TCS Daily


Reductio ad Jihadam

By Stephen Schwartz - February 17, 2005 12:00 AM

A certain style of popular argument seeks to win debating points by associating any adversary, especially if the latter is a conservative, with Nazism or fascism. The philosopher Leo Strauss, of whom we all hear much of late, called this the "reductio ad Hitleram." These days this rhetorical gambit may be applied to almost anything, from the Global War on Terror to the plan for reform of Social Security, with the intention of establishing commonalities between, typically, the Bush administration and the Third Reich. Strauss himself has not been exempted from this indignity. The tactic was and continues to be applied in the American academy, to all anti-Communists, including moderate socialists, and is even hurled at liberal Democrats who supported U.S. intervention in the Balkans. But victims of the reductio ad Hitleram are not limited to conservatives, Republicans, or Americans.

A new and comparable trope has emerged from the discussion of Islam, which could be called the "reductio ad Jihadam." This is an argument that forces every debate over any aspect of the 1,400 year history of the religion of Muhammad into a framework in which Islam is said to be inseparable from, exclusively defined by, and universally characterized by violence against non-Muslims.

There are variations on this metonymy, which might be called the "reductio ad shariam" and the "reductio ad dhimmam." In these instances, Islam exists only to support the exclusive application of Islamic law, or shariah, to all residents of a Muslim-majority society, and/or to impose the dhimma, a contract for the rule of non-Muslims under Muslim authority.

In reality, jihadism and devotion to shariah as an exclusive legal system are rare doctrines among today's Muslims. Were they not, the present conflict between radical Islam and the world would be conducted, from the extremist side, by armies and nations, rather than by small conspiracies. Serious extremist movements are visible only in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (where they are imported, mainly from the south), Iran, Pakistan, regions of Nigeria and Malaysia, and a tiny number of war zones like Chechnya and southern Thailand. Everywhere else belief that jihad and exclusive shariah are central to Islam is a minority opinion among Muslim believers. That is, except in the U.S., where both the majority of American Sunni Muslims who have submitted to the domination of the Wahhabi lobby, and a large number of non-Muslims who have developed hostility toward all Muslims, share the conviction that Islam without violence and imposed conformity are impossibilities.

Reductio ad dhimmam is, in the West, a particularly popular expression of this fallacious style of analysis. According to this theory, Islam is defined by the contract of Umar, or dhimma, which dictated relations between Muslims and "People of the Book" -- a group enumerated in Qur'an as comprising Jews, Christians, and an unknown group known as Sabaeans, but later extended by historical conditions to include Zoroastrians, Hindus, and others.

The contract originally mandated protection of those who received God's revelations before Muhammad. Under Muslim rule in India, Hindus were shielded in maintaining a religion based on a multitude of idols. But the contract of Umar, and dhimma, attract even fewer enthusiasts in today's Muslim world than jihadism and belief in exclusive shariah. The contract of Umar is currently propounded by advocates of an Islamic legal regime, but without much seriousness, and now obtains only in Iran.

The provisions of the dhimma were restrictive in some ways. They included a bar on the construction of new religious structures, whether monasteries, convents, churches, or synagogues. In most Muslim dominions, this regulation was not strictly enforced. For example, after the Jews were expelled from Christian Spain and Portugal in the 15th century, they were welcomed into Morocco and the Ottoman empire. Many new synagogues were then established in the Islamic world. However, public manifestations of faiths other than Islam were typically restricted, and solicitation of conversion forbidden. Crosses and Christian holy books could not be displayed on the roads or in the markets controlled by Muslims. Non-Muslims could not be buried in close proximity to the Muslim dead. Many of these regulations had a political flavor. The granting of sanctuary to spies or other enemies of the Muslims was naturally forbidden.

The contract also required Jews and Christians to show respect for Muslims by standing in their presence, and to refrain from dressing or parting their hair in the manner of Muslims. They could not ride horses, carry arms, or lift their hands to threaten Muslims. They were forbidden to use Arabic calligraphy on their seals, sell fermented beverages (a ban also enforced inconsistently), or build houses higher than those of Muslims. Nor could they employ Muslims as servants. At the same time, the People of the Book maintained order within their communities, settling their own disputes so long as Muslims were not parties to the disagreement. Islamic law was considered to apply only to Muslims. Because the protected communities were defined religiously, their clergy had the right to tax them for their collective needs. Their chief divines -- Christian bishops and Jewish rabbis -- were functionaries of the Islamic state.

In return for the protection of the Muslim order, and exemption from military service, the People of the Book paid a poll tax, or jizya, collected by the priests and rabbis. Acceptance of Islam by members of the protected communities would free them from this burden. Under the contract, the People of the Book could not dissuade their kinfolk from entering Islam, in which case as new Muslims they would cease to be protected and would assume ordinary rights and duties. But numerous Islamic rulers, however intense their devotion to the faith, found it convenient to encourage the Jews and Christians to remain outside Islam, as a financial resource.

Certain non-Muslim commentators have criticized the contract for protection of the People of the Book, on the grounds that it imposed second-class citizenship on Jews and Christians. These critics seldom note that the concept of citizenship as we now know it did not exist until the 18th century, when it was proclaimed in France. Certainly, until after the French Revolution, Jews had no citizenship in Christendom, even in such enlightened societies as Holland, which welcomed Jews as residents but maintained legal curbs on them. Until the 19th century no Muslims had liberties of any kind, including residence, in Christian Europe, except as diplomats and others possessing a safe-conduct. Indeed, at present, restrictions on minority religious rights are a significant problem in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, but are by no means found only in Muslim lands: Catholics have very limited rights in Orthodox Russia.

One clause in the contract of Umar discouraged the imposition of walled Jewish urban quarters, or ghettoes, in the Islamic world, by requiring that the gates of the protected communities be always left open. Umar also decreed the expulsion of non-Muslims from the vicinity of the Holy Places in the Arabian Peninsula. But this stricture was not completely enforced before the 18th century, and even then unevenly. Christians stayed in Mecca and Medina until the final triumph of Wahhabism in the 1920s, and a large number of Jews remained in Yemen up to the 1950s.

After recently writing on Sufism, or Islamic spirituality, on TCS and in The Weekly Standard I received a handful of communications from self-styled experts on Islam who argued that because Sufism is part of Islam, this mystical tradition cannot be divorced from violent jihad, the imposition of shariah, and the subjection of non-Muslims to the dhimma.

The dhimma is now held out by a demagogic element in the West as a terrifying symbol of Islamic domination, and Western advocates of any rational approach to Islam short of a crusader war are regularly insulted as "dhimmis," or people who have surrendered to Muslim rule. One almost expects some of the anti-dhimma fanatics to label President George W. Bush a "dhimmi," but that may be left to the same liberal Democrats who proclaim that the democratic election in Iraq will lay the foundation for a theocracy. In reality, the two abusive propositions are the same, so there is no reason conservative Islam-haters should not adopt such an attitude about the situation in Baghdad, but for whatever reason, they have not.

I do not support the dhimma. As a Sufi, I believe it is a part of the Islamic past that is best left to the past. It should be abolished in Iran and outside consideration elsewhere. Muslims must prove respect for all religious believers by guaranteeing them the same rights as followers of Islam, everywhere that Islam is the majority religion. This is reality in many countries, ranging from Morocco to Indonesia.

But I also oppose the use of the dhimma, a historical system of regulation of religious communities, as a pretext for prejudice against Islam. Those obsessed with the reductiones ad jihadam, shariam, et dhimmam cannot answer many important historical questions, except by the citation of marginal and mendacious works:

  • If Islamic authorities, as under the Ottomans, were compelled by shariah and even, according to some, assisted by the Sufis, in carrying out massive forcible conversions, how did so many Greeks, both in Asia and Europe, maintain their Christianity? There were some Muslim conversions among the Greeks, but they were few. There were more among the Bulgarians and Macedonians, and far more among Bosnians and Albanians, where they were motivated by religious sincerity, according to believers; by a desire to maintain landlord status, according to some, and by a need to avoid the tax on non-Muslims under the dhimma, according to others. But Christians survived under the Ottomans in the millions. Romanians were ruled by the Turks for hundreds of years, and almost none accepted Islam. Hungarians were also conquered, and governed by the Ottomans, for many decades, but did not become Muslims. How could this happen if forced conversions were widespread? Recourse to aggrieved nationalist polemics on these topics is insufficient. (I will deal with the Christian Armenians and their conflict with the Turks below.)

  • If the dhimma dictated that Jews and others should be strictly humiliated under Islamic rule, why did the Ottoman sultans rescue the expelled Jews from Spain and Portugal, provide them with economic resources, and allow them to construct new synagogues all over the empire? The Ottoman sultan Selim II appointed the Portuguese Jew Joseph Nasi the ruler of a number of islands in the Aegean sea, including Naxos and Andros. How would this be allowed if the Ottomans were rigid adherents of the dhimma?

  • In the 19th century, the Ottoman dominion of Mount Lebanon, i.e. the later country of Lebanon, which had a large Christian population, was divided and governed by Christian Maronites and Druzes, the latter being members of an esoteric religion derived from Shia Islam. In 1861, the Ottomans agreed to a reunification of the country under a non-Lebanese Christian governor. How could this take place if Muslim-Christian relations were uniformly oppressive? One of the most famous governors of Lebanon was an Albanian Catholic, Pashko Vasa Shkodrani.

  • Lebanon is seldom mentioned by those obsessed with reductio ad dhimmam, because it offers so many counter-examples to their theory. Much more propagandistic energy has been expended in libelling the Ottoman record in the Balkans, including that of the Sufis who resided there. I should recommend to such "scholars" an unfortunately obscure classic of serious religious ethnology, F. W. Hasluck's Christianity and Islam Under the Sultans, published in 1929. This volume, ignored by the "dhimma" experts, demonstrates through direct observation and record how Sufis protected and honored Christian spiritual monuments and how Christians adopted the habit of visiting Islamic shrines.

  • Many changes took place in the Ottoman empire during the 19th century, and one was the general abolition of the dhimma under a series of reforms known as the Tanzimat. But getting rid of the dhimma meant that Jews and Christians were subject to service in the Ottoman, i.e. Muslim army. This provoked rebellions in 1844, in such locations as the towns of Prishtina in Turkish-ruled Kosovo and Tetovo and Skopje in Ottoman Macedonia, where Christians opposed the Tanzimat and the new demand for army service. They rebelled not against the dhimma, but against its removal. They were then granted exemption from military responsibilities. How does this square with the picture of Islamic treatment of religious minorities as an undiluted system of suppression?

  • Albanians had long included a small community called laramani, or crypto-Catholics, in which the heads of families became Muslims, but the rest of the family remained Catholic. This phenomenon was much more controversial among the Roman clergy, who criticized the male laramani for accepting Islam, than the Ottoman authorities. Typically, laramani became Muslims because they did not live in a money economy and could not pay taxes under the dhimma. With the coming of the Tanzimat, some 8,000 of them chose to reaffirm their primordial Christianity in 1845. After a legal controversy within the Ottoman bureaucracy, they were permitted to return to their ancestral Christian faith. How does this conform to a universally evil vision of Muslim-Christian relations? And what does it say about the claim, heard widely in the West, that apostasy from Islam was universally punished by death? (Source for the events of 1844-45: Gasper Gjini, The Shkup-Prizren [Catholic] Diocese Through [the] Centuries, Prizren, 1999, based on ecclesiastical archives.)

  • It has been stated in some polemics that conflicts between the Turks and Armenians, which broke out late in the 19th century, represented a revolt against the dhimma, even after the dhimma had been done away with. The Armenian national rebellion aimed at an independent Armenian state, not equal rights under the Ottomans. "National oppression" should not be conflated with "religious suppression." Armenians may have chafed under some aspects of the dhimma, but the old system provided them with a Christian ecclesiastical and governing authority of their own, separate from that of the Greeks, who otherwise represented Christians -- as well as the previously-mentioned exemption from service in war. The ensuing massacres of Armenians by the disorganized Turkish authorities were unquestionably criminal. But Western pressure and anti-Ottoman nationalist agitation had contributed to the chaotic state of the Ottoman regime at the time the Armenian massacres took place. Up to a million Armenians still live in Turkey.

  • Finally, it is alleged that under the dhimma, Jews and Christians never had standing within the Islamic legal system. However, Salonica: City of Ghosts, a new book by Mark Mazower, an expert in Greek and Balkan studies, recounts the remarkable history of the eponymous port-city on the Aegean. It notes some curious facts. Salonica, until it passed from Turkish to Greek control at the end of the first world war, was overwhelmingly made up of Sephardic Jews. It functioned as an autonomous municipality under the Ottomans, with justice dispensed by shariah courts, Jewish rabbinical courts, and Christian ecclesiastical courts, according to the religion of those involved. Christians were dissatisfied because they had to pay bribes to get favorable rulings in the "Greek" courts, and had no standing in the Jewish courts. Thus, some of them turned to the shariah courts for justice. This hardly supports the argument of unmitigated injustice of the Islamic rule over Christians.

In a subsequent contribution, I plan to address the contributions of the Islamic philosopher al-Ghazali to Sufism, his view of the dhimma, and his immense influence on Jewish mysticism. I will also discuss the history of "Jewish Sufism," a phenomenon commented upon by Paul Fenton, a scholar who has written quite bitterly against the dhimma. The aim of those obsessed with reductiones ad jihadam, shariam, et dhimmam is to turn the agenda of the West away from the liberation of Muslims from extremism, and toward the destruction of Islam in the name of protecting Christians and others. But regardless of the strictures of Islamic law, Jews, Christians, and Muslims interacted intellectually and spiritually for many centuries. They can do so again without conflict, and while maintaining the integrity of their faiths. Neither should think of conquering the other. That is why reductive arguments are so dangerous for all, whether they bear the mark of jihad or of the crusades.

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