Baha'i News -- Locating intolerance in the Arab world GUEST COLUMN | ZVIKA KRIEGER

Published Tuesday, October 29, 2002

Locating intolerance in the Arab world

Sutarsi was a Christian, an Indonesian, and a victim of the creeping genocide against the Christian community in the Moluccas islands, Indonesia. Her village was attacked by Jihadist militants. In the ensuing battle, Sutarsi was shot in the face by a Muslim militant.

A young girl was one of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians murdered during the Al-Kosheh riots in January 2000. The Egyptian police sat and watched as she and her fellow Christian victims were terrorized by an Islamic mob during three days of rioting around the New Year's celebration.

Siham Qandah, a Jordanian Christian, risks losing her children because she is not a Muslim. Jordanian courts have granted custody of the children to their Muslim uncle. To avoid losing her children, Qandah has gone into hiding.

Straight from the headlines of international newspapers, these stories of intolerance and barbarism are disturbing, and seemingly unrelated. But according to Egyptian scholar Bat Yeor, they are fundamentally linked by one word -- Dhimmitude.

Never heard of Dhimmitude? You aren't alone. Though the concept has been around for hundreds of years, the issue has only recently been brought to public consciousness by scholars such as Yeor who have broken the silence of Islamic scholarship. Yeor, as well as Libyan refugee and human rights activist Malaka Bubliel, have brought discussion of this issue to Yale campus this week with a Pierson Master's Tea and a speech at the Women's Center, respectively.

Strictly speaking, Dhimmitude is defined as the status of People of the Book (Jews and Christians) under Islamic rule. While many are satisfied believing that this status is defined by protection and tolerance, these two speakers are part of a new movement to expose the truth of Muslim attitudes towards non-Muslims living in their midst.

Under the shari'a, the Islamic sacred law, Dhimmis are forced to pay a special tax, or jizya, in order to be tolerated within their Islamic society. Dhimmis are not allowed to testify in court against a Muslim and have no legal right to dispute or challenge anything done to them by Muslims. There is no such thing as a Muslim raping a Jewish woman; there is no such thing as a Muslim murdering a Dhimmi (it can be manslaughter at most). In contrast, a Dhimmi who strikes a Muslim is killed.

Jews and Christians once had to walk around with badges or veils identifying them as Jews or Christians. Bubliel points out that the yellow star that Jews had wear in Nazi Germany did not originate in Europe. It was borrowed from the Muslim world where it was part of the system of Dhimmitude.

According to Yeor, the concept of Dhimmitude arises from the pervasive principle of jihad in Muslim society. Jihad is a religious conception that divides the world into two parts: the Muslim lands and the non-Muslims. Between the two exists a situation of perpetual conflict.

Sounds like an archaic social caste out of a history textbook? Yeor affirms that "jihad has not been rejected or denounced as a way of relations with non-Muslims." It took until the last century for some Arab countries to denounce the doctrine of Dhimmitude, and only as a direct result of European colonialism. Some countries, like Iran, Pakistan and Sudan who strictly adhere to the shari'a, still uphold its precepts. Yeor explains that even the countries that did officially denounce the practice are still greatly influenced by it in every aspect of daily life.

While Yeor has brought the issue to the academic world, Bubliel has been educating the masses through her personal stories of injustice and horror. She tells of how despite the fact that her family had lived in Libya for over two millennia -- predating Islam itself -- they could not even obtain citizenship.

Bubliel makes a poignant analogy when describing the de facto treatment of Dhimmis in the modern Arab world.

"I compare Dhimmi to the laws and ideology of Jim Crow that lingered for decades after slavery was abolished in the American South. The Arab world's Dhimmi legacy, its Jim Crow, was given new life with the rise of Arab nationalism."



We are dealing with a legal code that forces a section of citizens into second-class status, disenfranchised and denied fundamental human rights. Yeor quotes a seventh-century caliph who describes the system as one whose purpose is to "produce a condition of humiliation, degradation, and vulnerability." The deep-rooted ideology of Dhimmitude becomes especially poignant in the Western world's struggles with Arab nations.

Critics of Israel have adopted the term apartheid to describe its current situation. Their claims of apartheid almost seem ridiculous in light of the Dhimmitude described by Yeor, Bubliel, and other scholars. On the one hand, you have Israel. Would an apartheid consist of full voting rights for all its citizens, including all Arab Israelis? How about 10 Arab members of the Israeli Parliament? Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Arab women can vote. Israel has a 72 percent Jewish population and an 18 percent Arab population, yet even though it rules by the majority (which makes it expressly non-apartheid), the minority is given full rights in all aspects of life, including voting, education, and employment.

On the contrary, you have Pakistan with its anti-Christian legislation. There is Iran, with its systematic oppression of the Bahai community. Let's not forget Sudan's murder and enslavement of black Africans, as well as Indonesia's terrorizing of Christian minorities. Egypt stands proud in its oppression of Coptic Christians, while Islamic radicals in Bangladesh terrorize Hindu and Christian minorities. And then there's Saudi Arabia, whose theocratic policies can only be described as apartheid for all non-Muslims. And all these can be traced back to the concept of Dhimmitude.

To this day, experts are still trying to find the root of anti-West sentiment in the Arab world. The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 brought this issue to national consciousness, but the reality of Muslim ideology still remains below the surface. Yeor affirms that experts needn't look farther than the insidious attitude of Dhimmitude.

"America is the focus of their own jihad. It is a cultural jihad, not just a terrorist jihad," she explains.

The omnipresent force of Dhimmitude seems to cast a seemingly pessimistic pall over our struggle to make peace with the Arabs. Though Dhimmitude seems to be a fundamental aspect of the Muslim religion, Yeor is careful to point out that change is possible.

"[Dhimmitude] is justified by a certain interpretation of Qur'anic verses. I must say that the jihad ideology and the Dhimmi rules are not in the Qur'an. These were devised by Muslim theologians after the death of Muhammad."

Yeor explains that the phenomenon can be combated, as seen by the new progressive movements springing up in Nigeria, France, and Egypt.

"The Qur'an, like all sacred texts, is subject to competing interpretations. A number of contemporary Muslim theologians and intellectuals want to break away from the prison of jihad. They have argued for a new interpretation of the Qur'an, recognizing that the conflicting passages dealing with Jews and Christians -- some very positive, others very negative -- reflect contingent historical situations."

All these factors make one wonder why so much attention is being paid to Israel when there is so much work to be done in Arab countries. Is it anti-Semitism? Is it oil interests? Or is it just plain ignorance? Though the concept of Dhimmitude does not absolve Israel of its problems with the Palestinians, it certainly puts the debate in a new light.



Zvika Krieger is a freshman in Silliman College.

©Copyright 2002, Yale Daily News


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