Sunday, February 12, 2006

More on (non)Dhimmis and (non)Dhimmitude

Stacey Philbrick over at al-Hiwar: Words Matter has a thoughtful comment to this earlier post. In it, she objects to my appropriation of the word "dhimmi." Since her comment is at the bottom of a thread on an old post, I'll reproduce it here:

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. :)

I know even less about the dhimmitude movement than about the concept of the dhimmi, so I'll refrain from comment on that. I have been thinkng about the idea of self-censorship, though. The idea was raised here by Philbrick and others that self-censorship is not unique to Islam, and can be found in all sorts of other political and religious settings.

I'm not so sure about that, though. Of course, self-censorship is very common, and to some degree healthy. For example, I'll sometimes be at a conference and hear a terrible, sophomoric paper -- then later, when asked by the presenter what I thought of the paper, I'll either change the topic or say something non-commital, rather than saying what I actually thought: Sir, your paper was stupid. How could you have written such tripe? We shouldn't think that all self-censorship is bad.

In this case, though, my distress is over the degree of self-censorship. In the two examples I gave, one of the students was a native-born American (though living in an immigrant community) and one was from abroad, yet neither felt safe performing normal student activities (participating in class or reading the assignment) in an American classroom. I don't believe I've ever had any student of any other religious/political/social affiliation tell me that they could not speak in class nor publicly acknowledge reading assignments (more often they fake having read assignments they haven't actually, but that's another issue). Now, I've had students tell me that they found a particular reading politically or religiously offensive, but those students did not pretend that they did not do the reading. Students will often remain silent in a class for fear of sounding stupid, but already-talkative students typically do not suddenly shut down because of one other student (unless they've had a bad breakup, with is also another issue). Unless my memory fails me on this point, I can think of lots of examples of this degree of self-censorship among Muslim students, but no examples of this degree among other students.

Of course, these two examples are not the only two I can think of -- for example, I've probably excused a couple of dozen Muslim students from the Koran readings -- but they were simply meant to stand in for the whole. My point was that while it is fair game to call for Muslims to condemn actions done in the name of Islam (just as it is fair to expect Christians to condemn the complicity of some congregations in the Rwandan genocide), it is perhaps a little unrealistic to expect that the calls will be heeded. If a student feels completely unable to fulfill their normal scholarly duties in an American classroom simply because of the presence of a few other Muslims, what chance do we have that people will speak out from the immigrant communities or from the neighborhoods in the Middle East? Perhaps non-Muslims should try to keep in mind the tremendous threat of social condemnation or physical violence that might prevent many Muslims from speaking their minds.


  1. Hi, Richard,

    I'm glad you're taking this idea of self-censorship seriously, but I have two main objections:

    1) On your doubt that you have "ever had any student of any other religious/political/social affiliation tell me that they could not speak in class nor publicly acknowledge reading assignments," I imagine that this says as much about the demographics of your classes - and maybe your own interest level - than the objective (or, more accurately, intersubjective) situation of your students.

    I certainly HAVE had this happen with students from a variety of backgrounds in my teaching at the University of Pennsylvania. It was most notable, however, among students from communities in political crisis - principally, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, though certainly some fundamentalist Christians reported feeling constrained by their peers as well. And I've also seen the recrimination between members of the group who DON'T self-censor, and those who would have them do so. The fact that both exist underscores my point that this is happening within a context of juridical equality. They cannot be formally sanctioned for what they say, but they can be socially santioned. This social sanction is something that the individual can accept (by self-censoring) or reject, but it is not a matter of law.

    2) With regard to the question of whether this is an example of Muslim exceptionalism...Saying that social censure exists in other religious traditions doesn't mean that it happens in the same WAY, or even to the same degree, across space and time, and I did not mean to suggest that it does. There are worthy reasons to examine the unique ways in which (in my view) Islamic legal institutions, for example, frame attitudes toward apostasy and, by extension, religious pluralism. But I think this should be done within a comparative framework, either comparing Islam now to Islam and another time, or in another space, or comparing Islam with other traditions that are more or less juridical in nature.

    I agree with your basic point that there may be barriers to moderate Muslim condemnation of extremists - but the ways in which these limits differ from limits within and between other traditions need to be critically examined. It's not a time to throw in the towel and say "they're just different from us, and we can't expect the same."

  2. Stacey,

    Your objections are well taken. I'll have to disagree, however, with your assumption that "this says as much about the demographics of your classes - and maybe your own interest level - than the objective (or, more accurately, intersubjective) situation of your students."

    I've taught on three continents, in first-world and "developing" countries, in rural schools and urban schools, in communist and capitalist countries, and in both Christian and secular schools. No doubt there are others who have had more varied experience than me, but I seriously doubt that my own experience has been limited by the demography of my students. It's possible, I suppose, that I've just been extremely lucky with my Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, and Shaman students.

    I'm interested in your last statement, though ... do you then think it is realistic to expect Muslims to condemn the actions of extremists, and if so, is it fair game to consider them "fellow travelers" when they don't?

  3. Hi, Richard,

    What's reasonable to expect is hard for me to say, other than to say that I don't think we should construct ethical measures that are variable. If it's reasonable to expect a Christian, or an agnostic, or a secular humanist to oppose a certain kind of tyranny, then yes, I'd think it reasonable to expect the same from a Muslim. But I do recognize that different religious traditions define tyranny differently, and this will have an impact on what people reject or accept. Certainly, I do hope that those Muslims who do stand up against violence (like 'Abdullahi an-Naim, whom you may have seen profiled in my post entitled "Resurrecting Rushdie") will continue to do so, and that others will be emboldened by their example.

    If the ethical scale does not slide, yes, those who fail to condemn violence must be seen as acquiescing in it - and, of course, that's true of our own silence in the face of violence, too (which means I, at least, am somewhat ethically culpable). With regard to Muslim attitudes towards violence and apostasy, this is another component of an-Naim's approach that I highlight and think you might enjoy.

    As to your first point, I don't think I was assuming so much as inferring, perhaps in error: you said you'd never experienced self-censorship like that from non-Muslims, and I have experienced it, and I've only taught at Penn (and thus assumed, in this case correctly, that you've taught in more places), so it seemed to me that the only two possible explanations were (a) that you were teaching in institutions less diverse than Penn, with a lot of Muslims, or (b) that might not have been paying attention to the dynamics of self-censorship among other groups because it may not have struck you as quite as interesting. I wasn't suggesting this as any kind of scathing critique - we all pay attention to different dynamics at different times. Because I teach "Politics in the Contemporary Middle East" I tend to be exposed to a lot of kids strong feelings about religion and politics, across the spectrum. I might even go so far as to say that this has overdetermined my interest in the topic. :)

  4. Stacey,

    Re-reading my previous comment (and your gracious response), I realize it sounds crabby. I wasn't offended ... I was just trying to write the comment while someone was yakking in my ear about something unimportant.

    So, an important addendum to the slogan "Friends don't let friends drive drunk."

    Friends don't let friends blog when distracted.

  5. And they say bloggers are snarky and uncivilized...

    You and your inspiring blog manners are welcome at al-Hiwar any time, Richard.

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