(Ramada Congress Hotel - Chicago, Illinois)


 Dinner Address delivered on 31 August 1995 by



Ladies and gentlemen:

My subject this evening is "Myths and Politics: Origin of the Myth of a Tolerant Pluralistic Islamic Society". 

 Ten years ago when I came to America for the launching of my book The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam, I was struck by the inscription on the Archives Building in Washington: "Past is Prologue". I had thought - at least at the beginning of my research - that my subject related to a remote past, but I realized that contemporary events were rapidly modernizing this past. Muslim countries, where Islamic law - the shari'a - had been replaced by modern juridiction imposed by the European colonizing powers, were abandoning the secularizing trend, replacing it with Islamization in numerous sectors of life. This impression of the return of the past became even more acute when I was working on my next book, published in 1991, whose English edition will appear in early 1996 under the title: The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam - 7th to 20th century: from Jihad to Dhimmitude (Associated University Presses).

* Author of Le Dhimmi, Profil de l'Opprimé en Orient et en Afrique du Nord depuis la conquête arabe (Paris, Anthropos, 1980). Enlarged English edition, The Dhimmi: Jews & Christians under Islam, preface by Jacques Ellul (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/Associated University Presses, Cranbury, N.J./London/ Toronto, 1985); Les Chrétientés d'Orient entre Jihad et Dhimmitude: VIIe-XXe siècle, préface de Jacques Ellul (Paris, Le Cerf, 1991) English edition, The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. From Jihad to Dhimmitude, AUP, 1996; Juifs et Chrétiens sous l'Islam: les dhimmis face au défi intégriste (Paris, Berg international, 1994) 

  In this study, I tried to analyze the numerous processes that had transformed rich, powerful Christian civilizations into Islamic lands, and their long-term effects, which had reduced native Christian majorities into scattered small religious minorities, on the way to total disappearence. This complex Islamization process affecting Christian lands and civilizations on both shores of the Mediterranean - and in Irak and Armenia - I have called: the process of "dhimmitude"; and the civilization of those peoples who underwent such transformation, I have named the civilization of "dhimmitude". The indigenous native peoples were Jews and Christians (Orthodox, Catholics, or from other Eastern Christian Churches). They are all referred to by Muslim jurists as the "Peoples of the Book" - the Book being the Bible - and they were subjected to the same condition according to Islamic law. They are called by the Arabic term, dhimmis: "protected peoples", because Islamic law protects their life and goods on condition that they submit to Islamic rule. But it is this very Islamic law that generates the processes of dhimmitude and of self-destruction. 

 I will not go into details here for this is a very long and complex subject, but in order to understand the Serbian situation one should know that the Serbs were treated during half a millenium just like the other Christian and Jewish dhimmis. They participated in this civilization of dhimmitude. It is important to understand that the civilization of dhimmitude grows from two major and interconnected religious institutions: jihad and shari'a, which establish a particular ideological system that makes it mandatory - during the jihad operation - to use terror, mass killings, deportation and slavery. And the Serbs - because I am speaking of them tonight - did not escape from this fate, which was the same for all those peoples around the Mediterranean basin, vanquished by jihad. For centuries, the Serbs fought to liberate their land from the laws of jihad, and dhimmitude, which had legalized their condition of oppression on their own lands.

 So while I was analyzing and writing about the processes of dhimmitude and the civilization of dhimmitude - while listening to the radio, watching television, reading the newspapers - I had the uncomfortable feeling that the clock was being turned back. Modern politicians, sophisticated writers - using phones, planes, computers and all the modern techniques - seemed to be returning several centuries back, with wigs or stiff collars, using exactly the same corrupting arguments, the same tortuous short-term politics that had previously contributed to the gradual Islamization of numerous non-Muslim peoples. I had to shake myself in an effort to distinguish the past from the present.

 So, is the past always prologue? Are we doomed to remain perpetually prisoners of the same errors? Certainly, if we do not know the past. And this past - the long and agonizing process of Christian annihilation by the laws of jihad and dhimmitude - is a taboo history, not only in Islamic lands, but above all in the West. It has been buried beneath a myth, fabricated by Western politicians, religious leaders and scholars, in order to promote their own national, strategic, economic and personal interests.

 Curiously, this myth started in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 19th century. It alleges that Turkish rule over Christians in its European provinces was just and lawful. That the Ottoman regime, being Islamic, was naturally "tolerant" and well disposed toward its Christian subjects; that its justice was fair, and that safety for life and goods was guaranteed to Christians by Islamic laws. Ottoman rule was brandished as the most suitable regime to rule Christians of the Balkans.

 This theory was advanced by European politicians in order to safeguard the balance of power in Europe, and in order to block the Russian advance towards the Mediterranean. To justify the maintenance of the Turkish yoke on the Slavs, this yoke had to be presented to the public opinion as a just government. The Ottoman Empire was painted by Turkophiles as a model for a multi-ethnical, multi-religious empire. Of course, the reality was totally different! First the Ottoman Empire was created by centuries of jihad against Christian populations; consequently the rules of jihad, elaborated by Arab-Muslim theologians from the 8th to the 10th centuries, applied to the subjected Christian and Jewish populations of the Turkish-Islamic dominions. Those regulations are integrated into the Islamic legislation concerning the non-Muslim vanquished peoples and therefore they present a certain homogeneity throughout the Arab and Turkish empires - and, apparently, in Muslim Asia too.

 The civilization of dhimmitude, in which the Serbs participated, had many aspects that evolved with changing political situations. They suffered from the same oppressive laws and prejudices that concerned all Christians and Jews in the Islamic Empire. From the 1830s, the Ottomans embarked on reforms (Tanzimat), aimed at the emancipation of their Christian raya (dhimmi) populations. They didn't act on their own volition, rather they were forced to accept them by the European powers. It was not out of humanity that European politicians wished to abolish the degrading condition of the Christians; they promoted these reforms in order to prevent their seeking Russian help to liberate themselves from Ottoman oppression. 

 In the Serbian regions, the most fanatical opponents of Christian emancipation were the Muslims Bosniacs. They fought against the right of Christians to possess lands, and - in legal matters - to have rights equal to theirs. They opposed these reforms on the bases that under the old system, which gave them full domination over the Christians rayas, Muslims and Christians had lived for centuries in a convivial fraternity. And this argument is still used today by Bosniac President Izetbegovic, and others. He repeatedly affirms that the half millenium of Christian dhimmitude was a period of peace and religious harmony. 
 Let us now confront the myth with reality. I shall now quote a few facts from some of the documents in my forthcoming book.
 A systematic enquiry into the condition of the Christians was conducted in the 1860s by British consuls throughout the Ottoman Empire. Britain was then Turkey's strongest ally; it was in its interest to see that oppression of the Christians was eliminated, in order to prevent Russian or Austrian interference. 
 On July 22, 1860, Consul James Zohrab sent a lengthy report from Bosna-Serai (Sarajevo) to his ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Henry Bulwer, in which he analyzed the administration of the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He stated that from 1463 to 1850 the Bosniac Muslims enjoyed all the privileges of feudalism: "During a period of nearly 300 years Christians were subjected to much oppression and cruelty. For them no other law but the caprice of their masters existed." 

 Here we should remember the devshirme system, which is well known. Initiated by the Ottoman Sultan Orkhan (1326-1359), it existed for about 300 years. It consisted of a regular levy of Christian children from the Christian population of the Balkans. These youngsters, aged from fourteen to twenty, were Islamized and enslaved for military purposes. The periodic levies, which took place in contingents of a thousand, subsequently became annual. To discourage runaways, children were transferred to remote provinces and entrusted to Muslim masters, soldiers who treated them harshly, as slaves. Another parallel recruitment system operated: It provided for the levy of Christian children aged six to ten (ichoghlani), reserved for the sultan's palace. Entrusted to eunuchs, they underwent a tyrannical training for fourteen years. In Africa, a system of enslaving Black Christian and Animist children, similar to the devshirme existed, as is shown from documents to be published in my book. A sort of devshirme system still exists today in the Sudan and has been described and denounced by the United Nations Special Rapporteur Mr Gaspar Biro in his 1994 report, and by an article in The Times of London (Sudanese Christians 'sold as slaves', August 25, 1995) 
 In 1850, the Bosniac chiefs opposed the authority of the Porte and the reforms. They were defeated by the Sultan's army commanded by Omer Pasha, aided by the Christians. The corvées imposed by the Bosniac lords over their subjected Christian populations  were abolished, as well as their feudal privileges. The Christians hoped that the direct administration of the Porte would ameliorate their position, but they hardly benefited from it. Moreover, in spite of their assistance to the sultan's army they were disarmed, while the Muslims who fought the sultan could retain their weapons. Christians remained oppressed as before, although it was not permitted to treat them as formerly. Referring to the reform, Zohrab states: "I can safely say, (it) practically remains a dead letter".

 Discussing the impunity granted to the Muslims by the sultan, Consul Zohrab writes in the same report:
 "This impunity, while it does not extend to permitting the Christians to be treated as they formerly were treated, is so far unbearable and unjust in that it permits the Mussulmans to despoil them with heavy exactions. False imprisonments (imprisonment under false accusation) are of daily occurence.  A Christian has but a small chance of exculpating himself when his opponent is a Mussulman (...) Christian evidence, as a rule, is still refused (...) Christians are now permitted to possess real property, but the obstacles which they meet with when they attempt to acquire it are so many and vexatious that very few have as yet dared to brave them." 
 "Such being, generally speaking, the course pursued by the Government towards the Christians in the capital (Sarajevo) of the province where the Consular Agents of the different Powers reside and can exercise some degree of control, it may easily be guessed to what extend the Christians, in the remoter districts, suffer who are governed by Mudirs (governors) generally fanatical and unacquainted with the (new reforms of the) law."

 Concerning the acquisition of land - a new right for the Christians - he states:
 "(Although) a Christian can buy and take possession; it is when he has got his land into order, or when the Mussulman who has sold has overcome the pecuniary difficulties which compelled him to sell, that the Christian feels the helplessness of his position and the insincerity of the Government. Steps are then taken by the original proprietor, or some relatives of his, to reclaim the land from the Christian, generally on one of the following pleas: (...) that the deeds of transfer being defective, the sale had not been legally made. Under one or other of these pleas the Christian is in nineteen cases out of twenty dispossessed, and he may then deem himself fortunate if he gets back the price he gave. Few, a very few, have been able to obtain justice; but I must say that the majority of these owe their good fortune not to the justice of their cause, but to the influence of some powerful Mussulman."
 "Christian evidence in the Medjlises (provincial councils) is occasionally received, but as a rule is refused, either directly or indirectly, by reference to the Mehkemeh. Knowing this, the Christians generally come forward prepared with Mussulman witnesses. The cases in which Christian evidence has been refused are numerous". But, comments Zohrab, "twenty years ago, it is true, they had no laws beyond the caprice of their landlords (...) Cases of oppression are frequently the result of Mussulman fanaticism, but for these the (Turkish) Government must be held responsible, for if offenders were punished, oppression would of necessity become rare."

 By proclamation, in the spring of 1861, the sultan announced new reforms in Herzegovina, promising among other things freedom to build churches, the use of church bells and the opportunity for Christians to acquire land. Commenting on this from Bosna-Serai, Consul William Holmes wrote to Sir Henry Bulwer on May 21, l861, that those promises had been given often, without being applied. He mentions that the Serbs, the largest community, were refused the right to build a church in Bosna-Serai. 
 Concerning the right to buy land, he wrote: 
 "Every possible obstacle is still thrown in the way of the purchase of lands by Christians, and very often, after they have succeeded in purchasing and improving land, it is no secret that on one unjust pretext or another, it has been taken from them."
 From Belgrade, Consul Longworth wrote to Sir Henry Bulwer on July 14, 1860: "The Government may by its Edicts and Hatti-humayouns hasten and advance such a reform; but I question very much whether more evil than good will not arise from proclaiming a social equality which is, in the present stage of things and relations of society, morally impossible."

 "Equality before the law is that which must be first established; the only sort of equality, in fact, which can under existing circumstances, be realized. And in connection with this, we come to the complaint in the petition - the only tangible point in it - relative to the rejection of Christian evidence in the Ottoman tribunals. In this respect, it cannot be denied there is room for amendment, not only at Widdin, but in every province of the Empire."

 He then comments on "(...) the lax and vicious principle acted upon in the Mussulman Courts, where, as the only means of securing justice to Christians, Mussulman false witnesses are permitted to give evidence on their behalf. The abolition of this practice would do more than anything else to purify these tribunals; but this can only be effectually accomplished by the admission of Christian evidence, instead of Mussulman perjury, as a matter of legal necessity."

 He goes on to say that the forcible abduction of Christians girls by Mahometans, "and the question of Christian evidence are the two main points to which, as sources of bitter feeling and discussion, the attention of the Porte should now be directed."

 Comparing the condition of Christians in the different provinces, he states, " but in Bosnia the question of privilege was complicated by religious considerations, the nobles having, at a former period, embraced Mahometanism to preserve their estates, which were thus conditionally assured to them. Each of the other provinces had passed through its peculiar ordeal."

 From Consul Blunt - writing from Pristina on July 14, 1860, to his Ambassador, Sir Henry Bulwer, about the condition of the province of Macedonia - we learn that: "For a long time the province (of Uscup:Skopje) has been a prey to brigandage: Christian churches and monasteries, towns and inhabitants, are not now pillaged, massacred, and burnt by Albanian hordes as used to be done ten years ago." (...) "They (the Christians) are not allowed to carry arms. This, considering the want of a good police, exposes them the more to attacks from brigands."
 "Christian evidence in law-suits between a Mussulman and a non-Mussulman is not admitted in the Local Courts." 
 With a few examples, he then illustrated the consequences of such a system in everyday life:
 "About seventeen months ago a Turkish soldier murdered a Mahometan, an old man, who was working in his field. The only persons, two in number, who witnessed the deed are Christians. The Medjlis of Uscup would not take their evidence."
 "About the same time, a Zaptieh (soldier) tried by force to convert a Bulgarian girl to Islamism. As she declared before the Medjlis of Camanova (Kumanovo, near Skopje) that she would not abjure her religion, he killed her in the very precincts of the Mudir's house. This tragedy created great sensation in the province. The Medjlises of Camanova and Prisrend (near Kosovo) would not accept Christian evidence, and every effort was made to save the Zaptieh."
 "Six months ago a Bulgarian in the district of Camanova was attacked, without provocation on his part, by two Albanians. They wounded him severely; on the case being referred to Prisrend, the Medjlis refused to take congnizance of it, as the only evidence produced was Christian."

 Ten years ago, writes the consul: "Churches were not allowed to be built; and one can judge of the measure of toleration practised at that time by having had to creep under doors scarcely four feet high. It was an offence to smoke and ride before a Turk; to cross his path, or not stand up before him, was equally wrong."
 In his report from Constantinople of October 10, 1873, Sir Henry Elliot wrote to Foreign Secretary Earl Granville, "that the nominal equality of Mussulmans and Christians before the law, which had never thoroughly existed in practice, was now in most provinces more illusory than it had been a few years ago."

 In another report from Consul Edward Freeman in Bosna-Serai, dated December 30, 1875, we learn that the Bosnian Muslims had sent a petition to the sultan stating that, before the reforms, "they lived as brothers with the Rayah (Christian) population.  In fact their aim appears to reduce the Christians to their former ancient state of serfdom." So once again we are brought back to the myth. The situation didn't change, and in 1875 the Grand Vizier Mahmed Pasha admitted to the British ambassador in Constantinople, the "impossibility of allowing Christian testimony at courts of justice in Bosnia." Thus, the ambassador noted: "The professed equality of Christians and Mussulmans is, however, so illusory so long as this distinction is maintained."

 This juridical situation had serious consequences due to the system of justice, as he explained: "This is a point of much importance to the Christians for as the (Muslim) religious courts neither admit documentary nor written evidence, nor receive Christian evidence, they could hope for little justice from them."

 The difficulty of imposing reforms in such a vast empire provoked this disillusioned comment (December 12, 1875) from Sir P. Francis, consul-general and judge at the British Consular Court in Constantinople: "Indeed, the modern perversion of the Oriental idea of justice is a concession to a suitor through grace and favour, and not the declaration of a right, on principles of law, and in pursuance of equity." 

 When reading the literature of the time, we see that the obstruction to Serbian, Greek and other Christians movements of liberation was rooted in two main arguments:

 1) Christian dhimmis (rayas) are congenitally unfitted for independance and self-government. They should therefore remain under Islamic rule.

 2) The Ottoman rule is a perfect model for a multi-religious and multi-ethnical society. 

 Indeed, these are theological, Islamic arguments that justify the jihad, since all non-Muslim peoples should not retain political independance because their laws are evil and must eventually be replaced by Islamic rule. We find the same type of  reasoning in the Palestinian 1988 Covenant of the Hamas movement, which affirms that only Islamic rule can give peace and security to Jews and Christians. Those arguments are very common in legal and theological literature and are advanced by modern Islamists. 
 We have seen the origin of the myth, its political function and usefulness - and we have confronted this myth with the reality, described by contemporary observers in the nineteenth century. It is interesting to note the collusion between - on the one hand, the European powers defending the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire, for their own national interest; and on the other hand, the Muslim policy aiming at keeping under subjection the Christian population.

 The myth didn't die with the collapse of the Turkish Empire after World War I. Rather, it took another form: that of the National Arab Movement, which promoted an Arab society, in which Christians and Muslims would live in perfect harmony. Once again, this was the fabrication of European politicians, writers and clergyman. And, in the same way as the myth of the Ottoman political paradise was created to block the independence of the Balkan nations, so the Arab multi-religious fraternity was an argument to destroy the national liberation movements of non-Arab peoples of the Middle East (the Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Maronites, as well as that of the Jews). 

  And although from the beginning of this century until the 1930s, a stream of Christian refugees were fleeing massacres and genocide on the roads of Turkey, Irak and Syria, the myth continued to flourish, sustained mostly by Arab Christians writers and clergyman. After the Israelis had succeeded in liberating their land from the laws of jihad and dhimmitude, the myth reappeared in the form of a multi-cultural and multi-religious, fraternal Palestine which had to replace the State of Israel (Arafat's 1975 UN speech). Its pernicious effects led to the destruction of the Christians in Lebanon. 
 One might have thought that the myth would end there, but suddenly the recent crisis in Yugoslavia offered a new chance for its reincarnation in a Muslim-dominated, multi-religious, multi-ethnic state. What a chance! A Muslim state again in the heartland of Europe. And we know the rest, the sufferings, the miseries, the trials of the war that this myth once again brought in its wake. The 1992 UN decision to recognize a "multi-ethnic", "multi-religious", Muslim state in the former Yugoslavia appears to have been a compensation offered to the Islamic world for the devastating 1991 Gulf War. The destruction of Iraq's nuclear, chemical and bacteriological arsenal, as well as its economic infrastructure, appears to be "equitably" counterbalanced by NATO's massive bombing of the Bosnian Serbs, even though the two situations cannot be compared. 

 To conclude, I would like to say a few last words. The civilization of dhimmitude does not develop all at once. It is a long process that involves many elements and a specific mental conditioning. It happens when peoples replace history by myths, when they fight to uphold these destructive myths, more then their own values because they are confused by having transformed lies into truth. They hold to those myths as if they were the only garantee for their survival, when, in fact, they are the path to destruction. Terrorized by the evidence and teaching of history, those peoples prefer to destroy it rather than to face  it. They replace history with childish tales, thus living in amnesia, inventing moral justification for their own self-destruction.

© Bat Ye'or 2001