“Dhimmitude,” like takfir and sharia, is a word of which Americans were happily ignorant not so long ago. Events, unfortunately, have expanded our Arabic vocabulary. As with other Islamic concepts, the meaning of dhimmitude, even its existence, is contested among Muslims. And misuse is not always merely semantic for those prone to issuing fatwas.
No matter how nuanced the definition, dhimmitude always entailed a degree of subordination under Muslim rule. Historically, the dhimmi accepted second-class status as an alternative to conversion, death, or enslavement. For the privilege of being tolerated in lands under the Prophet’s sway, Christians, Jews, Hindus—any infidel—renounced certain rights. Dhimmis could not testify against Muslims or possess a weapon. They payed a special tax, as much as 80 percent of income, called the “jizya.” Payment allowed the non-Muslim to go about his affairs, even to practice his religion unmolested, provided his heresies were kept out of the public square and his church denuded of crosses, bells, and identifying symbols.
As debate continues about the persistence of dhimmitude today, non-Muslims still risk penalties for going public. Only a very daring Christian displays a Bible or attempts interreligious dialog on the streets of Riyadh, Tehran, Peshawar, or Dearborn, Michigan. Not even a gentle pope can invite mutual critique without enflaming highly combustible tempers. Critics of Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address—after world-wide violent protests and the murder of a nun—chastised the pontiff for his insensitivity. Dhimmi-like, his detractors took for granted that flattery, not frankness, guide discussions with Islam.
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Since the end of the Second Vatican Council, ecumenical gestures—papal approval of Rome’s Great Mosque on seven donated acres, the kissing of the Koran by a sainted pontiff, expressions of esteem by Pope Francis—have seen scant return. The mullahs and imams remain muted in their defense of Christians. While the muezzin cries from thousands of European and American mosques, not a single church bell rings across the Arabian Peninsula. Was Mussolini right? When asked to sign off on the first mosque in Italy, the mordant dictator agreed: “As soon as work begins on a Catholic church in Mecca.”
The exposed Christian amidst a numerically dominant Muslim population still doesn’t get very far without an unpleasant encounter. How unpleasant? Readers may recall these squibs from the news and Christian websites that the networks and papers-of-note don’t always notice: an outed Christian couple in Lahore, after being swaddled in cotton and having their legs broken, thrown into a furnace by a Muslim mob; a little boy, lying rigid on a camp cot as his father relates how an ISIS stalwart used an electric drill; fifteen Christian refugees from Tunisia, forced over the gunnels by their Muslim counterparts. (The carabinieri who hold the murderers in a Palermo jail suspect that such drownings are common, although body counts are unavailable for deaths at sea.)
It is difficult to keep abreast of “breaking news.” Not two weeks into the New Year, an ISIS inspired assailant shot a Philadelphia police officer in his squad car. (He was guilty of enforcing laws “contrary to the Koran,” according to the city’s mayor.) At a Cologne train station, a mob of a thousand or more “North African or Arabic” men attacked hundreds of German women during a New Year’s Eve celebration. 500 victims have filed complaints of sexual assault. Chancellor Merkel warned that such ungrateful guests could “forfeit their right to hospitality.” And the mayors of Cologne and Philadelphia called news conferences to assure nervous citizens that this had nothing to do with Islam.
Such small-scale horrors serve as little more than side-bars in the bigger picture of more than a million Christians fleeing Syria and Iraq. They leave with just the clothes on their backs, their homes having been marked with the “N” for “Nazarene.” The jizya must seem a reprieve in comparison to the mass rapes, sexual enslavements, beach-party beheadings, roastings in cages, and crucifixions since the rise of the Islamic State.
But is such savagery representative of the real Islam? Lest Christians feel superior, the Holy Father warns that every faith has its little groups, its fundamentalists. As of this writing, however, we have yet to see Christian fundamentalists burn, drown, or drill Muslims for being Muslims. Nor have Christians sprayed bullets into crowded concert halls or office gatherings. Their creed teaches that the Christian and the unbeliever, the wheat and the tares, are to exist together until the judgment—God’s judgment. Saint Augustine reinforces this doctrine of forbearance when he writes of the City of Man and City of God, both perduring until the end of time.
While followers of Mohammed sometimes suffer the existence of the dhimmi for prudential motives, such as extortion of the jizya, it should be remembered that their prophet named his favorite sword—he had quite a collection—the “Cleaver of Vertebrae” for a reason. He split the world into the House of Islam and the House of War. Within the House of War, Allah’s faithful are to “slay the unbeliever wherever you find him.” Our Lord enjoined his disciples to do good to their enemies. If Christians have scandalized the world by failing to live up to their creed, Muslims have often turned that world into a field of blood by living up to theirs. To close one’s eyes to this difference is not tolerance—it is blindness.
The materially potent but spiritually chloroformed West now lives under a self-imposed dhimmitude. The jizya is paid out in the coin of a tacit agreement to abstain from being overtly Christian and from uttering unbecoming truths about Islam: its forced conversions, its violence mandated in the Koran, the character of the Prophet, the meaning of words like “jihad,” its history; and now, a discretion amounting to complicity, as Christians are exterminated.
Every news consumer is, of course, aware of persecution by “extremists.” To its credit, Newsweek published a feature on Christian persecution in the Middle East early last year. Kirsten Powers, a recent Catholic convert, has written with urgency of the atrocities against Christians. And Senator Wicker (R-Miss.) and eight other senators have urged Secretary of State John Kerry to include the Christians in the rumored special genocide status for Yazidis. Kerry calls himself a “practicing Christian.” Here is a chance to practice harder.
Such attempts to publicize the Christian holocaust are to be lauded. But where are the 200 nation colloquies in Paris, the light shows on the façade of St. Peters Basilica and the White House, the synods and encyclicals that might elevate this “issue” to the level of climate change or marriage equality? As Archbishop Warda of Iraq lamented, the overriding concern for the U.S. government and the media is not the martyrdom of Christians. It is the image of Islam: “What they are saying is just ‘this is not the true Islam. This is violating the picture of Islam.’”
Few make an urgent and repeated cry to rescue the Christians, even though they are, according to the U.N.’s definition, victims of genocide. When a presidential candidate suggests that in view of their hunted-pariah status and pending extinction, Christian refugees be processed ahead of potential Syrian jihadists; or when a “fascist” “Islamophobic” billionaire calls for a temporary moratorium on Muslim immigration, moderates of both parties curl the collective lip in scorn of bigotry: “That’s shameful … not who we are … we have no religious litmus tests.”
Just who are we now that “we are no longer just a Christian nation”? Who can recite the creed of this evolving “belief system?” There is a lot of airy homage to “values,” those trace elements of the dissolving bed-rock faith. The sine qua non of this ersatz religion is tolerance—of other races, other histories, other proliferating genders, other creeds. The cardinal sins against tolerance are fear (always irrational), and suspicion of “otherness.” And an unseemly readiness to disown one’s own. This principled non-judgmentalism makes it difficult to understand, let alone resist, Islam. It does nothing to hearten Christians facing martyrdom.
Perhaps it is time for every Christian—in politics, in the media, in the pulpit, and in the pews—to apostatize from the Tolerance Religion. Let’s judge these atrocities against Christians and acknowledge that they are almost invariably committed by those who pronounce the name of God with two syllables. Mere words, perhaps. But if they fit the reality, they may be more than empty gestures to those under threat of torture and death. Alexander Solzhenitsyn recalled that the zeks were always “in clover” whenever they learned that someone in the West had violated anti-anticommunist etiquette and told the truth about the gulags.
The truth about the Christians in the Middle East is that they face extermination—from Muslims. Already a million and a half have either fled or faced forced conversion in Iraq and Syria. Most, according to the bishops of the Middle East, are not demanding relocation in the West. Many would prefer to stay in a secure space in their own lands. That should be for them to decide. Here in the safe and soporific safe-zone, the least we can do is press the issue. “Therefore, while we have time, let us do good to all men, but especially to those who are of the household of the Faith” (Galatians, 6:10). Does that sound like a litmus test?