THE INTERNATIONAL STRATEGIC STUDIES ASSOCIATION
ON THE BALKAN WAR
YUGOSLAVIA: PAST AND PRESENT
Dinner Address delivered on 31 August 1995 by
BAT YE'OR *
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 Muslim countries, where Islamic law - the shari'a - had been replaced by modern juridiction imposed by the European colonizing powers, were abandoning the secularizing trend, replacing it with Islamization in numerous sectors of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).
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.
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.
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.
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,
the impunity granted to the Muslims by the sultan, Consul Zohrab writes
in the same report:
the acquisition of land - a new right for the Christians - he states:
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.
"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."
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."
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 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.
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.
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.
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