Persecution of Jews and Christians
Testimony vs. Silence

Bat Ye’or

     (Respondents: George Weigel and Paul Marshall)
Ethics and Public Policy Center                             2 April 1998
(President: Elliott Abrams)
1015 Fifteenth St., N.W. 
Washington, D.C. 20005

 "...I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked;
but that the wicked turn from his way and live..." (Ezekiel 33:11)

Ladies and Gentlemen,

     I wish to thank Elliott Abrams for giving me the privilege of sharing with you some reflections on the meaning of Testimony vs. Silence. But we must first ask ourselves - testimony about what? And also - testifying for which purpose? 
     To answer the first question, we can say that the Bible - to mention but this aspect - testifies to a supra-human and an immanent order of values or, more simply, to a divine presence within the universe and humanity. The divine spirit abolished chaos, fixed the limits in human behavior of what is allowed and what cannot be transgressed on the base of the universal sanctity of the human being, as announced in Genesis 1:27: "in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." The immanence of the divine in man creates an alliance, a partnership between God and man, a dual responsibility freely accepted by man, for keeping or testifying to these supreme ethical norms based on the sanctity of all humans, which cannot be transgressed. The Bible illustrates the constant struggle between the testifier, and the destroyer of life or the hater of man. 
     In the context of my remarks today, the meaning of "testimony" is to stand up against a tyrant, to denounce injustice and to proclaim the dignity of all humanity. Although the testifier gives testimony because he has to do so and cannot escape from this duty, his act implies an inherently optimistic hope and faith in man - the hope that the heart of the tyrant will change. With the words in the Psalm: "I will speak of thy testimonies also before kings, and will not be ashamed." (119:46) 
     In the long, sad, and painful history of the Judeo-Christian relationship, the people of Israel has always assumed the role of the witness or testifier, not because it is any better than others, but because history made them victims of dehumanizing laws. This is the well-known status of Jewry in Europe that was abolished at the French Revolution of 1789, and later, in the 19 century, throughout Western Europe. Because of the Jewish roots of Christianity, this tradition of dialogue and of the contestation of power was integrated into the dynamic of history. The emancipation of European Jewry was a Christian political decision, made on humanitarian principles - the Jews later joining in the fight for the equality of civil rights. Because Jews and Christians claim the same ethical values of the Bible, Christians raised their voices against the deliberate dehumanizing policy of the people who had first proclaimed their knowledge of God. Jewish testimony was joined, promoted, and sustained by a Christian engagement. Before, during and after the Shoah, this partnership held firm despite overwhelming hatred and cruelty. Since then, Christian engagement in a redemptive work within the Church has become more forceful.
     But testifying is no easy task, as it also brings persecution, loneliness and despair. Challenging "Evil," unveiling it from behind its ubiquitous masks is dangerous, an unending life struggle. For the lonely, surviving, remnant of Israel, constantly bearing testimony to the Shoah in an indifferent world was an agonizing process. In a world of ashes, Jews unceasingly proclaimed the dignity and sanctity of man. And they were not alone in testifying. Many Christians joined them: writers, theologians, and anonymous voices too. Jews and Christians testified together. The result of this common action, what I consider as a common prayer - by acts and deeds - led to the revolutionary theological transformation of Church dogma concerning the Jews. By testifying together, Jews and Christians initiated profound spiritual changes. One might even say that through the very act of the rehumanization of the Jewish victim, the Church rehumanized itself in an internal process of humility, thereby deepening its own theological reflexion.

 * * * * *

    Now, if we turn to the Islamic lands, we found a very different situation, where Jews and Christians often declare their "gratitude" to the Islamic society, and yet few Jews exist today in Arab-Muslim lands and the Christians are on that same road of exile. By the early 19th century, Judaism was nearly extinguished in Palestine, the very cradle of Jewish history and civilization. A similar historic process was at work for Eastern Christianity, whose roots are in the Middle East, nowadays usually referred to as Arab-Muslim lands. Except for the Copts of Egypt who still form a sizeable minority, Christianity would hardly have survived in its Oriental homeland - especially in Palestine - without the permanent support and protection of Europe. 
    Islamic law, the shari'a, provides "protection" and security for the People of the Book - the Bible; it is indeed a basic theological principle. However, Muslim theologians and jurists attached so many conditions and humiliations to this real protection that the status of the protected Jews and Christians - the dhimmis - soon became a status of oppression, deprivation and insecurity. 
    This status was regulated by several laws that bound them within a social pattern of discriminations and insecurity. Instead of "Islamic tolerance," or of "toleration," I have called this vast political, religious and cultural world - from Arabia to Spain and the Balkans, including for some time, part of Hungary and Poland - the realm of "dhimmitude," from the Arabic word dhimma: a treaty of submission for those peoples conquered by jihad. The laws that were applied to the dhimmis, I have called the laws of "dhimmitude," and the special type of civilization that dhimmis developed, I have call the civilization of dhimmitude. 
     The civilization of dhimmitude is based on two main elements: jihad - that is, a compulsory religious war of conquest that brings non-Muslim lands into the realm of Islam; and the subjugation of its native populations. In other words, the choice is between perpetual war or submission. The civilization of dhimmitude developed in the context of subjugation and insecurity. Its main features were the payment of the jizya, a koranic tribute that became a poll-tax. For early Muslim jurists, the jizya had two purposes: to enrich the umma, the Islamic community; and a symbolic meaning: it suspended the jihad threat, which was death, slavery or the expulsion of non-Muslims. The payment of the jizya procured for the dhimmi the security for his life, his family and his personal possessions. One important aspect of dhimmitude is the principle of the dhimmi's inferiority to Muslims in every walk of life. This civilization of dhimmitude expanded on three continents, representing millions of peoples. Over the centuries, populations and entire civilizations disappeared, or barely survived. The civilization of dhimmitude is composed of numerous ethnic groups, mainly Christian, and rival Eastern Churches. Documentation abound, and a few sources may be found in my books. 
    The civilization of dhimmitude is based on the principle of "protection," which is the security for life and property pledged by a Muslim ruler to non-Muslims, who are subjected to certain conditions - tribute money, or as a temporary protection (aman). This concept implies that the right to security of life and property are denied to non-Muslims and are only granted by the Muslim community according to its own conditions. In other words, the principle of natural rights for all human beings is denied. The civilization of dhimmitude is engendered by wars and conquest. 
    Today, Eastern Christianity looks as if it will disappear from the very cradle of its birthplace, the Middle East, and one may well ask: Is there an adequate Christian "testimony" of this drama? Let us see how the various peoples of dhimmitude conceive their own history. The Greeks recounted their trials under the Turkish yoke; Serbs did the same in the pre-communist era, as well as Hungarians, Bulgarians and other Balkan peoples. The Armenians have written abundantly on the Armenian genocide. Yet, the Chaldean Assyrians of Iraq have hardly protested against their tribulations. Although the Copts testified from the beginning of the century, few in the West paid much attention to their grievances. Recently, Coptic Associations in America and Canada have succeeded in having their courageous protests published in the national press about the sufferings of their people and the abuses of their fundamental human rights. Lebanese Christianity fought, suffered and succumbed with little protests coming from Europe or America. The Sudanese Christians still suffer from an Islamic regime: jihad and slavery, abduction, force conversions and destruction have been their lot for decades and only recently have their cries bess heard. Last year, a Christian Coalition for the defence of oppressed Eastern Churches began a human rights campaign here in Washington. Only last week, Paul Marshall, my husband, and I were in Columbia, South Carolina, participating with others at the First National Conference on the Persecuted Church, titled "Shattering the Silence," which drew an audience of several hundreds nationwide.   So we see that there are peoples who are still subjected nowadays to dhimmitude. A whole Judeo-Christian, Aramaic civilization from pre-Islamic times is slowly agonizing, while a profound silence prevails. Recently, a handful of books have been written on the subject in French, but generally there is an unwritten consensus to praise the historico-religious record of "Islamic tolerance" toward non-Muslims. Let me ennumerate some of the reasons that have lead to this: 

 Causes related to the Muslim society:
    1.  The idea that Jews and Christians have suffered under Islamic law is totally rejected by the dominant group - the Muslims, and this for several reasons based on theological grounds:
    a) Islamic law cannot be defective since it must be perfect, being considered a divine law. Therefore it cannot be unjust and the suffering of infidels under that rule is deserved since it represent the justice of Allah.
    b) The shari'a should not be criticized, and Christians and Jews cannot say it has any defect whatsoever.
    c) While, in the Bible, the religious function should be separated from the political one, in Islam political and religious power must be united. The non-separation of politic and religion confer a fixed religious and sacred caracter to politics. 
    d) An absence of Muslim support on behalf of dhimmis since the conception of their relations with non-Muslims is determined by the principles of jihad and protection, which granted to the Muslims the feeling of being generous. Without this "passport" of protection (aman), no harbi - the name for all non-Muslims from the dar al-harb, the region of war - could enter the dar al-Islam, the region of Islam, unless he accepted to become a dhimmi.

 Causes related to the dhimmis:
    The divisions and conflicts between the diverse dhimmi churches. Any protests against the oppression of the laws implies a minimum of consensus between Armenians, Maronites, Assyrians, Copts, Melchites, Greeks and the Slavonic Churches. Since the laws of "dhimmitude" applied equally to Jews and Christians, this also required a consensus with the Jews, and this was impossible for the Eastern Churches.
    There are other reasons to explain this political impotence: the vulnerability of small, insecure, Christian communities; the religious leadership's subserviance to the Muslim power; their economical interests; the total and deliberate obfuscation of their dhimmi past.

 Causes related to the Western powers:
    Here we can mention the pro-Islamic policy of the Western powers; their economic interests in the Muslim world; the all-too-frequent concealement of the truth by the media and Western governments; and their deliberate refusal to transmit this local reality to the public for fear: 1) of Muslim terrorism; 2) anti-Islamic reactions in the West; 3) economical and political retaliations from Muslim countries. 

    Denouncing the injustice of dhimmitude meant a feeling of solidarity with all its victims - Christians of all denominations, and with Jews. It meant having the profound conviction that all men are equal, and that no one should be demonized. Laws that were unjust for Christians cannot be considered "just" for Jews - unless Jews had first to be demonized. Testifying to the great tragedy of dhimmitude implied a sense of togetherness that never existed.
    I am convinced that Christian involvement in the Arab-Islamic jihad, first against Zionism in the late 19th century, and then against Israel - throughout this century - was the main cause for the obfuscation of dhimmi history and the lack of testimony about the sufferings of Christian dhimmis. The source of all Evil had to be projected onto Zionism and Israel, whereas it is an historic fact that the causes for Christian oppression in the East are rooted in the doctrine of jihad and in the laws and civilization of dhimmitude. Because the trials and tribulations of Christians in Islamic countries and their causes - the rules of dhimmitude - had to be hidden, dhimmi Christian history became a well-guarded secret, a secret that had to be concealed and never revealed. The Islamic-Christian alliance in an anti-Zionist Crusade led the Christians to testify against Israel. And because the significance of the restoration of Israel in this region of the world symbolizes the abolition of jihad and of the laws of dhimmitude, the engagement of Christians in the anti-Israel jihad has contributed to the decline of Christianity itself.
    Let me conclude these brief remarks on a complicated subject. It is this lack of testimony that has brought back the evils and the prejudices of the past - the jihad mentality, and the laws of dhimmitude that were only abolished by the colonial European powers. And now, more and more, because of this lack of testimony, we see moderate Muslims themselves being persecuted. Because they were indifferent to the humiliation of Jews and Christians, because they remained silent and aloof, they now find themselves - in Algeria, Egypt, and elsewhere - suffering from cruel injustices and barbarism. Testifying together, giving testimony against dhimmitude, would have allowed Muslim intellectuals to rethink their whole relationship with the People of the Bible - and with all non-Muslims, and this without renouncing their faith. Such an attitude would have brought all of us together in the fight against tyrannical oppression, against the process of dehumanization. This is what could had been done and what was not done.

* Bat Ye'or is the author of The Dhimmi. Jews and Christians under Islam (1985, 4th pr. 1996) & The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. From Jihad to Dhimmitude. 7th to 20th Century (1996) Email

© Bat Ye'or 2001


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