Commentary on social and moral issues of the day

Part 1. A Christian-Muslim Exchange: The Approaching Century of Religion

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

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Shortly before he died on November 23, 1976, André Malraux said, "The twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all." I'm not sure what Malraux meant by it, but it is one of those oracular pronouncements that have about them the ring of truth. At the threshold of the Third Millennium, it seems that the alternatives to religion have exhausted themselves. That is true of the materialistically cramped rationalisms of the Enlightenment encyclopaedists, which, along with ideological utopianisms, both romantic and allegedly scientific, have been consigned, as Marxists used to say, to the dustbin of history. The perversity of the human mind will no doubt produce other ideological madnesses, but at the moment it seems the historical stage has been swept clean, with only the religious proposition left standing. That is certainly the intuition that informs John Paul II's repeated exhortation, "Be not afraid!"--an exhortation addressed to the entire human community.

It is an intuition that some condemn as "triumphalistic." But one can make the case that, as a world force, Christianity offers the only coherent, comprehensive, and compelling vision of the human project. Except for the others. The chief other is Islam. Christianity and Islam are the two religions that are large, growing, and universal in their culture-forming ambitions. Not without reason are thinkers in the West paying increasing attention to Islam. Which brings me to a new book that has already received notice in these pages, The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude by Bat Ye'or (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 522 pp., $45 cloth, $19.95 paper).

We recently sponsored a meeting to discuss the book with Bat Ye'or, and it has been much on my mind. She is a very impressive scholar, a Jew born in Egypt who now lives in France, where the book was first published in 1991. She thinks the West has not begun to understand the challenge of Islam, that Europe is afraid to understand it, and that the best hope rests with Americans who still sense that they are part of a Christian--i.e., Judeo-Christian--culture.

On the challenge of Islam, the French legal scholar and Protestant theologian Jacques Ellul strongly agrees. He wrote the foreword to the book, one of the last things he wrote before he died. "It is most important to grasp," wrote Ellul, "that the jihad is an institution in itself; that is to say, an organic piece of Muslim society...The world, as Bat Ye'or brilliantly shows, is divided into two regions: the dar al-Islam and the dar al-harb, the 'domain of Islam' and 'the domain of war.' The world is no longer divided into nations, peoples, and tribes. Rather, they are all located en bloc in the world of war, where war is the only possible relationship with the outside world. The earth belongs to Allah and all its inhabitants must acknowledge this reality; to achieve this goal there is but one method: war." The Koran allows that there are times when war is not advisable, and a momentary pause is called for. "But that," writes Ellul, "changes nothing: war remains an institution, which means that it must resume as soon as circumstances permit."

While grateful for Ellul's endorsement, Bat Ye'or says he puts the matter somewhat more starkly than she would. In France and in Europe more generally, there is a growing anti-immigrant, and specifically anti-Muslim, sentiment, and she wants to carefully distance herself from that, which does her honor. On the substantive questions, however, the book leaves no doubt that she and Ellul are of one mind. In the Islamic view, Jews and Christians are "Peoples of the Book," which distinguishes them from other infidels. Where Jews or Christians are in control, there is dar al-harb, the domain of war. Where Islam has conquered, Jews and Christians are dhimmi, meaning subject people who live under the dhimma, which is the pact or treaty granted by the Prophet Muhammad to the Peoples of the Book whom he conquered.

What Really Happened

The Decline is a big book, sometimes rambling but always informative. For many readers it will be an eye-opener, not because it is revisionist history but because it tells the story straight, thus countering the Islamophile histories that have dominated Western thought for so long. About half the book is given to a telling of the story, and the second half to a fascinating collection of documentary evidence from the beginning of Islam to the present. Most of the standard texts speak about the "rise" of Islam in the seventh century, and relate its spread as millions "embraced the new faith." This is usually joined to positive comment on Islam's "tolerance" of non-Muslims, especially as contrasted with the atrocities of the Christian powers with their crusades and "expulsion" of minorities from Europe. This, Bat Ye'or persuasively demonstrates, is a radical distortion of what happened. Islam's spectacular spread was brought about by brutal military conquest, rapine, spoliation, and slavery, joined to a regime of "dhimmitude" that was based on deep contempt for the subject infidels, including the Peoples of the Book.

She begins by reminding us of the Christian civilizations of the Middle East (what Europeans call the Near East) and North Africa--the world of, for instance, St. Augustine. "On the eve of the Islamic conquest, a certain degree of homogeneity emerged from the civilization of the Near East and North Africa, despite the bloody religious conflicts. Heir to Hellenistic culture, it had assimilated the spiritual values of Judaism via Christianity. Although Greek and Pahlavi were the official languages of the Byzantine and Persian empires, respectively, the native inhabitants of Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine spoke and wrote Aramaic. Being a vernacular, liturgical, and literary language, Aramaic was used by the Jews to compile juridical works such as the Talmud and by the Christians to write the historical and theological works of the Nestorian and Monophysite Churches in its Syriac version. In Egypt, the native inhabitants used Coptic, their spoken and written national language." In short, the "rise of Islam" did not happen in a vacuum. Islam violently displaced the vibrant, if internally conflicted, Christian culture of a large part of the then known world.

Nor was Islamic aggression limited to North Africa and the Middle East. "For centuries after its conquest in 712, Spain became the terrain par excellence for the jihad in the West of the dar al-Islam. . . . Breaking out of Arabia and from the conquered regions--Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine--these successive waves of [Muslim] immigrants settled in Spain and terrorized southern France. Reaching as far as Avignon, they plundered the Rhone valley. . . . In 793, the suburbs of Narbonne were burned down and its outskirts raided. Calls to jihad attracted the fanaticized hordes in the ribats (monastery--fortresses) spanning the Islamo-Spanish frontiers. Towns were pillaged and rural areas devastated."

The Painful Particulars

Of course that was a nasty era. Islam did not invent the massacre or enslavement of vanquished peoples. Burning, pillage, spoliation, and the imposing of tribute were practiced by most of the armies of the time, whether Greek, Latin, or Slav. "Only the excess," says Bat Ye'or, "the regular repetition and the systematization of the destruction, codified by theology, distinguishes the jihad from other wars of conquest or depredation." After the first great wave of conquests in the seventh and eighth centuries, Islam gained new force with the accession of the Ottoman Turks. "Possessing an intrepid army and remarkable statesmen, the Ottomans were able to take advantage of the lack of unity and economic rivalries in the Christian camp. The final conquest of the Balkan peninsula was undertaken from 1451 by Mehmid II and his successors. Constantinople was encircled and fell in 1453; Serbia was conquered in 1459; then Bosnia and the Empire of Trebizond in 1463, and Herzegovina in 1483. Turkish expansion continued in Europe with the conquest of Wallachia, Moldavia, and eastern Hungary and was finally checked at Vienna in 1683 and in Poland in 1687." The particulars are worth mentioning, for they underscore the continuity of the jihad and its impact on the world of today, as we are reminded by, for instance, the presence of U.S. troops in Bosnia.

Much of the book is a detailing of the practices of dhimmitude, correcting the conventional wisdom about Islamic "tolerance" of religious minorities. The dhimmis were treated variously in different times and places, depending upon what the Islamic rulers thought expedient. Bat Ye'or emphasizes how Christian disunity played into the hands of their conquerors. Not only the conflicts between East and West, but also between Monophysites, Nestorians, Chaldeans, and others led to many instances in which Christians collaborated with their Muslim masters against other Christians. The regime of dhimmitude was marked by a trade in hundreds of thousands of slaves, as well as minute regulations requiring Jews and Christians to wear distinctive clothing, and excluding them from any access to the law whereby they might seek redress against Muslim cruelties and injustices. The entire system was pervaded by a teaching of contempt toward the infidels.

She notes the irony that the Koran and other sacred texts of Islam had no specific rules for treating conquered infidels, so Muslim rulers in many cases simply took over the rules that the now-conquered Christians had previously applied to heretics. This is not the only way in which "Islamic civilization" was derived from the vanquished. "The historical role of these hordes drained off from the dar al-harb by the conquering Muslim armies should not be underestimated. The Christians and Jews driven from the Mediterranean countries and Armenia--scholars, doctors, architects, craftsmen, and peasants, country folk and town dwellers, bishops, monks, and rabbis--belonged to more complex civilizations than those of the Arab or Turkish tribes. The military and economic power of the caliphs was built up and the process of Islamization carried out through the exploitation of this slave manpower."

Islamic Civilization

Bat Ye'or emphasizes how little that is admired in Islamic civilization is original, how much of it is derivative. Even the great Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is a design taken from Byzantine Christianity. The dhimmi peoples made available to the culturally underdeveloped Arabs the knowledge that had once made their own cultures great. "Zoroastrians, Jacobites (Copts and Syrians), Nestorians, Melchites, and Jews translated into Arabic treatises on astronomy, medicine, alchemy, and philosophy, as well as literary narratives and stories. This work necessitated the invention of new words and the forging of the Arabic language and grammar into new conceptual molds, not only philosophic, scientific, and literary, but also administrative, economic, political, and diplomatic. . . . The first known scientific work in Arabic was a treatise on medicine, written in Greek by Ahrun, a Christian priest from Alexandria, and translated from Syriac into Arabic in 683 by Masarjawayh, a Jewish doctor from Basra (Iraq)." And so it was with many other "Islamic" cultural and scientific achievements.

The common view is that, during the so-called dark ages of European Christendom, Islam preserved the philosophical, literary, and scientific wisdom of the classical period. Bat Ye'or offers a somewhat different perspective. "And yet dhimmitude reveals another reality. Here are peoples who, having integrated the Hellenistic heritage and biblical spirituality, spread the Judeo-Christian civilization as far as Europe and Russia. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, conquered by nomadic bands, taught their oppressors, with the patience of centuries, the subtle skills of governing empires, the need for law and order, the management of finances, . . . the sciences, philosophy, literature and the arts, the organization and transmission of knowledge--in short, the rudiments and foundations of civilization." Later, some of those whose civilizations had been ravaged by the barbarians went into exile. "The elites who fled to Europe took their cultural baggage with them, their scholarship and their knowledge of the classics of antiquity. Thenceforth, in the Christian lands of refuge--Spain, Provence, Sicily, Italy--cultural centers developed where Christians and Jews from Islamized lands taught to the young Europe the knowledge of the old pre-Islamic Orient, formerly translated into Arabic by their ancestors." By this account, then, the classical heritage that was presumably preserved by Islam was in fact rescued from Islam by those who fled its oppression.

Bat Ye'or is at pains not to appear anti-Islamic. At one point she goes so far as to say she refuses to make any "value judgments." But the story she tells speaks for itself. However tortured the historical relationship between Christians and Jews, each community is identified by the same biblical narrative. In addition, common geography and communal interaction make the institutions and values of each inexplicable without reference to the other. Especially from the Christian viewpoint, Judaism and Christianity are in chronological continuity. Not so with Islam.

Islam claims to be anterior to the Peoples of the Book. It is claimed that, through the Koran, the Prophet restored the divine revelation that his Hebrew and Christian predecessors had falsified. The dispute with Christians and Jews is not over the interpretation of a common text; their text is rejected by Islam. Moreover, Islam's origins in the customs and values of the Arab Bedouins and of nomadic tribes have left it with the jihad as the only way of relating to the non-Islamic world. The spiritual, moral, and sociological commonalities among the three religions should not be underestimated. At the same time, I believe Bat Ye'or and others are right to caution us against delusions; for instance, the delusion that a Muslim-Christian dialogue can be constructed on a basis more or less equivalent to the Jewish-Christian dialogue of recent decades.

Of the two assertive and culture-forming religions in the contemporary world, Christianity has enormous advantages over Islam, quite apart from the question of theological truth. There are approximately twice as many Christians as Muslims (two billion and one billion, respectively). Christianity is growing at least as fast as Islam and has greater evangelizing prospects, notably in Asia, especially if China really opens up. Moreover, today's world is not hospitable to jihad in the form of conquest, but is increasingly susceptible to the communications technology mastered by the Christian West. Moreover, the Christian movement is on the far side of modernity, having gone through and survived, not without severe damage, its secularizing and explicitly antireligious impulses. Islam, by contrast, has for three centuries been largely left out; it has been the object rather than the subject of world-historical change. As that intrepid scholar Bernard Lewis reminds us, Islam views the dar al-harb of Christendom as the Great Satan, meaning the Great Tempter. Militant Islamism is driven by suspicion and ressentiment. Which can make the world a very dangerous place, as it is already a very dangerous in, for instance, the Middle East.

A great question facing Islam--and for us as we face Islam--is whether there are authentically Islamic sources that can religiously legitimate democracy and religious pluralism. From the beginning, Christianity has had the great asset of what some derisively call its "dualism"--the conceptual resource for distinguishing between spiritual and temporal authority, which has given it enormous flexibility in relating to different political and cultural circumstances from Theodosius to Hildebrand to the religion clause of the U.S. Constitution. Islam is emphatically monistic. That is a great asset when joined to military and political power in the course of conquest, but a disabling weakness under the conditions of postmodernity.

This truth impressed me at a recent conference sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations in which we were examining Islam and the democratic prospect in various parts of the world. As I write, the secular Kemalists (after Kemal Ataturk, who established the republic in 1923) have replaced an Islam-friendly government, and have done so in the name of democracy. The Kemalists control the army, and one Turkish participant at the conference observed with a straight face, "Turkey is in the peculiar circumstance that we may need a military dictatorship in order to preserve democracy." The assumption is that Islam and democracy are incompatible. It is an assumption that is given additional credibility by the Islamist insurgency in many Muslim countries. Of course there are other and very large parts of the Islamic world, such as Indonesia. I expect Bernard Lewis is right, however, in saying that any substantive change in Islamic doctrine must come from the Middle East, the world surrounding Mecca and Islam's constituting sacred story, a world still steeped in the Arab and Bedouin mindset of the Prophet.

There is yet another important dimension. A while back we held a meeting to discuss Samuel Huntington's seminal The Clash of Civilizations and the Remarking of World Order. There Wolfhart Pannenberg, the noted German theologian, made a strong argument, contra Huntington, that the Christian West and Christian East should be viewed as one civilization. That they are today viewed as two is largely the fault of European powers, especially Britain, that in the nineteenth century sided with the Ottoman Empire in order to contain Russia. I am impressed by the number of thinkers who, like Pannenberg, hold "perfidious Albion" largely responsible for the dominance of Islamophile and "Arabist" attitudes among foreign policy experts, not least in the U.S. Department of State.

Heightened Christian Consciousness

So we come back to Malraux's prophecy about the twenty-first century. That it will be religious is not necessarily good news. Religion is as riddled with the possibilities of mischief as any other dimension of the human condition. The biggest problem in sight is Islam. People like Ellul and Bat Ye'or worry about the low-level jihad of Islamic immigration in Europe, which now includes millions of Muslims, and about the establishment of Islam in Bosnia. Unless one dismisses entirely the importance of civilizational clashes, that is something at least worth thinking about very carefully. The situation in the U.S. is very different. There are probably no more than two million Muslims in this country, and half of them are native-born blacks. That could change through massive immigration in the years ahead, but at present Muslims here pose no threat to the Judeo-Christian identity of the culture, or what is left of it.

In the several discussions I have touched on here, one notices a heightening of Christian self-consciousness as we approach the Third Millennium. This is evident in the witness of John Paul II, who carefully cultivates Muslim connections while at the same time repeatedly urging, "Open the door to Christ!" It is evident also in the new stirrings among Christians here in protesting the persecution of Christians elsewhere. Not incidentally, some of the most severe persecution and oppression of Christians is in "elsewheres" dominated by Islam--Sudan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan being prime examples. In all these churnings of religion, culture, and politics, there is also a notable coming together of Christians and Jews. In the forefront of the movement against the persecution of Christians are Jews such as Michael Horowitz and New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal. Nobody denies--and some, such as Bat Ye'or make it quite explicit--that a strengthened sense of Judeo-Christian unity in the face of Islam also has obvious implications for our attitude toward the State of Israel. That consideration is not front stage center, but it is there.

I am convinced we must do everything we can to nurture constructive relations with Islam. As an institute and a journal, we have over the years tried to engage Muslims in the conversations of which we are part. It is an embarrassment that in a journal dealing with religion and public life, with a readership far larger than any comparable publication, the Muslim participation is almost nonexistent. I don't know what to do about it, except to keep trying. We consider articles by Muslim authors, but they are typically so defensive, or so belligerent, or so self-serving--or all three at once--that they would only compound misunderstandings.

As for conferences, it is not hard to get "Muslim spokepersons." There are teams of them flitting from conference to conference all over the world. They are part of the "Davos people" so brilliantly described by Huntington in his book. I have met them in Davos, Switzerland, where top CEOs and heads of state annually gather with select intellectuals to chatter about the state of the world in the esperanto of an internationalese that is not spoken by real people anywhere. The Muslims in such settings are for the most part westernized, secularized, academic intellectuals who are there to "represent the Muslim viewpoint" but have little more connection with living Islam than many Christians and Jews. The unhappy fact is that Muslim thinkers who can speak out of the heart of authentic Islam, and especially of resurgent Islamism, either do not want to talk with us or are prevented from doing so under the threat of very real injury to themselves or their families.

Meanwhile, the Islamic world stews in its resentments and suspicions, alternating with low-grade jihad in the form of the persecution of Christians, international terrorism, and dreams of driving Israel into the sea. This turbulent stand-off, beginning with the repulsion from Vienna in 1683 and embittered by centuries of Western imperialism, cannot last forever. It seems likely that in the new century of clashing civilizations there will be either heightened conflict or a breakthrough to something like the beginnings of a dialogue. Maybe the second can prevent the first. Or maybe the first will be required to precipitate the second. In any event, we in the Judeo-Christian West should be prepared. A good place to start is to understand the history that has brought us to where we are, and to that end I warmly recommend a careful and critical reading of Bat Ye'or's The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.

Copyright (c) 1997 First Things 76 (October 1997): 75-93.

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