In the eyes of the West

Published March 26, 2005

THE brutal treatment of our minorities was on display yet again recently when, on March 16, an imam of an Islamabad mosque led his students in an attack on a group of Christian worshippers in their church in Islamabad.

For years now, Sunnis and Shias have been resorting to violence against each other in their respective mosques, but apart from the occasional atrocity, Christians had been left alone in their churches. This recent, totally unprovoked, attack underlines the precarious position of non-Muslims in Pakistan.

If it’s any consolation, we are not alone in our intolerance. Historically, the dhimmi (or zimmi) have been a people apart in Muslim societies, with special rules and laws to delineate their limitations and obligations as non-Muslim citizens. While we take some pride in the often tolerant treatment they received at the hands of Muslim rulers, Bat Ye’or, a British historian of Egyptian origin, differs strongly. Author of the recently published book “Eurabia: the Euro-Arab axis”, Ms Ye’or was interviewed recently by the French weekly Le Point (March, 10, 2005), and according to her, Europe has submitted’ to Islam without a struggle.

When asked about her lifelong study of the conditions of the dhimmi in Islamic history, she says: “...Very often glossed over, the concept of the dhimmi is fundamental; it is an integral part of the ideology of jihad itself...which divides humanity into two camps: the Muslims, representing the side of peace, and the non-believers, those of the lands of the dar al-harb, the lands of war.

“Invoking the [Holy] Koran and the hadith (both pillars of Islamic law), jihad places on the Muslim community the obligation to conquer non-Muslim countries, so as to bring them under Islamic law. Jihad can be waged either peacefully (through immigration and conversion), or through war. All resistance to the advance of Islam constitutes a casus belli [a just cause].

“The dhimmi is the non-believer who, submitting to the sovereignty of Islam without a fight, benefits from the protection of his life and his property. He is entitled to certain limited rights. In exchange, he pays a ransom-tax, the jaziya (Holy Koran 9, 29). This payment is part of various humiliations. The refusal to pay the jaziya is equated to rebellion, and lifts protection, automatically restoring the state of jihad...” Bat Ye’or traces this system back to the earliest days of Islam, and lists the limitations the dhimmi were forced to live under: they were forbidden to carry arms; they were not permitted to repair or build their places of worship; they had to wear patches of coloured fabric on their clothes that identified them as non-Muslims; in the streets, the dhimmi had to walk quickly with downcast eyes, and pass to the left of Muslims; their religious rituals had to be followed soundlessly, and processions were not permitted. “The marriage of a dhimmi with a Muslim woman, as well as blasphemy against Islam, were obviously punished by death.”

According to Ye’or, millions of non-Muslims have been subjected to these conditions over the centuries. Europeans, Asians and Africans have been counted as dhimmi in Muslim societies. The historian maintains: “...This is a history of violence, of slavery, of suffering, of rape, of deportation, of humiliation...”

In the same issue of Le Point, the writer Malek Chebel was asked to respond to Bat Ye’or’s interview. Author of “Manifesto for an Enlightened Islam”, Chebel asserts: “...Since the 19th century, the majority of Jewish specialists of Islam like Ignatius Goldziher, Georges Vajda, Samuel Munk, Bernard Lewis, and Maxime Rodinson, have admitted that their co-religionists in Muslim countries, for the entire Islamic period, were never victims of pogroms, of massive deportation, of discrimination or extermination. They were not subjected to the European-style holocaust, or even marginalized, irrespective of what these new theoreticians of dhimmitude’ might say... On the contrary, many of them occupied eminent positions, honouring the magnanimity of classical Islam, Enlightened Islam, the Islam we love...”

This debate is coming to occupy centre stage in Europe as westerners seek to resolve the contradictions of a secular, tolerant society with the seemingly rigid belief system followed by the ten million Muslims who live in their midst. While these questions have been discussed since 9/11, the debate has assumed greater urgency ever since Turkey was accepted as a future member of the European Union. The vision of 70 million (Muslim) Turks able to come and live in their countries at will is a disturbing one for many Europeans.

In the West, perhaps nothing sets Islam and its followers apart from western values more than the treatment of women. The last century has witnessed a relentless struggle for women’s rights in Europe and America, and for an entire generation of men and women, concepts such as forced marriage, honour killings and all-enveloping burqas are abhorrent.

As the Muslim population in Europe (and elsewhere) is generally growing at a much faster rate than that of non-Muslims, there is a real fear that Europeans in some countries will be outnumbered, and their civilization eroded. So how to reconcile these huge differences?

According to the leader-writer of Le Point, “This question of individual liberty is at the heart of the debate between Islam and the other religions of the Book. Will the response follow the path of secularism...? In any case, this is the necessary path for a religion in Europe that ... has no concept of the separation of the temporal from the spiritual. But for this to happen, Islam must undergo its own cultural revolution’. But it is currently dominated by Saudi Wahabism, the most retrogressive version of the faith, one based on a literal reading of the holy texts and a return to the past. This is the version most Muslim youths in [western] slums follow in a search for a new identity...”

Each western country tries to grapple with these issues in its own way, but tension is increasing everywhere. More and more, when Muslims protest against the stereotyping of all Muslims as extremists, and appeal for tolerance, they are being asked why Muslim states do not show the same tolerance they are demanding in the West.

Why, they ask, are the Saudis financing the construction of mosques in western cities, when they do not permit the construction of churches in their own country? And why are Christian worshippers being attacked in a church in the capital of Pakistan?

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