The Dhimmitude of the West
Mark Durie
August 2002

To appear in the Newsletter for the Centre for Islamic Studies
London Bible College

Dhimmitude is an Islamic phenomenon.  It defines the condition of submissive surrender to Islamic rule, yet without conversion to the Islamic faith.  Under classical theological formulations developed in the first centuries of Islam, the region where Islam rules is known as Dar al-Islam 'the House of Islam'.  

From the very beginning the Dar al-Islam included many non-Muslims, indeed they were normally in the majority after initial conquest.  Based on the example of Muhammad's dealings with the conquered Jewish farmers of Khaybar, Fadak, Tayma and Wadi-l Qura, the institution of the dhimma or 'pact of protection' was developed to provide for those who refused to convert to Islam.  The dhimma was granted by the conquerors as one possible outcome of military jihad.  It assured the vanquished an institutional legal framework which guaranteed their religious freedom, and determined their social and economic place in the Islamic state.  In return the people of the pact, or dhimmis, were required to pay tribute in perpetuity to the Muslim Community (Umma), and to adopt a position of humble servitude to the Umma.  

The Koranic verse which dictates this fundamental character for dhimmitude is Sura 9:29:

"Fight against those who do not believe in Allah nor in the Last Day, and do not make forbidden what Allah and His Messenger have made forbidden, and do not practice the religion of truth, of those who have been given the Book [i.e. Jews and Christians], until they pay the jizya [head tax] readily and are humbled."

Within the Islamic state, all non-Muslims who are not objects of war are considered to be dhimmis - communities who are allowed to exist within the Dar al-Islam by virtue of surrender under the conditions of a dhimmi pact.  These are the permanently conquered peoples of Islam.

The historian Bat Ye'or has documented the social, political, economic and religious conditions of dhimmi communities - Jews and Christians - in the Middle East.  It is a sad history of dispossession and decline.  Legal provisions applying to dhimmis ensured their humiliation and inferiority, and to this was added the often crippling taxes which were allocated to support the Muslim community.  Under conditions of dhimmitude there was also a constant risk of jihad conditions being reinvoked - of massacre and dispossession - if the dhimmi community is considered to have failed to live up to the conditions of their pact.  History records many examples where dhimmis were attacked by their fellow Muslim citizens on such grounds, for example the massacres of the Jews of Granada in 1066, and of the Christians of Damascus in 1860.  

Like sexism and racism, dhimmitude is not only manifested in legal and social structures, but in a psychology of inferiority, a will to serve, which the dominated community adopts in self-preservation.  

"The law required from dhimmis a humble demeanor, eyes lowered, a hurried pace.  They had to give way to Muslims in the street, remain standing in their presence and keep silent, only speaking to them when given permission.  They were forbidden to defend themselves if attacked, or to raise a hand against a Muslim on pain of having it amputated.  Any criticism of the Koran or Islamic law annuled the protection pact.  In addition the dhimmi was duty-bound to be grateful, since it was Islamic law that spared his life.

The whole corpus of these practices … formed an unchanging behavior pattern which was perpetuated from generation to generation for centuries.  It was so deeply internalised that it escaped critical evaluation and invaded the realm of self-image, which was henceforth dominated by a conditioning in self-devaluation. … This situation, determined by a corpus of precise legislation and social behaviour patterns based on prejudice and religious traditions, induced the same type of mentality in all dhimmi groups.  It has four major characteristics:  vulnerability, humiliation, gratitude and alienation.(1)"

As one Iranian convert to Christianity put it 'Christianity is still viewed as the religion of an inferior class of people.  Islam is the religion of masters and rulers, Christianity is the religion of slaves'.  Often dhimmi Christians can be seen to collude to conceal their own condition, finding themselves psychologically unable to critique or oppose it.
Although many of the laws of dhimmitude were dismantled during European colonization, today they are making a comeback.

Islam is exerting an increasingly important influence in the destiny of Western cultures.  Through immigration, oil economics, cultural exchange and even terrorism, the remnants of what was once Christendom now find themselves having to attend to Islam and its distinctive 'take' on the world.  We increasingly hear that we have an 'Abrahamic' civilization - an Islamic perspective - not a Judeo-Christian one.  

Within the Islamic self-consciousness, there are limited options for the roles that non-Muslims communities can play.  The only real alternative to 'enemies of Allah' is dhimmitude.  
The requirement that dhimmis affirm and serve Islam greatly limits the repertoire of responses that dhimmified Christians can have towards it.  Where there are grounds for confrontation, the only way of struggling permitted to the dhimmi is by saying soft things.  Such political correctness is itself an injustice that needs to be exposed and challenged.  This dynamic, when combined with the meanings of 'struggle' (jihad) that Islam claims as its divine right without apology of any kind, can intimidate and debilitate Christians who are free and do not live under Islam.  The cumulative effect can be that the gross injustices come to seem as somehow excusable or unexceptional.  An infamous example is the weak international response today to the persecution of non-Muslims (not just Christians) under Islam.  This is epitomized in the slavish attitude adopted by Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement she read to an Organisation of Islamic Conference Symposium on Human Rights in Islam held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva in 2002.  After offering praise Robinson adopts the strategy of affirming the inherent righteousness of Islam:

"It is important to recognize the greatness of Islam, its civilizations and its immense contribution to the richness of the human experience, not only through profound belief and theology but also through the sciences, literature and art.

No one can deny that at its core Islam is entirely consonant with the principle of fundamental human rights, including human dignity, tolerance, solidarity and equality.  Numerous passages from the Qur'an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad will testify to this.  No one can deny, from a historical perspective, the revolutionary force that is Islam, which bestowed rights upon women and children long before similar recognition was afforded in other civilizations.   …And no one can deny the acceptance of the universality of human rights by Islamic States.(2)"
Observe here the dhimmi themes of gratitude, affirmation of moral superiority of Islam (with the implication of inferiority of the infidel), and the denial of any possible voice of protest against human rights abuses in Islamic states.  It is a classical dhimmi strategy to avoid confrontation by affirming what is best in Islam.  Change for the better is only allowed to arise from values which Muslims can see as springing from their faith itself.  This strategy conceals and disempowers the moral worth of non-Muslim value systems.  It is the strategy of those whose existence is marginal and threatened.  
For those living in liberal democracies this is not in the end a healthy way to engage with the 'other' that is Islam.  It establishes a framework in which Islam takes on the role of a dominator that expects to be praised, admired, and stroked.  The reaction to deserved criticism, when it manages to find a voice, can be shock, denial and outrage.

For Christians there is a special challenge here.  In adapting to this requirement of grateful service, Christians can interpret their own submissiveness in gospel categories of forgiveness and service.  But from the Islamic side this just looks like 'submission', i.e. the program of 'Islam' itself is working.  Islam interprets such submissiveness as its rightful due, not an expression of grace, and affords itself the right to the feeling of generosity.  Likewise international aid is interpreted as tribute, a rightful due.  This perception is reinforced when the most peaceful Islamic nations receive the least aid.
Another cost of this dynamic is a widespread Islamic pattern of claiming the role of victim, whilst inculpating others for problems not of their making.  Since Islam is not confronted with its own difficulties, whilst having its virtues affirmed, Muslim communities have permission to feel themselves aggrieved.  This is enormously costly for the ongoing social and economic development of Islamic nations, and it is costly for Western societies.

In Victoria Australia our Equal Opportunity Commission has a 'Stand up to Racism' campaign which announces to the community that Islam is a religion to be admired - this is called 'dispelling myths'.   Yet the majority of attacks on Australian religious buildings since 9/11 have been against churches and synagogues.  Our EOC's tactic distorts the whole meaning of 'tolerance' and undermines social harmony.  This issue is especially urgent now that significant numbers of Westerners are embracing Islam.
Appeasement and the softly, softly approach only buys time.  Sooner or later the will to dominance inherent in the jihad stream of the Qur'an and Sunna will rear its head when a faithful believer reads the Qur'an and finds that it says to struggle against unbelievers and subjugate them.  Frank exposure and critique offers the best way to contain this outcome.

(1) Bat Ye'or. Islam and Dhimmitude: where civilizations collide. Cranbury, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002. P. 103-104.
(2) Mary Robinson, March 15, 2002.