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N S Rajaram

Book Review: 

Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide


Islamic conquests resulted in a multitude of second-class citizens known as Dhimmis and a state of mind called ‘dhimmitude’.

Islam, we are told is a ‘complete and completed system,’ ordained by God and conveyed to humanity by His Final Prophet Muhammad. The Word of God (The Quran) and the Acts of Muhammad (The Hadits) lay down the rules—sacred as well as secular—for all people and for all times. These are binding on believers as well as non-believers. This may appear strange until one recognizes that the ultimate goal of Islam is to bring the whole world under its sway. The instrument for achieving world domination is Jihad, and the legal code for ruling the Islamic lands (Dar ul-Islam) is the Sharia— loosely translated as the Islamic legal canon. The Sharia treats some non-Muslims living in Dar ul-Islam as dhimmis (‘protected flock’), whereby they are granted limited protection as second-class citizens under debilitating conditions. Islam and Dhimmitude by the Egyptian born Bat Ye’or is a masterly study of the state of the Jews and Christians as Dhimmis, and the peculiar ‘Dhimmi Civilization’ that it gave rise to. ( Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide by Bat Ye’or, translated from the French by Miriam Kochan and David Littman. 2002. Farleigh Dickinson University Press, Associated Universities Press, Cranbury, NJ, USA and Gazelle Book Services, Lancaster, England. 528 pages. Price $60 HB, $19.95 PB )

Jihad and its threat to peace are widely recognized today, thanks in part to the September 11 attacks on the New York World Trade Center and the Pentagon, though several Indian scholars drawing upon their country’s historical experience with Islam have long been highlighting its dangers. The goal of Jihad is to bring countries under non-Muslim rule (Dar ul-Harb) under Islamic rule (Dar ul-Islam). Recognizing that a newly conquered land is bound to have a substantial non-Muslim population, the Sharia provides for laws to govern them. They essentially become dhimmis. At first, it was meant only for ‘People of the Book’— or Jews and Christians, soon including Zoroastrians because Iran was rapidly conquered by the Arabs. Somewhat later, when Islamic rule came to parts of India, Hindus were given grudging recognition as dhimmis though, as idolaters, they were not entitled to it. But expediencies of politics and governance forced Islamic rulers of India to bend the rules of Sharia against the blandishments of the clergy.

This brings up an interesting issue: the idolatrous Hindus whose choice under Sharia was limited to ‘Islam or death,’ were much more successful in resisting the onslaught of Islam than the ‘protected’ Jews and Christians. Even the Zoroastrians of Persia, then a great empire ruled by the Sassanids, had to migrate to Hindu India to keep their faith alive. Hindus and Hinduism proved much more resilient than these ‘Religions of the Book’ and their adherents. Hindus never stopped fighting the imposition of Islam and finally defeated it though at great cost in terms of both land and people. It is a battle that still rages. It accounts also for the extraordinary hatred of Hindu India borne by Muslim ‘leaders’ in India and Pakistan— for it is a living reminder of Islam’s failure. All this suggests that one is better off having Islam as enemy than ‘protector’. The protector inevitably turns predator and eventually consumes its protected flock.

This point, that dhimmitude emasculates the dhimmi population by sapping its will to fight, would have been brought more clearly into focus had the author included India in her study, which she has not. To her credit she recognizes the limitation by noting: “I realize that my study of dhimmitude remains incomplete because it is limited to Jews and Christians. It should be supplemented by the dhimmitude of the Zoroastrians, located in an inferior category, and that of Buddhists and Hindus, considered as idolaters. A few books on this subject have been published in India. The picture they paint is similar to that in regions west of the Indian subcontinent.” (p 23) The last statement ignores the struggles waged against Islamic imperialism in India from Vijayanagar and Shivaji to the Sikhs, to the ultimate overthrow of Islamic rule. (This is intended not as a criticism of the book, but to point out that such a study can be a fertile field for Indian scholars.)

Within the scope of her study, i.e., limited to the lands west of the Indian subcontinent, the author is original, comprehensive and profound. In her words, “Like a giant jigsaw puzzle scattered over the world, the different elements of the diversified dhimmi civilization should be collected to show an evaluation and a comparative analysis of regional particularisms in order to produce a better understanding of the whole. I have tried to gather the specific data of dhimmitude in different sectors of life. This analytical inventory throughout time and space may confuse the reader, but it is essential for framing the world of dhimmitude.” (p 23) Resolving the occasional confusion is amply repaid by the author’s scholarship and insights.

In the process the author explores and exposes areas of knowledge that are regarded as taboo by academics and even world leaders. This taboo should be seen as part of the dhimmi attitude internalized by non-Muslims— that one should accept Islam and Muslims on their own claims, even when they act like a state within a state in non-Muslim lands. Muslim minorities in countries as far apart as India, Great Britain and the United States have largely succeeded in imposing the Sharia view on national institutions, especially education. “The Islamic conception of a jihad spreading peacefully without bloodshed is repeated and taught in Western universities. This interpretation feeds an ideal vision of Islamic society and nourishes the nostalgic desire for its future restoration.” (p 313) Many Western academics have made a profitable career propagating this view, followed in their footsteps by their Indian counterparts.

The author summarizes the underlying principles of the West’s dhimmitude in the following words: (1) Historical negationism consisting of suppressing in a page or a paragraph, one thousand years of jihad which is presented as a peaceful conquest, generally welcomed by the vanquished populations. (2) The omission of Christian and, in particular, Muslim sources describing the methods of conquest: pillage, enslavement, deportation, massacres and so on. (3) The mythical historical version of “centuries” of “peaceful coexistence,” masking the process which transformed majorities into minorities, constantly at risk of extinction. (4) An obligatory self-incrimination for the Crusades, the Inquisition, imperialism, colonialism, Israel and other intrusions into the dar al-Islam. (5) Servile criticism of the rational tools of historical knowledge, created by earlier European Orientalists and historians. (pp 315-16)

All this will seem familiar to Indian observers. One of the more disagreeable facts that the author brings to light is the collusion of Christian organizations, including the Greek Orthodox Church, and now the Vatican and the Church of England, in conditioning the West for dhimmitude. They have in effect accepted the legitimacy of dhimmitude in return for security and profit. As the author observes: “The dhimmi Churches developed an Arabized interpretation of the Gospels, combining traditional anti-Judaism with the psychological conditioning of dhimmitude… This Islamization of the Jewish sources of Christianity, disseminated through dhimmi church networks, popularized the Islamic version of the Arab origins of Christianity.” (pp 320 – 21)

This too will seem familiar to Indians, as when a leading Indian politician attributed the advaita propounded by Sri Shankaracharya to Koranic inspiration! There are other parallels as well. Pope John Paul II, during his visit to Egypt and Jerusalem, respectfully attended Muslim service without saying a word about the horrors inflicted on Coptic Christians. Likewise in India, he took the Indian Government to task for mainly imaginary atrocities against Christian minorities, while maintaining stony silence over the daily massacre of Christians in Islamic countries like Pakistan and Indonesia. This was taken a sordid step further by Church ‘leaders’ in India when they colluded with Muslim fundamentalist organizations like the Pakistan-based Deen-dar-Anjuman in engineering Church bombings with the sole purpose of discrediting the Indian Government. They seem driven by their hatred of the ‘heathen’ Hinduism as much as their Western counterparts by historic anti-Judaism. This will prove self-destructive, for as the author observes: “… any delegitimization of Israel by Western political currents reinforces delegitimization of the West. If Israel ought not to exist by de jure, the same reasoning must apply to Europe, America, and any other place in the world; …Thus the history and ideology of dhimmitude has tied Jews and Christians into an indissoluble bond.” (p 313) One many add Hindus, Buddhists and every other non-Muslim people to the group.

This indicates that Christian organizations, beleaguered by declining fortunes in the ‘Christian’ West, are prepared to go to any length just to survive. The Church lives in constant fear of losing Rome to Islam as it lost Jerusalem to the Arabs in the first millennium and Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in the second. This existential fear is not helped by the presence of Islamic armies in Kosovo, a hundred miles from Trieste on the Italian border, aided and abetted by NATO and the US with their lopsided priorities. In the long run, this dhimmi state of mind poses a greater threat to the world than Islamic warriors. And as a state of mind rather than anything physical (like Jihad), it is also harder to combat.

That this is not just of historical interest but of profound contemporary significance is clear from the general policy of appeasing Islamic sentiments being followed by the West. On this the author observes: “Today, the United States and Europe compete for the favor of the Muslim world by once again abandoning the victimized peoples to its mercies. The Gulf War against Saddam Hussein on the question of oil interests (1991) was redeemed by the destruction of Yugoslavia and the creation of new centers of Islamist influence in the heart of the Balkans… The war to annihilate Serbia was intended to punish the crimes of Milosevic and his regime, but the media campaigns endeavored to calm the anti-Westernism in the Muslim world and of Muslim immigrants in Europe. It also helped to gain forgiveness for the war on Iraq by a strong pro-Muslim counterbalancing policy in the Balkans.” (p 338) Even the terrorist state of Pakistan has gained from the West’s dhimmi mentality. Had India been a small country instead of a major power occupying a strategic position, she might have shared the fate of Serbia to ‘redeem’ the destruction of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But there is no room for complacency here, based on the naïve belief that the West will follow a moral course.

All told, Bat Ye’or’s concept of dhimmitude is an inspired discovery that sheds light on how whole nations may be manipulated by fear and greed. Or as Brigadier Malik of Pakistan put in his seminal The Quranic Concept of War (sponsored by General Zia ul Haq, the Founding Father of Talibanism): “Once a condition of terror into the opponent’s heart is obtained, hardly anything is left to be achieved… Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy; it is the decision we wish to impose upon him.” Dhimmitude is nothing but negationist accommodation rooted in fear. Indian scholars should follow Bat Ye’or’s example and launch a study of dhimmitude using the vast body of literature left behind by Muslim conquerors. The dangers of failing to confront the truth are manifold. As Gibbon wrote of the Greeks— by valuing security more than freedom, they ended up losing both, freedom and security.




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