The Next City
June 21, 1998
The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude
by Bat Ye’or (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996. 522 pages) US$19.95
NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE’S MARCH 16, 1998, issue portrays America’s second generation, modern young Muslims as the future of the Islamic faith. “In El Cerrito, California, Shahed Amanullah knows it’s time to pray, not by a muezzin’s call from a mosque minaret,” writes Carla Power, “but because his PowerMac has chimed. A verse from the Koran hangs by his futon. Near the bookcases — lined with copies of Wired magazine and Jack Kerouac novels — lies a red Arabian prayer rug. There’s a plastic compass sewn into the carpet, its needle pointing toward Mecca.”
Further on, Power tells us that America’s Muslims — who number between two and six million (no firm statistics exist) — are “taking on stereotypes” and the “status quo.” That is, they are bothered that Islam in its entirety is associated in the popular mind with the terrorist likes of Hamas and Algerian and Egyptian extremists. “By going back to the basic texts,” Power writes, these young Americanized Muslims are “rediscovering an Islam founded on tolerance, social justice, and human rights.”
It would be interesting, indeed, to see how one could go back to 7th century Arabia and find a faith rooted in philosophical goods — “tolerance, social justice, and human rights” — that were not propounded until the early modern period, and then only in Western Europe. But putting that aside, these American Muslims’ desire to put a human, and humane, face on Islam is admirable, for it does get an unfortunate, if understandable, amount of bad press. Yet it should also be said that unless their enterprise is based in reality, unless it is rooted in facts, it will not stand. Which brings us to Bat Ye’or’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam, whose project is getting at the facts of Islam’s historical relationship with the Christians, and to a lesser extent, the Jews of the Middle-east, Eastern Europe, and Northern Africa from the 7th to the 20th centuries.
A Jew born in Egypt, Bat Ye’or has been a British citizen since 1959 and currently resides in France. All of her books, including this one, were written and first published in French. And while she apparently does not relish controversy — she notes more than once that she bears no animus toward Islam — neither does she sacrifice what she thinks is historical truth for the sake of niceness.
In his foreword to this book, Jacques Ellul, who until his recent death was a prominent French legal theorist, theologian, and culture critic, notes that due to political sensibilities (and, one would think, a fear of being thought sympathetic to France’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front), scholars have been reluctant to speak and write seriously about jihad. Scholars who grappled with jihad usually emphasized its explicitly spiritual components.
In the spiritual sense, jihad is a struggle that each Muslim believer “has to wage against his own evil inclinations and his tendency to disbelief,” and this, writes Ellul, is something with which believers in most religions can identify. But jihad means more, too: From the 7th century to the present one, jihad has often meant literal warfare. “The world, as Bat Ye’or brilliantly shows, is divided into two regions: the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb; in other words, the ‘domain of Islam’ and ‘the domain of war,'” Ellul continues. “[In Islam the] world is no longer divided into nations, peoples, and tribes. Rather, they are located en bloc in the world of war, where war is the only possible relationship with the outside world. The earth belongs to Allah, and all its inhabitants must acknowledge this reality; to achieve this goal there is but one method: war.” Ellul notes that the Koran does provide for peace with the dar al-harb; in many circumstances, of course, it is best not to wage war. “But this changes nothing,” Ellul writes: “war remains an institution, which means that it must resume as soon as circumstances permit.”
That war is near the heart of Islam should, at least from a historical perspective, not come as a surprise. Muhammad, Islam’s divine prophet, was himself a military commander; and as Bat Ye’or makes clear, Islam was born in a culture wracked by violence. So while Islam took much of its ethical teaching from the two biblical religions (Judaism and Christianity), the customs of the nomadic tribes of Arabia’s Hijaz, Islam’s birthplace, conditioned Islam’s interactions with non-Muslims. Thus Bat Ye’or writes that when Islamized Bedouins raided the towns of Babylonia (in present-day Iraq) and Syria in the early 7th century, Christians who lived in those places perceived these destructions as “no more than the usual predatory activities. But they were mistaken — this was jihad.” This was also the beginning of the astonishing spread of Islam from Arabia to the borders of China in the East and, in the West, to the gates of Vienna, where Islam was checked by Western forces in 1683.
The bulk of this book is dedicated to explaining what happened to Christians and Jews or, in Islamic parlance, to the “Peoples of the Book,” that is, the dhimmis who were subjugated by Muslim rulers. Originally the dhimma was a “protection pact” granted by Muhammad to the Peoples of the Book he had conquered. But before long, this protection became outright oppression. “The dhimma required the humiliation of the dhimmis, who were accused of falsifying the Bible by deletions, distortions, and omissions of the prophecies heralding Muhammad’s mission,” Bat Ye’or writes. “Their persistence in error, regarded as the mark of a diabolical nature, condemned them to degradation.”
Thus does Bat Ye’or seek to modify the conventional wisdom of most general world history textbooks, namely, that Christians and Jews who lived in lands conquered by Muslims from the 7th century have for the most part enjoyed relative peace and freedom. “During 13 centuries and on three continents the dhimmi peoples are presented [in most textbooks and by most scholars] as having uniformly and indefinitely enjoyed a status of benevolent tolerance,” Bat Ye’or writes. “Bursts of fanaticism and waves of persecution, when they are not obfuscated, are interpreted as exceptional situations, often attributable to the victims themselves or to foreign [i.e., European] provocation.”
Bat Ye’or does not accept this view, of course, in part because it flies in the face of human experience. “This puerile interpretation of dhimmi life — resembling idealized illustrations — endows Islam with an exceptional aura,” she notes. “This collective paradisiacal condition, which, allegedly, would have encompassed 13 centuries for millions of individuals, has never in fact been experienced by any people, at any period, anywhere in the world — because it is unfortunately incompatible with the human condition.”
In The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam, Bat Ye’or also dispenses with the widely accepted claim that Islamic civilization produced great intellectual and political achievements. While that civilization saw many such achievements, she writes, few originated in Islam; and most derived from the learning of the dhimmi. “Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians . . . taught their oppressors, with the patience of centuries,” she writes. Indeed, from these dhimmi, Muslims learned “the subtle skills of governing empires, the need for law and order, the management of finances, the administration of town and countryside, the rules of taxation rather than those of pillage, the sciences, philosophy, literature and the arts, the organization and transmission of knowledge — in short, the rudiments and foundations of civilization.”
Bat Ye’or does not minimize Islamic civilization — she calls it “vast, rich, [and] complex” — or hide the discoveries of her considerable study. And readers who take the time to peruse the 175 pages of documentation appended to her narrative might find it difficult to argue with her.
Bat Ye’or is equally forthright in assessing the present world — a world in which jihad, in theory and practice, is alive and well. “The Islamist movement makes no secret of its intentions to convert the West,” she observes.
“Its propaganda, published in booklets sold in all European Islamic centres for the last 30 years, sets out its aims and the methods to achieve them. They include proselytism, conversion, marriage with local women, and, above all, immigration. Remembering that Muslims always began as a minority in the conquered countries . . . before becoming a majority, the ideologists of this movement regard Islamic settlement in Europe, the United States, and elsewhere as a chance for Islam.”
Which brings us to this question: Will critically minded North Americans engage Bat Ye’or’s assertions with the seriousness they deserve? I have put this project to my university students, two of whom are Muslims, as follows: There are some brutal passages in the Hebrew Scriptures (in, for example, the Book of Judges), but there are also parts of the same Scriptures (e.g., the Book of Jonah) that counteract the brutal ones. Given this, and combined with what we know of the practice of Judaism throughout the world, one would be hard pressed to prove that violence is near the heart of Judaism. The same can be said of Buddhism and Christianity. Of course, evils have been, are being, and will doubtless be perpetrated by Buddhists and Christians; but only the ignorant or the shallow would say that violence is near the heart of either of these two faiths. Can the same thing be said of Islam?
Bat Ye’or does not seem to think so. Neither is Harvard’s Samuel P. Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, 1996) optimistic that Islam can live in relative peace with the dar al-harb (the “domain of war” where Islamic law does not rule). “Even more than Christianity, Islam is an absolutist faith,” he writes. “It merges religion and politics and draws a sharp line between those in the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb. As a result, Confucians, Buddhists, Hindus, Western Christians, and Orthodox Christians have less difficulty adapting to, and living with, each other than any of them has in adapting to and living with Muslims.” And the rather vitriolic response Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, a journal of religion and public life, received from American Islamic organizations after he favorably reviewed Bat Ye’or in October 1997 does not lend itself to thinking her or Huntington wrong (for a report on the response to Neuhaus see the February 1998 issue of First Things or http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9802/public.html#Islamic).
But it is still too early to come to firm conclusions about the ability of the dar al-Islam to live at peace with the dar al-harb. My students have not yet reported back to me. In the meantime, we should not avoid tough questions simply because asking them is unpleasant.
To comment, write to PrestonJones@nextcity.com
Response to Preston Jones’s review
Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Washington, D.C., responds: September 28, 1998
Of course, no one ever saw this letter because First Things refused to print it.
First Things editor owes an apology to Muslims
by Ibrahim Hooper
In his October “Public Square” editorial (“The Approaching Century of Religion”), Richard John Neuhaus left little doubt as to his negative opinion of Islam. While it is common for Islamophobic writers to cast Islam as the “other,” it is quite rare that such views are stated so explicitly. Mr. Neuhaus says clearly: “The chief other is Islam.”
To drive that point home, Mr. Neuhaus uses the convenient journalistic cover of a book review; in this case an examination of The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude by Bat Ye’or.
It is Bat Ye’or’s, and clearly Mr. Neuhaus’s contention that Islam was, is, and always will be a threat to “Judeo-Christian” civilization. In this worldview, Islam is a “challenge” that the West is “afraid to understand.” Periods of relative inter-civilizational peace and stability are a “momentary pause” in the permanent jihad against the “infidels.”
Mr. Neuhaus uses the term jihad quite liberally yet fails to offer a definition. Jihad does not mean “holy war.” It means to strive, struggle, and exert effort. It is a central and broad Islamic concept that includes struggle against evil inclinations within oneself, struggle to improve the quality of life in society, struggle in the battlefield for self-defense (e.g., having a standing army for national defense), or fighting against tyranny or oppression. There is no such thing as holy war in Islam, as some careless translators may imply. It is rather a loaded medieval concept that did not arise from within the Muslim community.
What is a Muslim to make of claims such as: “Islam’s origins in the customs and values of the Arab Bedouins and of nomadic tribes have left it with the jihad as the only way of relating to the non-Islamic world.” Or what about his description of Middle East as “a world still steeped in the Arab and Bedouin mindset of the Prophet.” Or even worse: “Islam’s spectacular spread was brought about by brutal military conquest, rapine, spoliation, and slavery . . .”
Is this mere ignorance, or does it rise, as I believe, to the level of ethnic and religious hate mongering? How does Mr. Neuhaus explain the following verse from the Quran, Islam’s revealed text: “Those who believe (in the Quran), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians — Any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” (Chapter 2, verse 62)
Now perhaps being a Christian who accepted Islam, I was not given the proper Islamic playbook. I may have somehow remained unaware that I am supposed to be in a perpetual state of warfare with my “infidel” relatives. (It is interesting that since accepting Islam many years ago, I have never heard a Muslim utter the Hollywood B-movie word infidel. (Perhaps Mr. Neuhaus is misusing the Arabic word kafir, or “one who rejects faith.”) Given his obvious biases, Mr. Neuhaus will not be impressed with the Quranic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion.” (Chapter 2, verse 256)
As with other Islamophobes, many of whom are mentioned or quoted in the article, Mr. Neuhaus tosses off the usual disclaimer of not being anti-Muslim. Yet one wonders how anyone who puts Islamic civilization in quotation marks and agrees that “how little that is admired in Islamic civilization is original,” or that “the classical heritage that was presumably preserved by Islam was in fact rescued from Islam by those who fled its oppression,” can avoid such a label.
At this point it would normally be appropriate to mention a long list of contributions Muslims and Islamic culture have made to human civilization throughout the past 14 centuries. I might mention the astrolabe, the poetry of Rumi, the astronomical discoveries of Al-Biruni, al-Kindi’s and al-Farabi’s attempts to establish harmony between faith and science, the Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad, the founding of Al-Azhar University, the observatory at Jiapur, Ali bin Isa’s treatise on ophthalmology, and the mathematic concepts of Al-Khwarizmi (the word “algebra” is derived from his book Kitab al-Jabr al-Muqabala). This list does not even touch on Islamic art, architecture, medical discoveries, geographical studies, and a host of other contributions to world history and civilization. But of course, since Mr. Neuhaus believes all of these things were really “rescued” from Islam, there is no point in even mentioning them.
Mr. Neuhaus’ religious blinders apparently allow such convolutions of logic and reason as, “Bat Ye’or is at pains not to appear anti-Islamic . . . But the story she tells speaks for itself.” Or this: “However tortured the historical relationships between Christians and Jews, each community is identified by the same biblical narrative . . . Not so with Islam.”
Has Mr. Neuhaus ever picked up a Quran? Apparently not, judging from these bizarre statements. Does he really not know that Muslims believe in and revere Abraham, Moses, Mary, Isaac, Ismail, Solomon, Jesus, David, Aaron, Noah, and many other figures from what he arrogantly and exclusively labels the “Judeo-Christian” tradition?
Perhaps all this quoting of chapter and verse is ultimately pointless to Mr. Neuhaus. He states: “I believe Bat Ye’or and others are right to caution us against delusions; for instance, the delusion that a Muslim-Christian dialogue can be constructed on a basis more or less equivalent to the Jewish-Christian dialogue.”
Here we go again. Islam is somehow uniquely unqualified for inclusion in “our” discussions. This is the Islam of medieval polemics and the Crusades, all boiling oil and scimitars. How sad that a prestigious journal would publish such one-dimensional drivel.
As Professor Malcolm Barber wrote on the subject of the Crusader mentality, “The point is that Islam had to be presented as the enemy. Consequently, Muslim belief had to be disapproved or mocked, and Muslim social behavior distorted and denigrated.” (“How the West Saw Medieval Islam,” History Today, May 1, 1997)
And what does the Catholic Church (Mr. Neuhaus is after all also “Father Neuhaus”) have to say about Islam and the “delusions” of dialogue? In “Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents” (1992 Edition), we find: “The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God . . . They strive to submit themselves . . . just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own . . . Over the centuries many quarrels and dissensions have arisen between Christians and Muslims. The sacred Council now pleads with all to forget the past, and urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding . . .” Apparently Father Neuhaus is out of touch with church teachings.
Mr. Neuhaus’ views on immigration and the American Muslim community are truly gut churning. He states: “The biggest problem in sight is Islam. People like Ellul and Bat Ye’or (and obviously Mr. Neuhaus) worry about the low-level jihad of Islamic immigration in Europe . . . and about the establishment of Islam in Bosnia.” One wonders if Mr. Neuhaus would have agreed with those who saw Catholic immigration to the U.S. as a low-level invasion or would he defend the “Christian” Serbs who sought to rid Bosnia of its “Muslim problem.” A chill goes up the spine reading such words.
According to Mr. Neuhaus, the problem of Islam in America is not yet at a critical stage. He states: “The situation in the U.S. is very different. There are probably no more than two million Muslims in this country [the real figure is more than double that], and half of them are native-born blacks . . . at present Muslims here pose no threat to the Judeo-Christian identity of the culture . . .”
Now what are we to make of this statement? Are “native-born blacks” more Islamically docile and therefore no threat to “Judeo-Christian” American civilization? Or are African-Americans so low in Mr. Neuhaus’ political hierarchy that they are hardly worth mentioning? Does Mr. Neuhaus advocate restrictions on immigration from Muslim areas of the world?
Mr. Neuhaus’ casual dismissal of African-Americans and American Muslims is both insulting and inaccurate. American Muslims have seen tremendous growth and development in the past 30 years. The number of mosques and Islamic centers now approaches 2,000 nationwide. Muslims have initiated drug eradication campaigns in the inner cities, participated in disaster relief efforts in the Midwest (including sending donations and volunteers to Oklahoma City after the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building) and are currently engaged in voter registration drives and grass-roots political organizing around the country.
Muslims are also starting to stand up to the discrimination and bias they face daily in the workplace, in schools and in the media. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the organization I represent, began documenting anti-Muslim incidents in the wake of the Oklahoma City attack, when Muslims were unfairly linked to that crime. In the first few days after the bombing, CAIR recorded more than 200 incidents of harassment, threats and actual assault. One woman even lost her near-term baby when terrorized by unknown assailants who attacked her house.
CAIR’s 1997 report on the status of American Muslim civil rights detailed a three-fold increase in such incidents. Hysterical and inaccurate commentary has been shown to be a major causal factor in this trend toward stereotyping and scapegoating Muslims.
Mr. Neuhaus concludes by saying that he has tried unsuccessfully (what a surprise) to reach out to Muslims in the past. “As an institute and a journal, we have over the years tried to engage Muslims in the conversations of which we are part . . . It is an embarrassment that . . . the Muslim participation is almost nonexistent.” Then he explains why no suitable Muslim articles have been accepted: “Muslim authors . . . are typically so defensive, or so belligerent, or so self-serving — or all three at once — that they would only compound misunderstandings.”
The stark racism, xenophobia, and bigotry this statement, and the other statements outlined above expose, should have leapt off the page at any reasonable editor.
In the beginning of this article, I called Mr. Neuhaus an Islamophobe. Let us now review, based on the evidence of his own words, whether or not he deserves that title.
According to a report published by the Runnymede Trust in England, there are seven features of Islamophobic discourse. Does Mr. Neuhaus exhibit these traits?
1) Muslim culture seen as monolithic and unchanging. — Check.
2) Claims that Muslim cultures are wholly different from other cultures. — Check.
3) Islam perceived as implacably threatening. — Double check.
4) Claims that Islam’s adherents use their faith mainly for political or military advantage. — Check.
5) Muslim criticism of Western cultures and societies rejected out of hand. — Check.
6) Fear of Islam mixed with racist hostility to immigration. — Triple check.
7) Islamophobia assumed to be natural and unproblematic. — Naturally.
Mr. Neuhaus owes an apology to the Muslim community, to his superiors in the Catholic Church, and to his readers.