Monday, July 30, 2012

Bat Ye'or: The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam

“Renowned Western scholars of Islam such as Sir Hamilton Gibb, William Montgomery Watt, Jacques Augustin Berque, Maxime Rodinson, Marshall Hodgson, Rev. Kenneth Cragg, and the Georgetown duo John L. Esposito and John O. Voll – to name just a few – have all either peddled the myth of dhimmitude as tolerance, or downplayed its destructive effects on its victims.  Refreshing deconstructions of such appeasement views have come recently from Bat Ye’or, Daniel Pipes, Robert Spencer, George Weigel, and Ibn Warraq.”

-          Habib Malik, Associate Professor of History, American Lebanese University, Islamism and the Future of Christianity in the Middle East, p. 61

On my third day in Egypt, I asked my professor if Christians in Egypt could be considered “persecuted.” He thought about it, and said, “Not overtly.  A rough analogy of Christian-Muslim relations in Egypt would be to white-black relations in America.”

Oh, I thought.  That’s not so bad.

In the intervening four years, my views on both the Middle East and on race relations in America have shifted considerably.  In short, I think my professor is right – and that is pretty bad.

Needless to say, things in the Middle East have shifted considerably as well in the past four years, and not to the advantage of the region’s minorities.

A few weeks ago, I blogged about a book on Middle Eastern history by Albert Hourani that I was reading, which posed the question of why Christians living under Muslim rule declined from 90% of the population to around 10%.  His answer contained this phrase:  “Even in the best circumstances the position of a minority is uneasy.” If you’re keeping track at home, that makes no sense.

The actual answer to this question is the subject of some debate.

A recent New York Times Review of Books piece about an exhibition of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York sums up the position of one side of this debate quite nicely:

"This exhibition—along with the groundbreaking scholarship that has gone into its catalog—has banished the melodramatic tone with which the rise of Islam has usually been presented in standard accounts of the period. We can now say with confidence that the Arab armies did not leave a trail of desolation across the Middle East. Local populations did not sink into poverty. Far from retreating into the status of timorous minorities, vigorous Christian and Jewish communities continued to maintain their own traditions largely unmolested. ...Muslims talked their way into the Middle East quite as much as they fought their way across it."

(The same piece contains this remarkable passage: "In [one] room...we notice the discreet censoring of the representation of a living creature on the floor of a Christian church, out of respect for Muslim attitudes toward art." Censoring art in a church out of respect for Muslim attitudes.  Sounds like a peaceful relationship between equals!)

Bat Ye'or represents the other side of this debate.

I recently finished Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam.  Bat Ye'or is an Egyptian Jew who was forced to flee Egypt in 1957 during the anti-Jewish pogroms following the 1956 Egypt-Israel war.  She has no academic degree and has never taught in a university.

Ye'or's books carry fawning blurbs from Sir Martin Gilbert, Daniel Pipes, and Niall Ferguson, all well-recognized scholars of the Middle East.  Bernard Lewis uses her research as a resource for his own writings.

Robert Benton Bretts accuses her of "selective scholarship," Johann Hari of The Independent calls her a "conspiracy theorist," Craig Smith of the New York Times calls her one "of the most extreme voices on the new Jewish right," and Israeli peace activist Adam Keller calls her "racist and inflammatory."

All of these quotes came from her page on a website called "Loonwatch."

So her work is somewhat contentious, and I approached it with a great deal of trepidation.

(continued after the break)

As a certified amateur, I cannot judge the quality or accuracy or scholarshipness of Ye'or scholarship.  What I can say is that I found the book to be extremely sober, extremely well-sourced, very believable, and quite high in explanatory value.

This book is not The Protocols of the Elders of Mecca.  As near as I can tell, it describes a perfectly normal relationship between the powerful and the powerless, a story that you can find over and over again in history.

Ye'or's thesis is that Christian-Muslim relations in the Muslim world are governed by the concept of dhimmitude.  The Islamic community, from its inception, saw itself as the manifestation of God's will on earth, and believed that God wanted it to spread and eventually fill the whole world.  Those who obstinately refused to accept the truth of Islam were to be destroyed - unless they surrendered and agreed to live peacefully under the protection of the Muslim political community.  Those Jews and Christians who did surrender came to be known as "dhimmis" - the "protected ones" - and were subjected to varying degrees of abuse that eventually reduced their communities to tiny minorities in what used to be Christian lands.

Consider some of the restrictions on dhimmis that Ye'or documents:
  • Dhimmis were not allowed to own weapons.
  • Dhimmis were not allowed to hold political office.
  • Dhimmis were forced to wear certain identifying clothing.
  • Dhimmis were required to live in certain districts of town.
  • Dhimmis were not allowed to ride horses.
  • Dhimmis were required to stand aside and let Muslims pass them by on the street.
  • Dhimmi men were not permitted to marry Muslim women, although Muslim men were allowed to marry dhimmi women.
  • Dhimmi testimony was not accepted in court.
  • Dhimmi communities were regularly subjected to forced labor and sometimes slavery.
  • Dhimmi communities were frequently victimized by mass violence from mobs or government forces.

Why would anyone who is familiar with American history find anything on this list surprising?

Compare this passage from James Loewen's Lies My Teacher Taught Me:

"Mass attacks by whites wiped out or terrorized black communities in the Florida Keys, in Springfield, Illinois, and in the Arksansas Delta, and were an implicit, ever-present threat to every black neighborhood in the nation. ...Every time African Americans interacted with European Americans, no matter how insignificant the contact, they had to be aware of how they presented themselves, lest they give offense by looking someone in the eye, forgetting to say 'sir,' or otherwise stepping out of 'their place.' Always, the threat of overwhelming force lay just beneath the surface." (p. 165-166)

with this passage from The Decline of Eastern Christianity:

"Dhimmis [were] required to walk with lowered eyes when passing to the left - the impure side - of Muslims, who were encouraged to push them aside.  In the presence of a Muslim, the dhimmi had to remain standing in a humble and respectful attitude, only speaking in a low voice when given permission.  ...Dhimmis who infringed these humiliating obligations were punished by reprisals.  In the Middle Ages, constant Muslim-Christian conflicts engendered a propitious climate for anti-dhimmi riots...This system of oppression and humiliation covered vast areas and periods.  The practice of contempt molded customs and shaped traditions, the collective consciousness, and behavior." (p. 93, 96, 99)

The major difference between black-white relations in the U.S. and Christian-Muslim relations in the Islamic empire was that the latter concerned religion, and religion is a choice. In other words, any member of the oppressed group could, at any time, choose to join the ranks of the powerful, by saying a few words and adopting a few new customs.

When combined with the all-too-common massacres, enslavement and forced conversions of Christians under Muslim rule, and the fact that Muslims sometimes practiced polygamy while Christians did not, we finally have an answer to Hourani's question.  How do you reduce a religious group from a 90% share of the population to a 10% share?  Subject them to violence, humiliation and second-class citizenship, then offer to stop if they join your religion.  Repeat until desired results are achieved.

I think this account not only adequately explains how Christians became a minority in their own countries, but also helps us understand Christian-Muslim relations today.

Why is it, for example, that when an Egyptian Muslim woman tries to convert to Christianity, she has to go into hiding, since it is assumed that either her family, her neighbors, local Muslim groups or state security will try to murder her, and this is seen as normal in Egyptian society – but when a rumor spreads that an Egyptian Christian woman wants to convert to Islam, and that the church won’t let her, almost a hundred Christians in multiple countries are murdered in retaliatory church bombings? (This actually happened, by the way).

Which social theory accounts for this?  Is it just an irreducible, inexplicable, unfavorable accumulation of “religious extremists” in one time and place?  Is it Muslim rage at their dispossession by the West and by Israel?  Or does it reflect an ingrained Muslim attitude towards Christians, which arises out of a distorted power relationship between the two groups?

The sense I get – and I welcome disagreement on this point – is that Muslim Arabs, by and large, see themselves as doing the Christians a favor by accepting them as neighbors and fellow citizens.  Islam is the perfect religion, the completion of the revelation that the Christians and Jews screwed up.  Everyone should be a Muslim, especially Christians and Jews, who, after all, already follow Muslim prophets.  But until they figure that out, we’ll be generous and allow them to keep practicing their faith.

From a Western-liberal perspective, a Muslim wanting to convert to Christianity, a Christian evangelist seeking Muslim converts, and a Christian politician trying to get elected are all simply exercising their individual freedoms.  But from the perspective of a society dominated by Islam for 1400 years, these individuals are leaving their proper place, violating the dhimma, the “pact of protection” that allows followers of the Straight Path to coexist in a community with Those Who Have Incurred God’s Anger and Those Who Have Gone Astray.*

To put it in terms Americans would recognize, they’re being “uppity.” They’re getting out of line.  Disturbing the peace.

In American history, when black men and women tried to exercise the freedoms they had on paper, white supremacists reacted with lynchings, church bombings and massacres.

In the Middle East today, we are seeing the same.

According to Ye’or, the decline of the Muslim world’s power and the concurrent rise of Christian Europe marked the start of a new phase in Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East.  The increasingly-powerful Christian states chipped away at the Muslim empire piece by piece, supporting revolutions in the Ottoman Empire's Christian-majority provinces in Europe, forcing the Ottomans to liberalize and provide more freedom for their Christian citizens, and eventually deciding, "Screw this, we'll just take over." (This is also known as World War I).

Ye'or's contention is that when the Middle East's Christians went along with this process - revolting against the Ottoman Empire in some cases, accepting the patronage of the Christian European occupiers in others - reactionary Muslim forces viewed this as a nullification of the dhimma, the pact that had allowed the Christians to survive in the Muslim world in the first place.  The result, in many cases, was a resumption of the jihad against the Christians.  The most extreme example of this was the Armenian Genocide, in which Turkey decided to liquidate its Christian population (almost 1/5 of the country) rather than permit their political rise.

In more recent times, the Jewish communities of the Arab world were eradicated in the 1950s, after the Jews set up their own state on formerly Muslim territory.  At the moment, the Christians of Egypt, Iraq and Syria are paying dearly for their perceived (sometimes imagined) collaboration with American, French and British occupiers and western-supported secular regimes.

The Turkish scholar Taner Akcam appears to share Ye'or analysis of the roots of the Armenian Genocide:

And here is Daniel Pipes, saying pretty much the same thing about the current anti-Christian violence in the region:

The pattern of the majority's reaction against emancipation being worse than the original subjugation is not unique to the Muslim world.  In America, slavery was followed by Jim Crow and the Klan. (Historian Rayford Logan calls this period the "nadir" - the lowest point - of American race relations.) The emancipation of European Jewry was followed quickly by an anti-Semitic reaction infinitely more deadly than their previous subjugation – the Holocaust.

If all this analysis-izing is valid, it is very bad news for the Middle East - because we are witnessing the passing of the last old, secular (quite horrible) regimes in the region.  For the first time in a century, religious Muslims are set to rule their own countries.  If Bat Ye'or is right, and if the collective consciousness (or subconsciousness) of the region's Muslims is still motivated by the concept of dhimmitude, then the Christians of the region are facing re-subjugation at best, destruction at worst.

Is Bat Ye’or right?  Probably not completely.  But her work explains a great deal in the Muslim world that would otherwise appear to us only as madness.

And here's why I'm so worked up about this and wrote such a long blog post about it.  I spent my last two years of college studying the Middle East.  I lived in Syria for a year after that.  And all this is new to me.

That's weird, right?  Aren't majority-minority relations pretty central to the politics and culture of any country?  And when the minority in question is, not to put too fine a point on it, us  - Christians - well, what gives?  Of all the mysteries the Middle East presents, this should not be our blind spot.

I love the Middle East, and I love my Muslim friends.  I don't want this to be true.  As I said, it's certainly not 100% true.  The Arab revolutions were begun by liberals and young idealists who genuinely believe in equality and freedom.  A few days after the bombing of a church in Alexandria in 2011, concerned Muslims formed human chains of protection around Egyptian churches across the country during their Christmas Eve services.

But the presence of those good-hearted people doesn't explain away the wave of anti-Christian violence that has followed the Arab revolutions.  It remains to be seen which impulse - liberalism or Islamic supremacism - will win.  Right now, it does not look good.

If Islamic supremacism does come out on top, then we've got a problem, and us Middle East-philes need to be thinking about how to deal with it. 

Also: Islamophobia is real and a real problem for the U.S.  No amount of anti-Christian persecution in the Arab-Muslim world changes that.  But that's a subject for another day.

Anyway, if you've come this far, and you have some thoughts, please offer them up.  I am all ears.

*I thought this was something only Islamophobes said Muslims believed, until I found this video, evidently uploaded by a devout Muslim:

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