire's rules for treating Jews. These were firmly integrated into the religious law for Islam, and so could no longer be changed.

One of the reasons Islam spread so fast through Africa and the MidEast was that the Byzantine empire had an oppressive tax system, and tried to suppress both heterodox and heretical Christian groups. The result was that the Muslim conquerors seemed to offer a chance of getting out from under the tax burden and to not be oppressed by the hated Byzantine church hierarchs. Surprise: they were oppressed anyway after the Moslems consolidated their power.

Given this framework of contending churches, it made excellent sense to try to play them off against each other. Though a dhimmi community was given quasi-autonomy to regulate its internal affairs, the Muslim authorities appointed the leaders and kept the different churches and Jewish groups separate. The appointments were generally made on the basis of how well the Christian or Jew was willing to cooperate with authorities in raising revenue, and the result was a tendency to appoint corrupt men. These community leaders have an interest in trying to deflect attention from their group to other groups.

A dhimmi who allied with foreign powers was, of course, a traitor and forfeited his life. Appealing for help qualifies as alliance. In addition, there seems to have been a tendency to punish an entire community for the actions of a single person. So the leaders have a responsibility to try to suppress dissent in their own communities.

Such is the basic framework. Within that situation, Bat Ye'or says that the dhimmi develops an attitude of dhimmitude, similar to that developed by oppressed and hopeless populations anywhere, but structured by the particular rules of their environment.

In particular, characteristics of dhimmitude include internalizing as an attitude the "they are better than me" role you are required to play. Under no circumstances is criticism of Islam appropriate. And, thanks to the power disparity, the first defense is to lay low and say nothing, and the fallback defense is to try to deflect hatred onto somebody else.

I did not grow up in anti-semitic churches, and Ye'or's descriptions of the doctrines and attitudes of the Orthodox and Catholic churches over the centuries and through the 20'th were rather startling to me, though they tally with incidents from the history I knew. Ye'or describes the appalling story of how many of the Eastern churches institutionalized hatred of the "deicide" Jews. [What I think of this doctrine is a matter for another post.] Apparently the Catholic church is a wide enough umbrella that quite a number of less-than-fully orthodox opinions can be published, but the fact that the Roman Catholic Community of Jerusalem published the first arabic translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion suggests that things have been out of hand for a long time.

  • The first question, "If Jews and Christians are or recently were oppressed under Islam, why don't we hear them complaining?" she answers by pointing out that complaint has always been dangerous. The mood of Western media is not sympathetic when they do complain, as in Lebanon and in Egypt (when was the last time you heard about the plight of the Copts?). That they were oppressed in the past is beyond argument. That in some places (Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Lebanon) Christians still are oppressed is also quite clear. I have heard anecdotal reports from Palestine that Christians live in special danger from the Palestinian authorities (both official and unofficial), but no systematic surveys. It tends to give the lie to the official statements of Palestinian Christian leaders, though. She claims that there is a large degree of self-deception among Christians who try to identify with Pan-Arabism in order to be included in the rest of society as equals. Of course this is doomed to failure.
  • The second question, "Why, given their history of oppressing Christians and Jews, do we find so much support for Muslims in the West?", she answers by pointing to the historical support the French and English offered during their empire building and jockeying for power; by pointing out that oil is a critical resource; by pointing to the massive propaganda campaign; pointing out the (recent) growing Muslim populations in Europe, and by claiming that the attitudes of dhimmitude have passed from the Eastern churches to their counterparts in the West. In order to try to link themselves more firmly into their societies, the Eastern churches have advertised, and may in fact have originated, the claim that the Palestinians are the true Israelis and that the Jews are impostors. This can be only be integrated into a Christian framework by denying that Christianity came from a Jewish home and accepting at least in part the Muslim doctrine that all men are originally Muslims; since Pan-Arabism is Pan-Islamism under the covers.

    I think there is more to it than this. Several other writers brought up one very simple contribution to Western support for Muslims in the MidEast: hospitality. The Arabs maintain the MidEastern 4000 year old respect for hospitality, and by all reports are very good at making visitors feel at home and welcome. Some people in the US are like this too, but on the whole our culture lacks this very great virtue. OK, imagine yourself a reporter covering events in and around Israel. One group works hard at hospitality, and the other doesn't. Who will you feel friendlier toward, and hang around with more?

    I think that calling the attitude of those Western churches following the Eastern churches' example "dhimmitude" is rhetorical overkill. That it plays exactly into Muslim hands is true, but the psychology is different. I have to grant her that false guilt plays a big role in both groups, though.

    Another feature of the Western culture that she doesn't take adequately into account are the strong anti-capitalist and anti-Christian components of the zeitgeist of the newspapers and the universities.

    One more effect clamors for attention. But first a little history... During the slave years in the US, some evangelical groups tried to convert slaves. In some states slave owners worried that Christian slaves would have to be treated like brothers and evangelism was banned(!?!), but eventually a compromise of sorts was worked out: preachers could preach provided they were willing to also preach that slavery was Biblical, just, and that slaves must obey their masters. This moral dilemma wound up splitting the Baptist church. Some accepted the compromise eagerly, believing that slavery was just; others reluctantly, believing that this was just a temporary setback and that the goal of evangelizing the slaves was worth it. In any case, after a generation or so, they believed it themselves. [The slaves didn't, as a rule... see Roll, Jordan, Roll].

    Now consider the case of mission churches in the MidEast. If they come out and say that a Jew is as good as anybody else, they'll lose their audience, buildings, and permission to stay (and maybe life as well). To be silent isn't always an option. So, either go along with the local bigotry as far as you can (and that is sometimes very far!), or give up and let everybody go to hell. A large number of the examples she cites from Catholic sources can be interpreted as choosing the first option.

  • "What causes the current anti-semitism in the MidEast and Europe?" This she attributes both to long-standing attitudes and to recent reinforcement of these by cross-fertilization between the Nazis and the Arabs. The history she cites of hatred of the "deicide" people in both Eastern and Western Christendom is hideous. The Muslim history has a few bright spots (cited above), but is not significantly better. Within this framework come the Western colonial powers who proceed to try to wangle better trade deals than each other, protect their own citizens against sharia, and support their co-religionists (dhimmis) against the Muslim oppression. The ulema make sure that this insult isn't overlooked, and so there are increasing outbursts of violence against the dhimmi communities. Some of these dhimmi groups (and some of the European powers) try to deflect anger from themselves to the group with no European protector: the Jews. Emigration to Israel starts to grow, despite the Ottoman policies to restrict it.

    European anti-semitism flourished, and produced fruit like the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion." This spread to the MidEast. When the Nazis came to power, the Arabs looked to them as protector and inspiration (after all, the Nazis were the enemies of the colonial English and French, and of despicable liberal democracy, and of the Jews). In their turn the Nazis used Muslim recruits in the Balkans, and apparently excepted Muslims from the segregationist laws.

    The founding of Israel was a devastating insult to the Muslims. Spain was lost, and the Caucasian area, and the Ottomans broken, but those were all lost to the historical enemy--the Christians. This time the infidels were Jews, and they were in a holy place (though apparently only an important holy place if somebody else wanted it). Result, more hatred of the Jews, although with a mask of anti-Zionism.

    To combat the Jewish claim to the land some (probably Christian) Palestinians devised the fiction that Jews were never from Judea, and that the Arab Palestinians had always lived there. This requires rewriting the Bible somewhat, and in fact some Christian churches there have attempted to de-Judeaize the liturgy, removing references to Zion and Israel. Once again the dhimmi attitude serves to attack other (former) dhimmis.

    Growing Muslim populations in Europe bring along their own anti-semitic baggage (and a lot of the attacks on Jews in France and Germany are due to immigrant Muslims). The doctrine of cultural equality restricts other Europeans from coming out strongly against the voiced anti-semitism.

Yes, read the book.

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