Muslim and Christian intolerance

The title is scary, when read alongside the evening news these days.  Does ISIS agree?  Europe, Globalization, and the Coming Universal Caliphate was written before most of us in the USA had much of an idea about what a “Caliphate” is (though arguably, “Caliphate” is embedded in the name of my state, “California”.   Bat Ye’or published the book in 2011.

Bat Ye’or’s particular reading of Islam has had a strong influence on Americans.  She was a “young Jewish woman forced to leave her native Egype as the Jewish community which had existed in that country for over 2600 years came to an end.”

Bat Ye’or is known for challenging the mainstream portrayal of how non-Muslims are tolerated in Islamic countries.  She is particularly interested in researching whether Jews were treated with more toleration in Islamic countries than in countries under Christian rule.  Bat Ye’or takes a contrary stance against “the orthodox view is that both Jews and Chrsitains in return for being ‘protected people’ by Muslims accepted their subordinate status as second class subjects and the restrictions, taxed at highter rates that those for Muslims, tolls and customs duties.” (viii).   For her, this is a myth that begain in the Ottoman empire when it proclaimed itself “tolerant” and the best choice for ruling Christians in Balkans.  Ye’or claims that Jews were held in the condition of “insecurity, humiliation, and subjection to a repressive system of rule over them.”

She locates the cause for a fundamental intolerance in the Islamic doctrine and justiriction of jihad the struggle or holy war, which is “central to the development of Islamic countries and to the requiredment to spread Islam throughout the world by peaceful means or by war.  She draws, as well, on the doctrine that the Dar al-Islam must overcome the Dar al-Harb.  “Perpetual war against those who will not submit to Islam”

In Eurabia:  the Euro-Arab Axis (2005) she suggests that Islam is exercising increasing influence on European political and social life, beginning “in 1973 with informal alliances between the then nine countries of the European Community…and the Mediterranean Arab States.”  And she locates the influence in an ambience of “cooperation and collaboration by Europeans and Arabs.”   She predicts that the outcome will be that Europe “will be lost to Islam…Eurabia is thus the enemy of Europe.”(x)

I agree that it is important to interrogate the idea of “tolerance” especially if the interrogation can inform efforts toward human equality, and religious freedom to practice and propagate.  It is much more problematic to attempt to compare the tolerance of Jews by Christians against the tolerance of Jews by Muslims — and this appears to be a core issue/question that Ye’or wants to answer in her work.  At one level, I don’t think the comparison is really possible, because the definitions of Muslim nations and of Christian nations are not stable.  The comparison is not practical.  For example:  what is Christian?  How faithful is a nation to what it means to be Christian?  Was Hitler’s Germany Christian–particularly when it attempted to destroy European Judaism?  It certainly isn’t Muslim (though it had the support of many Arab Muslims in the Middle East during WWII, but more based Levantine Arab desire to be free of the British Mandate — the beginnings of the end of the British Empire which, by the way, had other manifestations in other colonies during the war, leading to the devolution of the Empire).  I am sure that the same level of complication must pertain in the relation of Muslim nations to some concept of Islam, and to the relation of Jews to Islamic rule.

The practical difficulty of comparison does not end there.  I have only made a cursory read of a couple of books by Ye’or, but it seems apparent that she assumes the bordered and governed idea of the modern Nation-State when she talks about “Muslim countries” or “Christian countries”.  In reality, “countries,” as such, were not the form of political rule–with policies enforced within a structure of borders and citizenship–that pertained during most of the period within her well documented The Dhimmi (1980).  Since her focus is mostly on Ottoman Islam, this is particularly important because she seems to be comparing the semi-tolerance, with huge inconsistencies and major inequalities of the Ottoman Empire, with the modern secular states in the West that have chosen to tolerate all the religions as equals.    But, if she were to compare the Ottomans with, for example, the Spanish at the time of the Reconquista in Spain, the comparison would be more favorable to the Ottomans — at least that is how the ethnically cleansed Jews of Spain voted with their feet when they were removed from Spain and moved to various places in the Ottoman Empire.  At that time, part of the Muslim World, at least, was safer than Christian Spain.   A glance at the table of Contents of The Dhimmi shows a big gap in the historical documentation.  It skips from the 13th to the 18th Centrury, at least in relation to the Ottoman’s which is, arguably, the Islamic territory where Jews (and Christians) were more likely to be found.   There are only two references to Sephardic Jews, many of whom moved to Arab and Muslim contexts in the Ottoman Empire during the period that is blanked out.   I am not well versed, but recently aware of Arab Jews.  What I think I understand is this: for centuries Jews were part of Arab societies.  When Arabs migrated to the Americas at the end of the 19th Century, a significant enough number of them were Jews and the expat organizations in South America, at least, did not differentiate, as if Jews could not be included as Arabs.   The separation of the two semitic identities took place in the face of two historical moments related to the establishment of the State of Israel.  First, the Arab-Israeli conflict over the land, was re-stated as an Arab-Jew conflict.  Zionists, drawing on the memory of the Holocaust asserted that Jews have long been marginalized in every society, and that they had to protect themselves from being wiped off the face of the earth.  To do that, they, very effectively, tied the existence of Israel to Jewish identity.  When Israel entered into conflict with the Arabs over the land, it produced new conditions whereby “Arab” came to mean “anti-Jew” (This, by the way, is a change in the meaning of “anti-semitism.” Previously, it referred to someone who hated both Jews and Arabs alike).  Second, the longing of Jews to return to “the land” was ignited at the establishment of a jewish State of Israel, and many Arab Jews, from Morocco, Algerial, Libya, Yemen, and other Arab places, chose to migrate to Israel, and vacated the Jewish communities in the Arab World.

These historical moments, and many others throughout the centuries are important moments in which tolerance or intolerance was practiced, by both Muslims and Christians toward Jews, but they do not define whether Christians or Muslims are, by nature and by conviction, more or less tolerant than the other.  Sometimes Muslims protected Jews from Christians and, if we are to believe Bat Ye’or, even more times, Christians protected Jews from Muslims.  Since all these moments are contingent and negotiated, I think that all they really tell us about Christianity and Islam is where they were on the path each too vis a vis Jews.  We are now in a historically contingent moment, and we stand in a particular place in relation to Christianity and Islam — and it is obvious that Israel and Judaism continue to have to deal with both Christans and Muslims, along with their own internal differences.  The story of the relation between the three is useful, perhaps, to understand the divisions and the connections created by that history that affect their present ability to act and their disposition to act with justice in the present and do whatever they can to define what they think is a better future, and to produce it.

As I said above, I am not sure the “comparison game” actually establishes anything.  It is not just that there are too many variables, rather it assumes that Christianity and Islam are “things” that can be examined, and that give the same answers now and here, as they do there and then. It assumes that they have constant and consistent effects, and are not themselves sites of contestation and contingency.  They are actually in contestation with each other and with Judaism, and the outcomes are contingent on so many factors.  It does make me think, though, when I read in the paper that Christians are being wiped out in towns in Northern Iraq, where they, and their ancestors, have lived, believed and practiced Christian faith (mainly under Islamic regimes) for nearly 1800 years.  And it brings up (in)tolerance.  Certainly the moment is a moment of intolerance–and of ethnic cleansing. But the long story is as story of 1800 years of survival.  That is a long time for any movement or community to survive.  A certain amount of tolerance had to have permitted and actually contributed to those 1800 years.  On the other hand, the idea of ethnic cleansing seems like it may have been invented in Europe.  It certainly happened much earlier there:  in 1492 the Jews were removed from Spain.  Muslims were forced to convert or leave. Then in 1609, the descendants of those who had converted were also forced to leave.  But now, Jews and Muslims are being invited back.  So, in the present, perhaps all we can say is that it seems like Christian or, perhaps more accurately, secular regimes — of nation states — seem to have decided that it is OK to have, within their borders, people with differing, and even conflicting, sets of religious beliefs and practices, than present day Muslim ones.  Who knows if that commitment will last.

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