State of 'dhimmitude' seen as threat to Christians, Jews

Egyptian-born historian Bat Ye'or and her husband, David Littman, have been making the rounds of several campuses this month to lecture on "dhimmitude," a word she coined to describe the status of Christians and Jews under Islamic governments.

Muslims have visited exile, persecution, deportations, massacres and other humiliations on non-Muslims for almost 1,400 years, she has told students at Georgetown, Brown, Yale and Brandeis universities.

Muslim armies steamrolled over North Africa, the Middle East and Spain for five centuries after the death of Muhammad in 632, says Bat Ye'or, a pen name meaning "daughter of the Nile." In her two most recent books, "Islam and Dhimmitude" and "The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam," she describes how magnificent basilicas and monasteries of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia were left in smoking ruins by Muslims from the eighth to 10th centuries.

Spain, she says, was pillaged and devastated many times: Zamora in 981, Barcelona in 987, Santiago de Compostela in 997. In 1000, Castile was ravaged, its Christian population either killed or enslaved and deported. In 1096, Pope Urban II set the Crusades in motion by calling on Christians to take back the conquered lands.

The golden age of Muslim rule in Spain from the eighth to the 15th century was largely myth, Bat Ye'or says, and dhimmitude is in effect today in Islamic-ruled Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, parts of Indonesia and northern Nigeria.

Bat Ye'or has had hearings in some quarters, including her 1997 and 2001 appearances before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Congressional Human Rights Caucus. But many of the 70 students attending her Oct. 15 lecture at Georgetown University on "The Ideology of Jihad, Dhimmitude and Human Rights" walked out.

Julia Segall, president of the Georgetown Israel Alliance, and Daniel Spector, president of the Jewish Student Alliance, called the lecture a "disaster" in Friday's edition of Hoya, a student newspaper.

Bat Ye'or and Mr. Littman "made no effort to make a clear distinction between pure, harmonious Islam and the acts of a few who falsely claim to act in the name of Islam," they wrote.

In the same issue, dissenting student Scott Borer-Miller criticized the university for its treatment of Bat Ye'or and its "anti-Zionist environment where supporting Israel is uncool."

Mr. Littman shrugged off the fracas.

"The Muslim students who were attending were unhappy with what we were saying and so they pressured the Jews," he said. "And the Jews collapsed. They've become dhimmis."

Bat Ye'or also was criticized by John Esposito, director of Georgetown University's Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, for lacking academic credentials. She studied at the University of London's School of Archaeology and at the University of Geneva, but never graduated.

Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, said Bat Ye'or's research into Turkish, Persian and Arabic documents dating back to the eighth century has not been contested.

"What's notable is [various academics] don't attempt to refute her work, which is scholarly and documented," he said. "Those who oppose it owe it to her to engage her work at the scholarly level, which it deserves."

Imam Rashied Omar, a Capetown (South Africa) University academic pursuing his doctorate in religion and violence at the University of Notre Dame, said that Bat Ye'or's findings are a minority view that contrasts with a large portion of extant literature on medieval Jewish-Muslim-Christian relations.

"That's not to say there was no oppression," he said, "but it's well-known that Jews sought refuge under Muslim empires. Jews and Christians obtained greater freedom and abilities to express their religious identities under Muslim rule than was the case under Christian rule."

Abdelaziz Sachedina, a religious studies professor at the University of Virginia, points out that Bat Ye'or used highly polemic sources written by the victims of dhimmitude.

"Monotheistic religions are always exclusivist," he said, "so how are they going to deal with other monotheistic peoples? Muslims have showed their civilization has a better mechanism in which to do so because they give sanctity to other monotheists. It was a just system that took the dignity of all human beings into consideration. Muslims are not saying we treated them well or that it was an ideal situation."

Following are excerpts from a recent interview by reporter Julia Duin with historian Bat Ye'or, who grew up as a Jew in Egypt, then emigrated with her family to England. She and her husband live in Switzerland.

Q: Why have you taken on the task of explaining to people what it has been like for Christians and Jews to live under Muslim rule to the point of coining a word "dhimmitude" for it?

A: When I was growing up in Egypt, I knew nothing of freedom. I knew there was persecution of minorities, but we adapted to it. This was the 1950s. Then we were expelled from Egypt in 1957 under Nasser and we moved to England. It was in England I learned the word "liberty." I had to learn to be a free person. Dhimmitude is that state of fear and insecurity.

Q: But didn't Islamic law actually provide for the protection of minorities?

A: After the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, they came under the dhimma, a treaty of submission for each people conquered by jihad. The infidels who submit to Islamic rulers are given a pledge of security to protect them from the rules of jihad, so long as they accept a condition of humiliation and of total inferiority to Muslims.

Q: But didn't the Muslims get this idea from the Christians?

A: Islamic law governing Christian dhimmis developed from Byzantine Christian legislation enacted from the fifth to the sixth century. It aimed at imposing legal inferiority on native Jews of Christianized countries — lands that were subsequently Islamicized.

Q: How have Islamic governments treated their religious minorities compared to how Christians treated theirs?

A: Islam links politics and religion together, whereas Christianity separates the two. In Christianity, there is a trend that criticizes religious intolerance. Christianity has developed a dialectic that leads to self-criticism and improvement. One can then fight against racism, anti-Semitism and prejudices.

But Islam does not emancipate the dhimmis [religious minorities] nor recognize that jihad and dhimmitude are evil institutions. In fact, they say those are good institutions. They do not recognize the evil in their own history. The Islamic concept of non-Muslims engenders hostility. In Christianity, there is not a concept of permanent holy war.

Q: Where, then, did jihad originate?

A: The ideology of jihad was formulated by Muslim theologians from the eighth century onward. It separates humanity into two hostile blocks — the community of Muslims, and the infidels. According to this ideology, Allah commands the Muslims to conquer the whole world in order to apply Koranic laws. Hence, they have to wage a perpetual war against the infidels who refuse to submit. Its principle is based on the inequality between the community of Allah and the infidels. The first is a superior group, whose mission it is to rule the world. The second must submit.

Q: Does the typical Muslim understand jihad as a foundation principle governing how to relate to non-Muslims?

A: Not all Muslims know it, and many reject its ideology. It would be a great mistake to believe each and every Muslim identifies with jihad war ideology.

Q: However, dhimmitude was brought to a halt in the Near East by European colonialism. Are academics now saying you are exaggerating its negative effects?

A: Since the end of the 1960s, some professors in Europe and North America teach that jihad wars produced a minimum of civilian victims, and that the Muslim armies of conquest were welcomed by their future dhimmis with open arms. This, of course, is the Muslim version of history, and it is interesting to see that it is being adopted in Europe.

Q: What else are Muslims saying about Western history?

A: They are saying that the Renaissance developed thanks to them. That is pure nonsense. It is linked to a desire to dominate European culture. The Muslims in Spain developed their civilization from their Christian predecessors and from Byzantine influence from the 13th century.

When the Turks invaded Byzantium, Greek scholars fled with their archives to Italy. They translated the Greek classics into Latin. The Italian paintings of the 13th and 14th century are reminiscent of Byzantine icons.

Q: What do Westerners not realize about Islamic history?

A: Islam presents an idealistic version of itself that is not reality. Islam started in 622 and in 640, the Jews and Christians were expelled from Arabia. What the Islamists call Islamic territory today was all Christian territory from Portugal to Armenia before 632 A.D., when the conquest began. And they say Jesus was a Muslim and that the true Bible teaches Islam. It's a replacement theology they have toward Jews and Christians.

In Europe these days, they are no longer referring to their "Judeo-Christian culture" because that wording irritates the Muslims, who want us to refer to the West as an Abrahamic civilization because they regard Abraham as a Muslim.

Q: Are Europeans going along with this?

A: In some places, yes. Definitely in France, where there's a general pro-Arab policy because of its interests in the Arab world. Thus, there are those who are promoting a Palestinian state in place of Israel. The anti-Israel policy in France is linked to an anti-U.S. bias because America is seen as a defender of Judeo-Christian values. And as anti-Semitism grows in France, it also becomes anti-Christian because of its hatred of the Jewish origins of Christianity.

Q: Is the reason you've come up with the term "Eurabia" to describe what Europe is becoming?

A: Europe is fast becoming an Arab-Islamic land of emigration. Its leaders pretend to their people they are restricting immigration but they really are not. Because if they did, there might be economic and other reprisals.

Polygamy is being tolerated in France and Germany, although not officially. Muslims are agitating for separate public schools according to gender and for girls to cover their heads. This has really created a problem with the teachers.

Q: How do you suggest Americans react to this?

A: If Europe changes its tune toward Arab countries, there might be reprisals. That [Oct.6] attack on the French oil tanker off of Yemen was a warning. That is why the French are afraid to go to war against Iraq. The tactic is to isolate America.

President Bush said we won't be intimidated by what happened in Bali, but he's the only world leader saying that. America is being attacked because it fights back. Americans should also resist the idea that they are responsible for September 11.

Q: So Islam is increasingly not tolerating dissent, even in the West?

A: For Westerners, it is normal to change one's religion. For Islam, it is not. There is more and more Shariah [Islamic law] coming to the West. For instance, an Iranian mullah who preached an Oct. 11 sermon called for the deaths of Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson.

Well, one shouldn't be condemned to be killed just because one criticizes their religion.