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Interview By Michael Cromartie

The Myth of Islamic Tolerance

Muslim "protection" of Christians and Jews has actually been oppression, says scholar Bat Ye'or.

It is standard fare in many college and university courses today to contrast the history of Christian treatment of religious minorities, particularly Jews and Muslims, with the history of Jews and Christians under Islam. According to this politically correct scenario, Christians have been brutally intolerant while Muslims have generally been quite benign (except in response to Christian provocations, from the Crusades to colonialism).

Alas, the charge of Christian intolerance has a good deal of substance, though the historical record is not as uniformly bad as it is often said to be. But what about Islamic tolerance of Jews and Christians?

Bat Ye'or (a pseudonym meaning "daughter of the Nile") is an Egyptian-born Jewish scholar. In articles and books such as The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. Press), she has argued that Islamic tolerance is a myth of modern origin, born of the converging interests of the Islamic states and the Western colonial powers. The actual condition of the dhimmi—that is, the indigenous Jews, Christians, and other non-Muslims under Islamic law as a result of conquest—was one of fundamental subjection that permitted only the private exercise of religion. To describe the historical reality of Jews and Christians under Islam from the seventh century to the present, she has coined the term "dhimmitude."

This revisionist history is important for its own sake, to set the record straight. But it is particularly significant, Bat Ye'or argues, at a time when many Muslim intellectuals are neither discarding their faith in favor of Western models nor accepting uncritically the dictates of Islamic traditionalists but rather are seeking a reform of Islam from within.

Michael Cromartie interviewed Bat Ye'or this spring in Washington, D.C., where she was speaking at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

You have challenged the alleged tolerance of Islamic regimes toward Christians and Jews. You say Christians and Jews were considered to be protected and given a special designation as ahl al-dhimma ("protected people"), but contrary to this theory of a protected status, the conduct of many Muslims has been brutally oppressive toward non-Muslims. Could you elaborate?

In Islamic law there is both a history of protection of Jews and Christians and a history of persecution of Jews and Christians. Because of the whole history of Judaism and Christianity, Islam has been a subject deliberately obfuscated by Western policy. When there is no real history, there is a void, and myths flourish. We now have a myth which has taken the place of history, a big myth which has covered three continents: Africa, Asia, and Europe. This myth spans not only three continents but also 13 centuries, the period of Islamic rule over the Christian world.

A myth of tolerance?

Although tolerance existed, it was counterbalanced by a system of oppression that led to the open extermination of Christian populations and the disappearance of the Eastern Christian culture. Tolerance was given to Jews and Christians only on the condition that they would accept and submit to a system of persecution and total inferiority. The governing context for such tolerance was the jihad. The two are linked and cannot be separated.

How do you define jihad?

Jihad is a religious conception that divides the world into two parts: the Muslim lands and the non-Muslims. Between the two exists a situation of perpetual conflict. This situation of war can be replaced by a temporary situation of semipeace whereby non-Muslim countries pay a tribute to the Islamic countries. But if they stop paying the tribute, the jihad resumes because jihad is the normal state of relationship between the non-Muslim and the Muslim. Jihad is often compared to the Crusades, but it actually preceded the Crusades by five centuries. It was within the context of jihad that the Christian populations and Jewish communities became subject to the Islamic law.

Historically among the non-Muslims there were Jews and Christians who benefited from a privileged situation. If they submitted without resistance to the Arab armies, they were given protection by the Islamic ruler, but this was protection from the laws of jihad, not protection because they were loved. Protection from the laws of jihad protected the non-Muslim's life, property, and family. But non-Muslims were not allowed genuinely to practice their religion. In general, they could not repair their synagogues or churches, which then fell into ruins, nor were they permitted to build new synagogues or churches; they could not observe their religion in public.

So it all had to be private?

Under Islamic law there are several rules, which I describe in my book at length, that limit non-Muslims' exercise of their religion, but allow them to enjoy a measure of security and self-administration according to their own religious rules. Such tolerance was extended to the Christian majorities in the early centuries of Muslim conquest when, in many regions, Muslims were a ruling minority, a minority army of conquest.

What happened when Jews or Christians made public appeals to their religious faith?

It was considered a breach of the contract, which had several penalties. As long as they would pay the avanias, which was a ransom money or tax, their life was safe. But if they refused to pay that, then they would give back to the Muslim communities the rights of jihad: they could be killed, forced to convert to Islam, or put into slavery. Also, when non-Muslims were out in public they had to wear special clothing so that they would not be confused with Muslims.

Their own religious clothing?

No, there were Muslim rules obliging Jews and Christians to wear special clothing with enormous collars that made them objects of ridicule.

And if they refused?

If they refused, for instance, to wear those enormous collars, the Jewish or Christian religious leaders would be called upon by the Muslim rulers and would be forced to impose upon their own religious brethren very severe sanctions.

So, while Jews and Christians enjoyed a form of religious liberty, it was very constricting.

The demands for ransom money were particularly harsh. And because they could not pay, the Jewish and Christian peasantry often simply abandoned their villages. In order not to be converted to Islam or to be reduced to slavery, they fled to the mountains or to the cities, where they wouldn't be found among the crowds. In fact, the economic persecution led to the disappearance of the Jewish and Christian peasantry from the lands in which they had their roots, including the abandonment of the synagogues and churches.

How active is that today? Is that still taking place?

Those rules were integrated into shari'a, the Islamic sacred law. They were justified by a certain interpretation of Qur'anic verses. I must say that the jihad ideology and the dhimmi rules are not in the Qur'an. These were devised by Muslim theologians after the death of Muhammad. They were the result of the interpretation of some verses in the Qur'an and some of the hadith. The hadith are the deeds and words attributed to the prophet Muhammad after his death. They form a companion to the Qur'an and are considered normative because the prophet is regarded as expressing the will of God in his actions. Those hadith were composed during the period of the Islamic conquest in the eighth or ninth century, at a time of strong military confrontation between Christianity and Islam, giving them a militant orientation. On the basis of this interpretation of the Qur'an and those hadith, the laws pertaining to Jews and Christians were established and integrated into shari'a.

Is there a possibility that this intolerance, which has grown out of the concept of jihad, could be turned around by calling Muslim theologians back to the Qur'an?

The Qur'an, like all sacred texts, is subject to competing interpretations. A number of contemporary Muslim theologians and intellectuals want to break away from the prison of jihad. They have argued for a new interpretation of the Qur'an, recognizing that the conflicting passages dealing with Jews and Christians—some very positive, others very negative—reflect contingent historical situations.

So within Muslim theology, there is a war of ideas going on.

Absolutely! In Nigeria, in Egypt, in France, everywhere! There is profound intellectual and spiritual ferment in the Islamic world today.

So this gives you some level of encouragement.

Of course.

That's good, because in reading your book, one can become quite discouraged. How can the West support this process of change and reform? Is that something we can do?

The situation is very complex. First, not only Jews and Christians but also Buddhists, Hindus, and other non-Muslims in many Islamic lands are caught in the middle of this internal Islamic debate. Muslims today are debating not only the condition of the woman, for instance, but also what their relationship should be to us, Jews and Christians and the non-Muslim peoples generally. Will Muslims continue to treat us as dhimmi, as is the case with the Christian Copts in Egypt or in other Islamic regions such as the Sudan, where there is jihad against the Christian Sudanese and the animists? Or will the more tolerant "modernizing" movement within Islam triumph? The Muslim intelligentsia are fighting to protect Christians because they are also fighting for the secularization of Islamic law.

At the same time, we Jews and Christians bear some of the responsibility for the fate of our persecuted fellow believers. We have swept the real history of dhimmitude under the carpet. If instead we had forthrightly proclaimed this history of Islamic intolerance, that witness would have helped the Muslim intelligentsia to resist the demonization of Jews and Christians. It would have helped the Muslim intelligentsia to fight against the intolerance in their own heritage.

Why has the West failed to tell this story?

Before the twentieth century, the myth of Islamic tolerance had no currency. It is largely a modern creation. The West's obfuscation was a result of the political and cultural difficulties of colonialism. France had North Africa, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Syria, and Lebanon after World War I. England had a huge Islamic population in India and also in Egypt and Sudan, Iraq and Palestine. They didn't want to confront this population. They didn't want to protect the Christian minorities in these lands because they wanted to have an economically beneficial pro-Arab, pro-Islamic policy.

They didn't want to upset the status quo by bringing up the question of dhimmitude?

They didn't want to protect the Christians. They told them, You have to integrate into the Islamic environment; we are no longer protecting you. Therefore, for political, strategic, and economic reasons—mostly related to oil in the Middle East—the Western colonial powers didn't want to antagonize the Muslim countries. As a result, they developed a whole literature praising Islamic tolerance toward Jews and Christians.

There was also a theological reason, which is anti-Judaism. At the end of the nineteenth century we see the emergence of Zionism, which created a lot of opposition from the main churches in Europe, especially the Vatican and also among the Eastern Christians. Some were favorable to Zionism, but nonetheless they were afraid the general trend was to be anti-Zionist. We see, therefore, the collusion of an alliance between Christian anti-Judaism with Islamic forces against the Jews, against Zionism.

This alliance had several consequences. First, in the history of dhimmitude, Jews and Christians represent a single unit. Whether they like it or not, they are bound together as the People of the Book. So this long history, which had created a kind of companionship between Jews and Christians in the destiny of the dhimmi, had to be totally denied by the Christians in order to separate themselves from the Jews. The Jews had to be depicted as the source of all evil in the Middle East, especially as the source of the persecution of Christians. (We hear even today that it is because of the creation of Israel that there is a bad relationship between Muslims and Christians, while, in fact, the source of this persecution of Christians is in dhimmi rules that were established in the eighth century.)

These Christians had hoped by this policy to integrate themselves into Islamic society by being anti-Zionist. In Europe they were a bridge between the Islamic world and the Christian world. They hoped to bring the Christian West on the side of the Muslims against Israel. They were a political asset to the Muslims because of their fight against Zionism and the Jews. One still sees this attitude in Europe today, despite the intervening history—above all, the Holocaust.

In the present day we have a responsibility to help the Muslim elite that is seeking the modernization of Islam. To do so we must reject the myth of Islamic toleration.

What are the prospects for liberalization within Islam?

It depends in part upon us. If we do nothing, we shall regress. We are already responsible for doing nothing. But if we are active, and if we understand all of the political and economic interests involved in this very complex situation, there is hope, even amidst the rivalry of some Christian groups.

Are there Muslim intellectuals who will read your book and say, Yes, this is what we are fighting also?

Muslim scholars are understandably hesitant to speak out on this subject because they could be assassinated. Some Muslim scholars don't know this history because it has been obfuscated, ignored, and denied within their own tradition. It is a surprise for them to encounter it. Others have called and congratulated me, and have even gone further than I have in their criticism.

Is there a common understanding of human rights in Islam and the West?

There are many Muslim countries, and we have to be wary of sweeping generalizations. For instance, Turkey is trying to be secular. On the other hand, in Muslim countries that are governed by shari'a, the rights of the non-Muslims are those that are given by Islam.

So it is not equivalent to the Western notion of universal human rights?

According to the notion of universal human rights, everyone is equal in this fundamental way. Under shari'a, not everyone is equal. Only Muslims are equal, and they extend particular rights to the non-Muslim according to Islamic law. I don't think that could be said for all the Muslim countries, but as for Egypt, for example, Anwar Sadat said as much in 1980, when he was in America. At that time, the Copts were expressing indignation over their oppression. Sadat's response was that the Copts must know that Islam is their best protection—not human rights, but Islam. Islam protects them. This is in contrast to the universal declaration of human rights, which recognizes that everyone has the right to live in freedom and liberty.

This leads us back to the anti-Jewish attitude so prevalent in Islam today, too often condoned in the West. This anti-Jewish attitude is anti-Christian as well—Christianity, after all, is rooted in Judaism—and ultimately antihumanity. If we want to bring the Muslims with us out of this dynamic of war, Jews and Christians must ally themselves. Our fight is for the human heart and for human dignity, regardless of our religion. We must not remain indifferent to the oppression of another person simply because his religion is different from ours. He is a human being, and we all have to fight together against hatred and prejudice.

Michael Cromartie directs the Evangelical Studies Project at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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