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A Double-Bind Upon the Copts: Dhimmitude in Action

Wednesday, 12 October 2011  | Mark Durie

Over the weekend, violence on Cairo's streets resulting in the deaths of dozens of Copts and the wounding of hundreds more. The killings occurred when the Egyptian military dispersed a protest against a recent incident of church destruction in Elmarinab village, in Aswan province. Videos, including footage shown on Egyptian television, protray military vehicles deliberately running over bystanders (here and here), and another taken in a morgue shows a man whose throat had been cut.

The church destruction took place on 30 September when a mob of thousands of Muslim men went on a rampage after attending Friday prayers at local mosques in the village. Father Salib of St George's church said that his church was destroyed, along with some homes and other property belonging to local Copts, after a local Imam told Muslims to 'take matters into their own hands' (see here). The trigger for the attack was officially approved renovation work on the church building, which had become so dilapidated that it had been declared unsafe (see here). Reports indicated that the military looked on while the destruction was taking place. Afterwards Egyptian media reports denied the incident: for example the Governor of Aswan provide went on state television to deny that the building had been a church.

Why would restoring a church have caused Muslims to be enraged?
Why would church renovations be a topic for a Friday sermon in a mosque?
Why would Egyptian military stand by and do nothing? Or run over protestors?
Why was the attack denied and covered over by the media?

The answers are theological: they involve Islamic political theology.

For many secular western people, the word 'theology' carries little meaning. The term could be better rendered as 'ideology', but one which is based upon spiritual presuppositions and beliefs.

These days many critics of Islam are stating that Islam is not a 'religion' at all, but an 'ideology'. There are 184,000 hits on Google for the phrase "Islam is an ideology". See for example Geert Wilders explaining that Islam is 'not just another religion' but is 'an ideology'.

It is not necessary to turn to Islam's critics to hear this view. An article posted by Muslim students on the Student Association website of Northern Illinois University is entitled 'Islam is an ideology'. It explains that Islam requires that all legislation must be god-given, which means laws are to be based upon the Qur'an and the life of Muhammad (the Sunnah): "Islam forbids for any legislation to be taken other than that contained in the Qur'an and Sunnah". Moreover the very practice of Islam itself requires that the state must be Islamic, for 'our worship of Allah is incomplete' without the full application of the five pillars of Islam, and each pillar "remains suspended in part while the Islamic state is not existent, as they depend upon the state for their full implementation."

What this is saying is that Islam demands that the state - indeed any state - must be regulated according to sharia law, and unless and until Islam dominates in the public sphere, Muslims will not have true freedom to practice their religion. The Northern Illinois State University article also counts it a failure of Christians and Jews, that they have submitted to other authorities besides God (for example in a democracy, where the people have power to determine the government): such submission is idolatry (shirk) "the very mistake that the Christians and the Jews have made until the present day."

I do not agree with those who say that Islam is not a religion. It is a religion. But both Geert Wilders and the Muslim Student Association of Northern Illinois University are also correct. Islam classically demands a political realization, and specifically one in which Islam rules over all other religions, ideologies and competing political visions. Islam is not unique in having a political vision or speaking to politics - most varieties of Christianity and Judaism have a lot to say about politics - but it is unique in demanding that it alone must rule the political sphere.

Today, the root of massive human rights abuses being suffered by the Copts is entirely theological. Their difficulties are grounded in an Islamic vision for society which affords a clearly defined place for non-Muslims and specifically including Christians. Not all Muslims are seeking to implement this vision, but many are, and there is no coherent alternative vision being offered to Muslims in Egypt today.

The Islamic political vision, which is the root of the Copts's sufferings, demands that non-Muslims accept a place defined for them by Sharia law. This is the status of the dhimmi, who is permitted to live in an Islamic stated under terms of surrender as laid out in the dhimma pact. These terms are a well-established part of Islamic law, and can be found laid out in countless legal text books (see for example here, Ibn Kathir's commentary on Sura 9:29).

The pact of surrender of non-Muslims is understood in Islamic law to include a series of conditions, which conquered Christians (such as the Copts) have endorsed. For example, the Pact of Umar, established after conquest with the Christians of Syria, stated:
"These are the conditions that we set against ourselves and followers of our religion in return for safety and protection. If we break any of these promises that we set for your benefit against ourselves, then our Dhimmah (promise of protection) is broken and you are allowed to do with us what you are allowed of people of defiance and rebellion."
These conditions include:
"We made a condition on ourselves that we will neither erect in our areas a monastery, church, or a sanctuary for a monk, nor restore any place of worship that needs restoration."
The 'crime' of the Copts in Aswan province was simply that they wished to repair their church. This is opposed by the (theological) logic of the dhimma pact, which states that non-Muslims are not allowed to repair places of worship, on pain of being treated as 'people of defiance and rebellion', from whom 'safety and protection' has been withdrawn. In other words, such a person can be killed and their belongings plundered (because they are entitled to no protection under Islamic law).

For some pious Muslims in Egypt today, the act of repairing a church is a flagrant provocation, a breach of the peace, which amounts to a deliberate revocation of one's rights to exist in the land. This becomes a legitimate topic for sermons in the mosque, as the faithful are urged to use their hands to uphold the honor of Islam. It is seen as no injustice, and even a duty, to destroy the church and even the lives of Christians who have the temerity to repair their churches. Likewise those who go to the streets to protest church destruction are also rebels who have forfeited their rights to 'safety and protection'.

It is this theological worldview which motivates both the church destruction, and the killing of protestors by members of the military chanting 'Allahu Akbar' (Allah is greater).

Such ideas are not new. They are as old as Islam itself. However for obvious reasons - the sheer offensiveness of Islam's ideological treatment of non-Muslims - the dhimma is concealed and its provisions denied.

On the one hand the dhimma is denied by many in the West. Emblematic of this denial was President Obama's claim in his Cairo Speech in June 2009 that "throughout history, Islam has demonstrated through words and deeds the possibilities of religious tolerance and racial equality". Western denial explains the reluctance of Western media to give coverage to the present-day sufferings of the Copts, for to look too closely at the pattern of these afflictions will bring into the light of day the underlying cause, which is the dhimma. If the dhimma must be denied, then its manifestations must be denied as well. To do otherwise is just too threatening for comfortable Western leaders and opinion makers. The consequences of openly acknowledging the existence and persistence of the dhimma system are just too overwhelming.

On the other hand, some Muslims who to varying degrees share the dhimma worldview have proved themselves to be masters of misdirection and concealment. For example, although St George's church had official documents approving its renovation, the Governor of the Aswan Province went on air to state that the building was a "guest home" and not a church, and the fault of the Copts was that they built it 13 meters high instead of 9 meters. In response Father Salib of St George's said that the Governor had signed the approval for the renovations himself in 2010. The Governor's comments are most revealing. He is in fact appealing to the dhimma worldview, because restrictions on the height of buildings are part of the dhimma pact: non-Muslim buildings are required in Islamic law to be lower than Muslim buildings. (Even in Melbourne, Australia, Muslims have been known to protest when they considered plans for a Christian Community Centre to be too high.) The Governor was in fact defending the destruction of the church with reference to dhimma criteria: how dare those Christians build their church so high! How understandable that local youths wanted to tear it down!

Also when the Governor spoke of 'reconciliation' meetings between the Muslims and Christians in Elmarinab, he was indulging in a common piece of deceptive terminology for what has often turned out to be standover tactics designed to compel Christians - under threat of violence, kidnapping or destruction to their possessions - to accept that none of the attackers will be prosecuted. Here another feature of the dhimma legal system comes into play, namely that non-Muslim testimony against Muslims is invalid in a court of law, so Christians have no effective way of bearing testimony to what Muslims have done to them. The Governor's account must be accepted over that of the Christians because he is a Muslim and they are not. This asymetrical view of the worth of human testimony encourages systemic abuses against the truth.

There are many other ways in which the manifestations of the dhimma are denied and concealed in Egypt. Initial Egyptian media reports of the October 9 demonstration reported the killing of soldiers by protestors, and not the dozens of Copts who were killed. There were also reports that the military attacked a television station to prevent it from reporting on the killings (see here). Such local 'filtering' of abuses functions to confuse and dull the minds of the Western media observers. So Western media reflects the bias of the dhimma worldview.

It must also be acknowledged that Egyptian Muslims who act from a dhimmitude mindset vary a great deal in the degree of their commitment to the dhimma, and in the degree to which they will support an explicit revival of the dhimma. Some Egyptian Muslim leaders have been unashamed in making public calls for full reinstatement of the dhimma system, including the disciminatory jizya tax, but many other Muslims simply subscribe to the worldview of dhimmitude because they absorbed it as part of their mother's milk. It just seems normal not to prosecute Muslims who attack Christians and burn their churches. It just seems normal to disbelieve Christian testimony. It just seems normal to rejoice that a Christian girl, kidnapped, raped and coerced into marrying a Muslim, has converted to Islam, and is now under his guardianship and cut off from her family. Such prejudice is just normal.

Meanwhile the Copts are in a double bind. If they protest against the abuses brought upon their heads by the dhimma system, they are treated as rebels, and the value of their blood and possessions discounted accordingly: the more they protest, the less right they have under Islamic law even to exist. On the other hand, the more they acquiesce, the more voracious and emboldened their persecutors will become. This is what happened in Elmarinab: after the Christians made major concessions, their radical Muslim neighbors just demanded further concessions.

At the same time, Western praise for the "Arab Spring", and the recent waves of protest across the Middle East is giving the Copts hope that the world just might pay attention to their plight. They are no strangers to suffering and martyrdom - endurance of persecution has run in their veins for two thousand years - but yet they are hoping the world has the moral integrity to pay attention. They take to the streets out of the conviction that, although it should cost them their lives, they must speak out and be heard.

In this light, I do commend the Australian Coptic Community, under the leadership of Bishop Suriel, for their courageous stand, in calling on the Australian government to expel the Egyptian diplomats (see here):
Bishop Suriel, head of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Australia, is demanding the expulsion of the Egyptian Ambassador, and two Egyptian Consul Generals. In a Statement issued today, Bishop Suriel notes:
“Their presence in Australia is of no meaning to the Coptic community in Australia, in light of the events which have occurred in Egypt, and their subsequent failure to act in a capacity which represents the interests of both the Coptic and Muslim dynamic of the community. They have failed to take a proactive approach to advocate for the rights of the Coptic people in Egypt or to speak out against the atrocities and intense persecution the Coptic people in Egypt are facing.”
The international community will be held accountable if they do not act swiftly on the brutal attacks towards Egypt’s Coptic Christians who are suffering under a modern day form of apartheid where institutionalised discrimination and deadly attacks have a become a way of life for Egypt’s 15 million Copts.
Such a response would be timely and appropriate to the desperate injustices faced by Christians in Egypt today.

This post first appeared on Mark Durie's blog.

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