Monday, February 06, 2006

Moderate Muslims as Dhimmi

Stacey Philbrick over at al-Hiwar: Words Matter has an interesting post about dhimmitude and how we understand the ways that Western nations attempt to cope with their Islamic populations. I must confess that I was unfamiliar with the term dhimmi, so all of my information regarding it comes from the links she provides. Given her expertise, I'll assume that her links are reputable.

As I understand it, dhimmi are non-Muslims living in Muslim areas who compromise certain principles in order to be protected by/from the dominant Muslim population (I trust if this is an inaccurate understanding my kind readers will comment with corrections). Her post comments on the idea that a particular anti-Islamic website labels countries where no one has reprinted the cartoons at the center of the current violence as "Neutral/Dhimmi" (map here). She takes issue with the idea that refraining from reprinting the cartoons is a tacit agreement to be subjugated to Muslim dominance.

I started thinking about the concept of dhimmitude, a new idea for me, and I began to wonder about the constant complaints of Western media that moderate Muslims often fail to speak out forcefully against violence. Occasionally, they do, as CAIR did on this issue (yes, I know that CAIR tried to recast the issue as one of "incitement," but given how often CAIR speaks with a forked tongue, I think their press release was about as strong as we could hope for). Nevertheless, if moderate Muslims are in the majority, they certainly seem to speak sotto voce compared to the amplified voices of their more radical compatriots.

I think often this leads non-Muslims in the West to assume that there really isn't any such thing as a "moderate" Muslim -- just violent, death cultists who occasionally restrain their rhetoric when on TV. Perhaps a better way to construct our thinking would be to temper it with the idea of dhimmitude, in which moderate Muslims take on the de facto position of dhimmi within a more totalitarian Islamicist community. Since my understanding of dhimmi is that the term properly only refers to non-Muslims, let me call this community the pseudo-dhimmis.

Let me give you a couple of examples of pseudo-dhimmi moments. Once I was talking to a Muslim student, and she was very shocked. She had just discovered that one of her classmates was a Wahabbist. Apparently, her home country had very few Wahabbis. "Those guys are crazy," she whispered. "I'm going to have to watch out for him." From that point forward, the student never spoke in class -- instead she would come to my office after class to ask questions. She was afraid, as a woman, to answer questions I posed in the presence of her Wahabbi classmate. This seems to me to be a pseudo-dhimmi moment, in which a moderate Muslim acquiesced to domination by a more radical Muslim out of fear of confrontation or violence.

Or, here was another pseudo-dhimmi moment. I was teaching a literature class that involved readings from the Koran. I have often had to excuse more conservative Muslim students from the assignment since it involved reading the Koran in translation (translating the Koran is forbidden by some more conservative sects), and they could not read it in the original language. When I was teaching in the Detroit area (with a very large Muslim population) this occasionally resulted in the bizarre situation in which I would be teaching the Koran only to non-Muslims, with all the Muslims adopting to do a research paper instead. In any case, on one occasion I had a Muslim student who came to my office to confess that he had been secretly reading the Koran, and he wanted to ask me some questions about it. I told him that I'm a Christian and not particularly knowledgable about Islam beyond literary issues, and suggested instead that he go ask one of his own clergy some of the thorny theological questions he was posing to me. The young man became horrified that they might find out that he had read the Koran in translation, and made me promise not to reveal to anyone what he had done. A Muslim studying Islam in secret from other Muslims seems to me to be a pseudo-dhimmi moment.

What I am suggesting is that possibility that many, perhaps most, Muslims oppose the rioting and arson that we see around the world at the moment, but as pseudo-dhimmi, they exist under the domination of more radical Muslims, and so must make compromises for a relatively peaceful co-existence. They would like to speak out but, like my students, refrain from comment out of fear of condemnation or violence.

I suppose one might also take the idea of the pseudo-dhimmi to claim that Muslims living in non-Islamic territory moderate their rhetoric only because they are the counterparts of the dhimmi in Islamic lands, and are at heart radical death cultists -- but I prefer the more charitable interpretation.


  1. This is an interesting concept, and I think that you're on to something: the pseudo-dhimmi. Or perhaps "para-dhimmi"?

    We ought to keep in mind that most Muslims consist of converts who belonged to populations that had perhaps lived for several hundred years as dhimmis before converting. The dhimmi mentality probably had become a cultural habit, a behavioral reflex.

    So, they dare not speak out.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. This is an interesting post, Scott. What you're describing may be the conundrum of moderates in other spheres as well. For example, it's hard for many casual Democrats or Republicans to admit that the other side occasionally has a point; they don't want to be branded as traitors or for anyone to wrongly assume (and declare) that they buy into everything "the enemy" believes. Under those conditions, a workplace or neighborhood could become fraught with tension, even if the possibility of violence is remote or non-existent. Throw in genuine threats by suicidal lunatics and most of us might not be all that brave either. I suspect that this is an even bigger problem for moderate Muslims in Europe than it is in the States.

  3. Jeff,

    I had thought about the application of the concept of dhimmitude to other spheres also, but I decided not to discuss it because it seemed less appropriate when taken out of its original cultural context (and, more importantly, the post was already pretty long). But you're right -- this idea could be broadened a great deal.

  4. While I do think that this discussion is very astute, I wonder at using (even in the English borrowing sense) a word used to describe non-muslims to describe muslim behavior. Especially given that the definition of muslim is technically "one who submits or surrenders."

    I think what we have here is a case where the term muslim, which typically connotes religious submission to Allah, a good thing, can be said to have acquired a secular meaning as well. The pseudo-dhimmi, and though he comes from a bias you might want to read Daniel Pipes on the term as well, is exhibiting submission to tyrants as well as to Allah. I.e they are being muslims to tyrants as well as Allah.

    One would argue that one should always submit to Allah, but never to tyrants, but that requires an immense strength of faith. One that most Christians I know lack, so this isn't a muslim only thing. After all, Dhimmitude is when Christians, it can be argued, don't have sufficient faith to be persecuted.

    It seems to me, in my discussions with Christians of all stripes, that modern Christianity (and I am sure other religions as well) has come to a crisis of the material. Christians seem to lack the faith in the rewards of the afterlife, possibly because of humility, and thus want justice questions answered here and now.

    Take most discussions of evil made by your average freshman. How can God be all merciful and allow evil to exist? Such questions usually have a materialist metaphysic assumption, not to mention other problems.

    Moderate muslims, like moderate Christians, may be suffering from a similar materialist metaphysic.

    Just some thoughts.

  5. Anonymous10:46 AM

    " She was afraid, as a woman, to answer questions I posed in the presence of her Wahabbi classmate."

    That just made me sad.

    Why is it that people feel so threatened by neutrality?

  6. Thanks for the plug on my post - I'm glad you found the concept of the dhimmi useful. While I'm sympathetic to the broader point that you're making about self-censorship in general, I do think that you should avoid adopting the word "dhimmi" or "dhimmitude" in this reworked context. The examples that you give are evocative and - of course - troubling. But the position of the dhimmi in Islamic society is a legal one, with a full range of accompanying consequences.

    If one is a dhimmi, for example, a number of one's basic freedoms (movement, worship, association, etc) are contingent upon the agreement to pay a special tax. Failure to do so, or to acquire an alternative legal form of safe passage called "amn", would result in a kind of legal vulnerability. In many cases, a number of other regulations were imposed on dhimmis, such as identifying dress, limited residential options, restricted permission for the building of places of worship, etc. In effect, the oft-repeated claim of many Muslims that Islam is tolerant towards People of the Book (dhimmis) is true - they were tolerated, but not juridically equal.

    In the cases you cite, the individuals are juridically equal, and they are feeling the pressures of a kind of social censorship. This is vitally important, but is neither unique to Islam, nor equivalent to legal restriction. That's one reason to avoid adopting the idea of the para-dhimmi, as much as I applaud your creativity.

    The second reason, though, is suggested by one of your other commentors. There is a "dhimmitude movement" to which Pipes most certainly belongs, dedicated to ferreting out any underlying "submissive" attitude on the part of Jews and Christians, or dhimmis who still - even while living the West - allow themselves to be subjugated. It's an offensive movement of thought police, and based on my reading of the wide range of interesting (and open minded) discussions on your site, you wouldn't really want much to do with them.

    That doesn't mean, though, that the idea of socially imposed limits on free expression is worth abandoning. Chapter 4 of my dissertation is all about the way in which some Muslims coerce other Muslims into remaining silent in expressing their moderation. :)