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Misinterpreting Islamic history

"Misinterpreting Islamic history" Continued...

Issue: "Osama bin Ashcroft?," April 27, 2002

Muslims showed great patience in psychologically weakening their opponents. For example, authorities would allow bells inside churches but not outside, anticipating that the bells inside would "eventually fall into disuse. For the bells are normally attached to the church steeple so that when rung they may be heard from afar. If they are obliged to ring them within the church, then no one will hear them or pay heed to them and they will be abolished altogether since they will serve no purpose." The result of beating and belittlement was obvious to observers in Turkey two centuries ago, who noted that dhimmis have "the most submissive cringing tone," and in Morocco during the 1870s, who said Jews had terrorized expressions.

Should that be surprising? Didn't Jews have terrorized expressions in Christian-ruled territories? Bat Ye'or argues that "dhimmitude is in no way comparable with the position of Jews in Christendom." Jews in Europe were an oppressed minority; Christians and Jews in many Muslim countries were oppressed majorities. Persecution of a majority is no different ethically than persecution of a minority, but it requires establishment of a police state rather than just use of the police. "The realm of dhimmitude," Bat Ye'Or writes, "is actually situated in a political ideology of permanent war which ruined entire regions, justified massacres, slavery, usurpation of land, and deportations."

Jacques Ellul, in an introduction to Bat Ye'Or's The Dhimmi, also differentiates the situation of the dhimmi from that of the European serf in the Middle Ages. Serfdom, he notes, "was the result of certain historical changes such as the transformation of slavery ... when these historical conditions altered, the situation of the serf also evolved until his status finally disappeared." Dhimmi status, though, "was not the product of the historical accident but ... the expression of an absolute, unchanging, theologically grounded Muslim conception of the relationship between Islam and non-Islam. It is not a historical accident of retrospective interest, but a necessary condition of existence."

What are the necessary conditions of existence, within an Islamic worldview? Muslims, like Christians, divide people into believers and nonbelievers, but the Islamic conception of future relations between the two is very different. Christians believe that final Christian victory will come not primarily through the efforts of Christians but only when Christ returns. For Muslims, though, the world is divided into the dar al-Harb, land controlled by non-Muslims that forms the "territory of war," and the dar al-Islam, the land where Islamic law prevails. This is a permanent state of war, although there may be truces, because it is man's might that will make Islam supreme throughout the world.

In Islam, therefore, a peace is not a peace, and a truce should not last longer than 10 years. A time of peace longer than a decade is occasion not for relaxation but for feeling inadequate and fidgety. Infidels should never be allowed to rest on their laurels, famed 14th-century Muslim jurist Ibn Taymiyya asserted; any land they possess is held illegitimately. This means that jihad is not aggression but retrieving what is Islam's legitimate possession. The dar al-Harb has no right to exist.

Muslims have long understood the difference between the Islamic and Christian agendas, and the way that Muslim centralism can contribute to a mission of permanent war. Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406) wrote, "In the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and the obligation to convert everyone to Islam either by persuasion or by force. Therefore, caliphate and royal authority are united [in Islam], so that the person in charge can devote the available strength to both of them [religion and politics] at the same time. The other religious groups did not have a universal mission, and the holy war was not a religious duty to them, save only for purposes of defense."

If Bat Ye'Or and Jacques Ellul are right, we should speak about the Muslim assignment of dhimmi status not in past tense but in present and future tenses as well. As Ellul writes, because of "Islam's fixed ideological mode ... One must know as exactly as possible what the Muslims did with these unconverted conquered peoples, because that is what they will do in the future (and are doing right now)." Based on the experience of Christians in Sudan and Indonesia, Ellul's pessimistic realism is well warranted. Dhimmitude is not merely something to be studied by historians; it still goes on wherever Islam gains an edge.

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