The triumph of the ‘dhimmi’

The 'Prayer' monument in Ramat Gan, in memory of the Jews who were killed in the ‘Farhud’ Pogrom in Iraq. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The 'Prayer' monument in Ramat Gan, in memory of the Jews who were killed in the ‘Farhud’ Pogrom in Iraq.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The Israeli-Arab conflict is not simply a 100-year-old political battle.
Its roots are more than 1,300 years old and transcend the wars between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors since the former’s founding in 1948.
To gain a greater understanding of why “land for peace” has been a failure and even successful treaties with Egypt and Jordan have created at best a lukewarm relationship between Arabs and Jews, we must take a foray into the history of Jews living under Islamic sovereignty since the great conquests of Muhammad’s successors in the Middle East dating back to the 7th century CE.
The status of Jews and Christians as both “Peoples of the Book” and dhimmis gives greater depth to the understanding of why there has been no peaceful resolution of a conflict that is not solely political but social, cultural, psychological and religious.
With the rise of Islam 1,400 years ago and the emerging religion’s control of territory from Spain in the west to India in the east, large numbers of Christians and Jews were incorporated into the great Islamic empires after the death of Muhammad. While Jews and Christians were considered people who possessed scriptures that were divinely inspired and, therefore, were not forced to convert to Islam, they were still considered dhimmis – dependent peoples.
This dhimmi status was known as the Pact of Omar, although it dates to a later period than that caliph, to the year 800. While Jews and Christians under Islam were guaranteed self-government, religious tolerance and exemption from military service, the dependent peoples had to be humiliated for rejecting Muhammad as the final prophet and the Koran as divine revelation.
Under dhimmi status, Jews and Christians could not carry weapons, could not make converts, were not allowed to live in houses higher than those of Muslims, could not make a public display of their rituals, could only ride donkeys and not horses, could not build new churches or synagogues and had to pay a yearly poll tax. In addition, they had to wear distinctive clothing to differentiate them from Muslims. These dhimmi rules were not always enforced. During the Jewish golden ages in Spain and the Ottoman Empire Jews rose to great heights politically and financially.
Yet the dhimmi rules were enforced throughout the Islamic world and defined who the Muslims were in opposition to those who rejected Muhammad. Dhimmitude shaped the psychology of Islam in a way that continues today.
The rise of the State of Israel turned the Jews’ dhimmi status on its head. No longer would Jews be a “dependent” people, but an independent people. Although the status of Jews in the Islamic world is often depicted as far better than that of Jews in the Christian domain, the reality is that for most of the history of Jews under Islamic sovereignty dhimmis were treated poorly, and there were even incidents where Muslims forced Jews to convert to Islam and caused Islamic destruction of Jewish communities – such as in Granada in 1066. In the late Sir Martin Gilbert’s last book, In the House of Ishmael, the historian does not paint a rosy picture of Jewish life under Islamic sovereignty.
Often it depended on the individual caliph or sultan in terms of treatment of the Jews.
Dhimmi status provided tolerance of religion and autonomy, but the humiliating terms of the status demeaned Jews and Christians and defined the superiority of Muslims to other monotheistic faiths. But with the founding of the State of Israel how Muslims define themselves with regard to Jews has had to change radically – or has not changed at all.
Although the greatest Islamic empire, the Ottomans, ordered an end to the dhimmi status in 1856, there is no doubt that socially, religiously and psychologically there has been little change. A legal decree abolishing the dhimmi status could not simply wipe away more than a millennium of institutionalized humiliation of the Jews. The IDF has repeatedly defeated Islamic and Arab armies on the battlefield, the Jewish people have a long list of Nobel Prize winners, Israel is a global leader in the high-tech industry, the Jewish state is a democracy and, despite terrorism and war, thriving.
According to the millennium-long logic of the dhimmi, this is a thorn in the side of Muslim self-definition and Muslim theology and the way Muslims understood their superiority over Jews.
Further exacerbating the theology and politics of the dhimmi is the fact that the Jewish capital is in Islam’s third holiest site and for the past 50 years Jews have controlled important territory that had been under Islamic sovereignty.
To understand Muslim attitudes toward Israel, the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians, the hatred of Israel in the streets of Tehran, one must go beyond the politics of the past century and look much further back into the relationships in history between Muslims and Jews.
The State of Israel obliterates the idea that the Jew must “know his place” in the hierarchy of Muslim societies. Independent people are no longer dependent and humiliated. That notion will not be wiped away from the Islamic world overnight, if ever. If the Islamic world could come to peace with the notion that Jews are no longer in a position to accept humiliation, it is likely that the Middle East would be a more peaceful region. But the ground rule is that the reality of a Jewish state challenges age-old humiliations of the Jews in the Muslim world.