Part A of essay Two in the series: The Suffocation of the Christian Communities in the Middle East
In recent months, our journalists and editors have had to think on their feet as they have sought ways to make western audiences aware of a massive fact about the Middle East that these same authorities have striven for decades not to notice– the methodical suffocation of the Christian minority of the Middle East by the Muslim majority.
This minority (as I noted in my previous essay) is made up of several widely-scattered communities, some going back many centuries prior to the time when the Middle East became Arab and Muslim. To get quickly to the bottom line: they amounted to 13% of the population of the Arab Middle East in 1900, they have been reduced to 1% today, and that remnant is presently being methodically harassed from the region. As this is happening, our leaders of opinion, including the leaders of the mainline churches, look the other way in order to focus their moral ire upon the imaginary monster of Islamophobia in our midst.
The key to this present Muslim campaign against Christianity in the Middle East is the history of the Empire of Islam; and the key to that history is dhimmitude.
In Egypt, as elsewhere in the Middle East, the lives of the Christian minority are lived out today under discriminatory laws, truly deserving of the epithet apartheid, put in place in the first years of the Muslim Conquest – that is, beginning in the late Seventh Century. Previously, Egypt had been a part of the realm of Christian potentates who, when the Arabs arrived unannounced in the mid-Seventh century, still considered themselves within the Empire of Rome (actually, its Eastern half, the Byzantine Empire.) When the Muslim conquest was complete, leaders of the Christian communities were summoned to the palaces of the Muslim masters and forced to acknowledge their new status as dhimmis(subordinated people).
The dhimma was the pact, or contract, under which conquered “People of the Book” (Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians) acknowledged the inferiority of their religion, and accepted to live under the command of their communities’ leaders – who, in turn, agreed to supervise the people’s adherence to a host of specific but constantly changing limitations on their lives and to report on their compliance to the Muslim masters. [Details can be found in Bat Ye’or, The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam (Farleigh Dickinson University, 1985.)] Dhimmi people (that is, all Christians and Jews) paid a heavy tax (jizyah) from which Muslims were exempt. Along the way and from place to place, the details changed; but among the most common and lasting features were that they were forbidden to own land (which greatly limited the economic prospects of their masses); their clothing was restricted to certain types and styles, and on it, at various times and places, they wore distinguishing badges – perhaps the symbol of a monkey for the Jews, a symbol of a pig for the Christians—so that they lived without dignity. As a Christian was not allowed to bear witness against a Muslim, they were always vulnerable to fraud and extortion; there was no salvation in appeal to the courts.
The key to all this is that the dhimma was an unequal contract, subject to revision by the master party whenever a new idea occurred for wringing profit from the dhimmi‘s situation, and subject to rescinding altogether when an excuse occurred for accusing the dhimmi community of bad behaviour or treason. The law of the land forbade Christians from making any alterations in the premises where they worshipped – no improvements, and certainly no expansion – without permission from the Muslim authorities.
Those among us who strive to put Islam and Islamic history in a positive light, so as to score debating points against Christianity for its less-than-perfect record, interject at this point that the benign purpose behind this policy was “protection” of the religious minorities. But, of course the kind of “protection” extended was of the kind that the mafia offers – protection from itself. The very notion of “protection” should have no part in anyone’s thinking about anything today. The notion, in particular, of protection of religious belief and exercise by the state is an utterly and regressive one in our part of the world where the right to worship is supposed to exist without respect to how either the state or the church feels about it.
In the world of Islam, a Christian had no individual rights in any department of life, but if he belonged to one of the accredited and ancient church communities, he was able to practice his faith with strict limits. The theory was that as Christians became restless, living humiliating lives, they would see the light and convert to Islam –it being absolutely clear under the laws of the Qur’an that to convert back to Christian faith made one immediately subject to the death penalty. All in all, it worked out – it is still working out –as Muhammad had foreseen.
What is truly really remarkable is not that Christians and Jews converted (while Zoroastrians virtually disappeared), but that a substantial minority still had not done so by the Nineteenth Century, when the intrusion of European powers into the area provided them for the first time a measure of real protection. [Steven Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity (Cam bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 78-81.]