Dhimmitude and The Doyen

Dhimmitude and The Doyen
By Dr. Andrew Bostom

Recently, multiple deserving tributes to Bernard Lewis’ career as a scholar, and public intellectual, have been written in celebration of this remarkable nonagenarian (see here for example  )—the latest by Reuel Gerecht  appearing in the Wednesday May 31, 2006 online edition of The Weekly Standard, coincided exactly with his 90th birthday. Gerecht, in his lavish praise, maintains that Lewis,

…has attained a stature in the field and with the general reading public unrivaled by any historian, living or dead, of the Middle East and Islam. His range of writings—from the pre-Islamic period, through Islam’s classical and medieval ages and its premodern “gunpowder” empires, to today’s Muslim nation-states—is simply unparalleled by any other scholar, even from the golden age of Islamic studies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the field’s terrifyingly erudite, multilingual European founding fathers—the much despised “orientalists”—bestrode the earth. Lewis is the last and greatest of the orientalists…

Whether or not one accepts all of Gerecht’s assertions, there can be little debate regarding Lewis’ “unrivaled” current stature, particularly as a public intellectual. And in discussing how Lewis’ views have evolved over his enduring and illustrious career, Gerecht highlights a striking example:

In 1945, for example, Lewis was not in favor of a Jewish state in Palestine; today, he is, seeing Israel as one of the things that has gone more right than wrong in the region.

Gerecht might have also cited the evolution of Lewis’ thought on the Muslim conception of freedom, or “hurriyya”. At present, Lewis worries,

The war against terror and the quest for freedom are inextricably linked, and neither can succeed without the other. The struggle is no longer limited to one or two countries, as some Westerners still manage to believe. It has acquired first a regional then a global dimension, with profound consequences for all of us. . . . If freedom fails and terror triumphs, the peoples of Islam will be the first and greatest victims. They will not be alone, and many others will suffer with them.

Previously, analyzing hurriyya/freedom for the venerable Encyclopedia of Islam, Lewis discussed this concept in the latter phases of the Ottoman Empire, through the contemporary era. After highlighting a few “cautious” or “conservative” (Lewis’ characterization) reformers and their writings, Lewis maintains,

…there is still no idea that the subjects have any right to share in the formation or conduct of government—to political freedom, or citizenship, in the sense which underlies the development of political thought in the West. While conservative reformers talked of freedom under law, and some Muslim rulers even experimented with councils and assemblies government was in fact becoming more and not less arbitrary…

Lewis also makes the important point that Western colonialism ameliorated this chronic situation:

During the period of British and French domination, individual freedom was never much of an issue. Though often limited and sometimes suspended, it was on the whole more extensive and better protected than either before or after. [emphasis added]

And Lewis concludes with a stunning observation, when viewed in light of the present travails in Iraq and throughout the Muslim world, as well as his own evolved views:

In the final revulsion against the West, Western democracy too was rejected as a fraud and a delusion, of no value to Muslims.

In stark contrast, Lewis’ views have remained unchanged on the subject of the plight of those non-Muslims living under Islamic rule—what Bat Ye’or’s own remarkable scholarship has characterized with painstaking elegance as the civilization of dhimmitude (here, and here).  Writing in 1974 ( vol. 2, p.217) Lewis maintained,

The dhimma on the whole worked well. The non-Muslims managed to thrive under Muslim rule, and even to make significant contributions to Islamic civilization. The restrictions were not onerous, and were usually less severe in practice than in theory. As long as the non-Muslim communities accepted and conformed to the status of tolerated subordination assigned to them, they were not troubled. The rare outbreaks of repression or violence directed against them are almost always the consequence of a feeling that they have failed to keep their place and honor their part of the covenant. The usual cause was the undue success of Christians or Jews in penetrating to positions of power and influence which Muslims regarded as rightly theirs. The position of the non-Muslims deteriorated during and after the Crusades and the Mongol invasions, partly because of the general heightening of religious loyalties and rivalries, partly because of the well-grounded suspicion that they were collaborating with the enemies of Islam.

More recently, Lewis in a rather flippant pronouncement, characterized the conception of “dhimmi-tude” (derisively hyphenated, as he wrote it), “…subservience and persecution and ill treatment” of Jews, specifically, under Islamic rule, as a “myth”.

The late S.D. Goitein (d. 1985), was a Professor Emeritus of the Hebrew University, scholar at The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a contemporary of Lewis. The New York Times obituary for Professor Goitein (published on February 10, 1985) noted, appositely, that his seminal (and prolific) writings on Islamic culture, and Muslim-Jewish relations, were “…standard works for scholars in both fields”. Here is what Goitein wrote (from, S.D. Goitein. “Minority Self-rule and Government Control in Islam” Studia Islamica, No. 31, 1970, pp. 101, 104-106) on the subject of non-Muslim dhimmis under Muslim rule, i.e., dhimmitude, circa 1970:

…a great humanist and contemporary of the French Revolution, Wilhelm von Humboldt, defined as the best state one which is least felt and restricts itself to one task only: protection, protection against attack from outside and oppression from within…in general, taxation [by the Muslim government] was merciless, and a very large section of the population must have lived permanently at the starvation level. From many Geniza   letters one gets the impression that the poor were concerned more with getting money for the payment of their taxes than for food and clothing, for failure of payment usually induced cruel punishment… the Muslim state was quite the opposite of the ideals propagated by Wilhelm von Humboldt or the principles embedded in the constitution of the United States. An Islamic state was part of or coincided with dar al-Islam, the House of Islam. Its treasury was mal al-muslumin, the money of the Muslims. Christians and Jews were not citizens of the state, not even second class citizens. They were outsiders under the protection of the Muslim state, a status characterized by the term dhimma, for which protection they had to pay a poll tax specific to them. They were also exposed to a great number of discriminatory and humiliating laws…As it lies in the very nature of such restrictions, soon additional humiliations were added, and before the second century of Islam was out, a complete body of legislation in this matter was in existence…In times and places in which they became too oppressive they lead to the dwindling or even complete extinction of the minorities.

Bat Ye’or’s own extensive analyses of the dhimmi condition for both Jews and Christians published (in English) in 1985   and 1996, are summarized here:

..These examples are intended to indicate the general character of a system of oppression, sanctioned by contempt and justified by the principle of inequality between Muslims and dhimmis…Singled out as objects of hatred and contempt by visible signs of discrimination, they were progressively decimated during periods of massacres, forced conversions, and banishments. Sometimes it was the prosperity they had achieved through their labor or ability that aroused jealousy; oppressed and stripped of all their goods, the dhimmi often emigrated.”

…in many places and at many periods [through] the nineteenth century, observers have described the wearing of discriminatory clothing, the rejection of dhimmi testimony, the prohibitions concerning places of worship and the riding of animals, as well as fiscal charges- particularly the protection charges levied by nomad chiefs- and the payment of the jizya…Not only was the dhimma imposed almost continuously, for one finds it being applied in the nineteenth century Ottoman Empire…and in Persia, the Maghreb, and Yemen in the early twentieth century, but other additional abuses, not written into the laws, became absorbed into custom, such as the devshirme, the degrading corvees (as hangmen or gravediggers), the abduction of Jewish orphans (Yemen), the compulsory removal of footware (Morocco, Yemen), and other humiliations…The recording in multiple sources of eye-witness accounts, concerning unvarying regulations affecting the Peoples of the Book, perpetuated over the centuries from one end of the dar al-Islam to the other…proves sufficiently their entrenchment in customs.

Thus it is not surprising that in a letter (personal communication) dated April 7, 1977 hand written to Bat Ye’or and her historian husband, referring to their earliest (French and English) writings (see for examples, Les Juifs en Egypte Geneva: Editions de l’Avenir, 1971, and thisthisthis this), Goitein wrote,

I do not think our opinions on the history of the dhimmi differ widely. It is merely a difference of emphasis

Another seminal modern scholar of Islamic civilization, Speros Vryonis Jr. , endorses Bat Ye’or’s (see this, p. 115) negative view of the Ottoman devshirme-janissary system  which, from the mid to late 14th, through early 18th centuries, enslaved and forcibly converted to Islam an estimated 500,000 to one million non-Muslim (primarily Balkan Christian) adolescent males. Lewis’ divergent characterization  portrays this institution as a benign form of social advancement, jealously pined for by “ineligible” Ottoman Muslim families:

The role played by the Balkan Christian boys recruited into the Ottoman service through the devshirme is well known. Great numbers of them entered the Ottoman military and bureaucratic apparatus, which for a while came to be dominated by these new recruits to the Ottoman state and the Muslim faith. This ascendancy of Balkan Europeans into the Ottoman power structure did not pass unnoticed, and there are many complaints from other elements, sometimes from the Caucasian slaves who were their main competitors, and more vocally from the old and free Muslims, who felt slighted by the preference given to the newly converted slaves

Vryonis rejects categorically Lewis’s celebratory assessment with these deliberately understated, but cogent observations :

…in discussing the devshirme we are dealing with the large numbers of Christians who, in spite of the material advantages offered by conversion to Islam, chose to remain members of a religious society which was denied first class citizenship. Therefore the proposition advanced by some historians, that the Christians welcomed the devshirme as it opened up wonderful opportunities for their children, is inconsistent with the fact that these Christians had not chosen to become Muslims in the first instance but had remained Christians…there is abundant testimony to the very active dislike with which they viewed the taking of their children. One would expect such sentiments given the strong nature of the family bond and given also the strong attachment to Christianity of those who had not apostacized to Islam…First of all the Ottomans capitalized on the general Christian fear of losing their children and used offers of devshirme exemption in negotiations for surrender of Christian lands. Such exemptions were included in the surrender terms granted to Jannina, Galata, the Morea, Chios, etc…Christians who engaged in specialized activities which were important to the Ottoman state were likewise exempt from the tax on their children by way of recognition of the importance of their labors for the empire…Exemption from this tribute was considered a privilege and not a penalty…

…there are other documents wherein their [i.e., the Christians] dislike is much more explicitly apparent. These include a series of Ottoman documents dealing with the specific situations wherein the devshirmes themselves have escaped from the officials responsible for collecting them…A firman…in 1601 [regarding the devshirme] provided  the [Ottoman] officials with stern measures of enforcement,  a fact which would seem to suggest that parents were not always disposed to part with their sons.

‘..to enforce the command of the known and holy fetva [fatwa] of Seyhul [Shaikh]- Islam. In accordance with this whenever some one of the infidel parents or some other should oppose the giving up of his son for the Janissaries, he is immediately hanged from his door-sill, his blood being deemed unworthy.’

Perhaps most concerning in the realm of dhimmitude have been Lewis’ inexplicably evolved views on the jihad genocide of the Armenians. His renowned The Emergence of Modern Turkey originally published in 1962 (reissued in 1968 and 2002), includes these characterizations of the mass killings of the Armenians by the Turks in 1894-96, 1909, and 1915:

(1894-96, p. 202) The Armenian participants mindful of the massacres of 1894-96, were anxious to seek the intervention of the European powers as a guarantee of effective reforms in the Ottoman Empire [in the 20th century].

(1909, p. 216) With suspicious simultaneity a wave of outbreaks spread across Anatolia. Particularly bad were the events of the Adana district, which culminated in the massacre of thousands of Armenians…While Europe was appalled by Turkish brutality, Muslim opinion was shocked by what seemed to them the insolence of the Armenians and the hypocrisy of Christian Europe. The Turks were, however, well aware of the painful effects produced by these massacres in Europe, which had not yet forgotten the horrors of the Hamidian repression [i.e, the 1894-96 massacres]

(1915, p. 356) Now a desperate struggle between them [i.e., the Turks and Armenians] began, a struggle between two nations for the possession of a single homeland, that ended with the terrible holocaust of 1915, when a million and a half Armenians perished.

Thus when Lewis wrote his authoritative history of modern Turkey, he understood, and made explicit, that the Armenians had been massacred under successive Ottoman governments in 1894-96, and 1909. Moreover, he maintains that the Armenians were subjected in 1915 to a “holocaust”, during which 1.5 million “perished”. By 1985, however, Lewis was the most prominent signatory on a petition to the US Congress protesting the effort to make April 24 – the date the Armenians commemorate the victims of the genocide – a nationwide Armenian-American memorial day, which would include the mention of man’s inhumanity to man. Both this petition drive and a simultaneous high profile media advertisement campaign were financed by the Committee of the Turkish Association. Vryonis  has raised, unabashedly, the appropriate questions and accompanying concerns regarding Lewis’ actions:

When was Professor Lewis expressing an objective opinion: when he wrote the book [i.e., The Emergence of Modern Turkey, 1962/68 versions], or when he signed the political ad? To phrase it more bluntly, what shall we believe? Certainly, the data available to him in the writing of the book were sufficiently clear and convincing for him to proceed to these three clear and unequivocal statements [i.e., describing the 1894-96, and 1909 events as massacres of the Armenians by the Turks, and the 1915 slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks as a holocaust]. What had changed? The subject had entered the sphere of politics, and Prof. Lewis, along with so many other signers of the ad, had decided to take sides where their economic, professional, personal, and emotional interests lay: with the Turkish government, and not with history.*

Furthermore, during the past decade, as Yair Auron has observed, when Lewis was requested, 

 …to make available the academic research published in recent years, which, in his professional opinion, constitute the basis for the change from his original position to his new position that there was no state-planned or administered genocide/mass murder of the Armenians…Lewis did not respond to this demand, even though he noted that letters to him and his reply would be published.

 Auron’s final assessment is apt:

 Lewis’ stature [has] provided a lofty cover for the Turkish national agenda of obfuscating academic research on the Armenian Genocide.

Lewis’ wildly fluctuating opinions aside, a consensus among bona fide genocide scholars has emerged which is consistent with Richard Rubenstein’s conclusion from 1975, that the 1915 Turkish massacre of the Armenians was, 

 …the first full-fledged attempt by a modern state to practice disciplined, methodically organized genocide

And Bat Ye’or reminds us why the Armenian genocide was a jihad genocide committed against a non-Muslim people “violating” the ancient dhimma, a “…breach…[which] restored to the umma [the Muslim community] its initial right to kill the subjugated minority [the dhimmis], [and] seize their property…”. Moreover, the massacres,

were perpetrated solely by Muslims and they alone profited from the booty: the victims’ property, houses, and lands granted to the muhajirun, and the allocation to them of women, and child slaves. The elimination of male children over the age of twelve was in accordance with the commandments of the jihad and conformed to the age fixed for the payment of the jizya. The four stages of the liquidation – deportation, enslavement, forced conversion, and massacre – reproduced the historic conditions of the jihad carried out in the dar-al-harb from the seventh century on. Chronicles from a variety of sources, by Muslim authors in particular, give detailed descriptions of the organized massacres or deportation of captives, whose sufferings in forced marches behind the armies paralleled the Armenian experience in the twentieth century.

Bernard Lewis possesses an enormous fund of knowledge regarding Islamic civilization accrued over a distinguished career of more than six decades of serious scholarship. A gifted linguist, non-fiction prose writer, and teacher, Lewis shares his understanding of Muslim societies in both written and oral presentations, with singular economy and eloquence. These are extraordinary attributes for which Lewis richly deserves the accolades lavished upon him in the recent spate of 90th birthday homages. And even Lewis’ detractors cannot deny his deep seated affection and genuine concern for the Muslim world. For example, Ian Buruma sees Lewis’ cheerleading role in relation to the war in Iraq as a manifestation of this phenomenon:

…perhaps he loves it too much. It is a common phenomenon among Western students of the Orient to fall in love with a civilization….  His beloved civilization is sick. And what would be more heartwarming to an old Orientalist than to see the greatest Western democracy cure the benighted Muslim?

But Lewis’ remarkable contributions are diminished by a yawning gap in his understanding of dhimmitude, including an apparent unwillingness to even acknowledge this uniquely Islamic institution. His myriad works and addresses are largely devoid of the concerns for the dhimmis—past (here, and here) present (here), and ominously, future (here)—Lewis freely expresses for their Muslim overlords. This critical limitation and its implications must also be recognized by all those for whom Lewis remains an iconic source of information, and advice.

* Note: The 2002 edition of The Emergence of Modern Turkey, p. 356, reads:

Now a desperate struggle between them [i.e., the Turks and Armenians] began, a struggle between two nations for the possession of a single homeland, that ended with the terrible slaughter of 1915, when, according to estimates, more than a million Armenians perished, as well as an unknown number of Turks.

In this revised text, “slaughter” replaces “holocaust”, the estimate of the Armenians who “perished” is changed from 1.5 million to “according to estimates, more than a million”, and a concluding remark is added referring to the “unknown number of Turks” who also perished in the putative struggle for possession of a single homeland. Peter Balakian makes these germane observations (from, The Burning Tigris, New York, 2003, p. 432, note 25):

…without any substantiation, Lewis dispense of the Armenian Genocide in a couple of sentences, calling it a ‘a struggle between two nations for the possession of a single homeland’. Lewis never explains how an unarmed, Christian ethnic minority in the Ottoman Empire could be fairly called a ‘nation’, that could engage in a ‘struggle’ with a world power (the Ottoman Empire) for a single homeland. In a recent interview, There Was No Genocide: Interview with Prof. Bernard Lewis, by Dalia Karpel, Ha’aretz (Jerusalem, January 23, 1998), Lewis asserts that the massacres of the Armenians were not the result ‘of a deliberate preconceived decision of the Turkish government’. These evasions are aimed at trivializing the Armenian Genocide.

Andrew Bostom is the author of The Legacy of Jihad.


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