Islamists on Minorities

Martin Kramer delivered these remarks at a Tel Aviv University conference on minorities in the Arab world, on or about April 26, 1994.

My subject this morning is the view of non-Muslim minorities held by Islamic fundamentalists or, if you prefer, by Islamists. Not all Islamists are really interested in the question, and most remain preoccupied with the question of relations between Muslims themselves—those who hold power, and those who seek to share or take it. As for non-Muslim minorities, many of these have lost influence since decolonization. It is only in the few places where they remain powerful and influential that Islamists devote any significant thought to their status.

Sudan and Lebanon, despite their Muslim majorities, are religiously the most diverse countries of the Middle East, with very large Christian (and, in Sudan, animist) minorities. Both countries have experienced long-running civil wars over the last two decades, fought largely along the fault lines of faith. As a result, Islamists in both countries have had to give serious thought to the problem of religious diversity in an Islamic state. Egypt’s Islamists have given the matter some thought as well, since they must define a stand vis-a-vis a significant Coptic Christian minority. And Palestinian Islamists have had to say something about what would become of the Jews in the Islamic state they propose to create.

I’ll be quoting a few voices that speak from these very different contexts. Many of the things they say are predictable enough. But if one listens closely, one can detect a subtle shift among some Islamists, to a different way of thinking about non-Muslim minorities. I’ll confine my remarks to Islamist thinking. The question of practice will be dealt with by others this morning and afternoon.

If this panel included Dr. Hasan al-Turabi, I can well imagine what he would say about the conceptualization of this symposium. Dr. Turabi is the man behind the present Islamist regime in Sudan. He is also widely regarded by many Sunni Islamists as an authoritative interpreter of their vision to the wider world. This received confirmation in October of last year, when Dr. Turabi arrived in Rome by private jet, under the tightest security, for a meeting with Pope John Paul II. “I am not a pope,” Turabi has said. “In Islam we do not have a church. I am more the person who prompts others to start thinking.” I think Dr. Turabi does rather more than that, but we might allow him to start our thinking on this subject.

“Muslims do not like the term ‘minorities’,” writes Turabi. “They call them the people of the book (ahl al-kitab), the dhimmi, or protected people.” Here we have a clear statement of the core concept of the Islamists. They begin with the categories and terminology of Islamic law, and above all that of the dhimma. Islamic law, formulated in a different time and place, is innocent of the distinction between majority and minority drawn by the modern nation-state.

Islamic law distinguishes between Muslims and non-Muslims. It does so by affirming that power is a strictly Muslim prerogative, while non-Muslims are entitled to protection. Muslims are empowered people; non-Muslims are protected people. The Islamic state, once established, may enforce certain fiscal and symbolic measures to affirm the superiority of Muslims. The most important of these is the jizya, a tribute paid to the state by its non-Muslim subjects. Those non-Muslim subjects, for their part, may regulate their own affairs, by their own religious law. This is the basis of the dhimma, the concessions accorded the Islamic state to its non-Muslim subjects. It makes no difference whether the Muslims in this state constitute a majority. Indeed, the Muslim jurists who codified Islamic law did so at a time in history when Muslims often formed a conquering and alien minority, ruling over populations who had yet to convert to Islam.

This, then, is the ideal for those contemporary Islamists who want to restore Islamic power and Islamic law. When asked what this means for non-Muslims in their midst, they make three general claims. First, Islam by nature is a religion of tolerance, forbidding compulsion in matters of religion. Second, the record of historical Islam’s treatment of non-Muslim subjects is a good one, which compares favorably with treatment of minorities in medieval Christendom and the modern West. Third, if there has been a deterioration of relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in modern times, this is because some of these non-Muslims have allowed themselves to become agents of Western imperialism, and because Islam itself has been weakened. But Islam, if restored to power, has a solution that worked once to promote harmony in diverse societies, and could work again.

I could amass many quotations illustrating the prevalence of each of these claims. Here is Prof. Isma’il Faruqi, the Palestinian Islamist theoretician: “Except for the briefest intervals in which Muslims have suffered even more than Jews or Christians at the hands of a corrupt ruler, the history of Islam’s tolerance and coexistence with Judaism and Christianity is pure white.” Dr. Turabi shows a bit more restraint. He describes the Islamic record on non-Muslim minorities as “quite good, especially compared with the history of relations between different religions and religious denominations in the West.” One would find quite a few Orientalists in agreement with this statement. But even today, Turabi finds that the West’s treatment of minorities—in this case, Muslim minorities—lags behind the example of Islam. “As minorities, these Muslims should be given better treatment,” he says, “at least something like the treatment we give to our religious minorities. This would include their own personal law, their own education, and a lot more.”

Having idealized the early Islamic state, many Islamists are quite content simply to offer up the dhimma as their solution to the problem of non-Muslim minorities. Prof. Faruqi, for example, says that after Israel is dismantled, by force if necessary, its Jews would then become dhimmis. They should not fear this: “The Jews, as dhimmi citizens of the Islamic state, may keep all the public institutions they have so far developed in Palestine (courts of law, learned societies of art and culture, public corporations, schools, colleges and universities) to continue in their operation. Henceforth, their vision and their efforts would be directed toward upholding and promoting Judaism, not the Western ideologies of decadence and aberration.”

But some Islamists know that they have problem: if Muslims do not like the word “minorities,” then non-Muslims do not like the word dhimmis. Despite all the claims made by Islamists, most non-Muslims in Islamic lands look back at Islamic law as a discriminatory system, which for over a millennium maintained separate and unequal classes based on religious affiliation. When this law lapsed, in some places only in this century, non-Muslims for the first time enjoyed citizenship as equals. They themselves look back at the dhimma not with the nostalgia of the Islamists. They recall it as a form of religious apartheid, from which they were emancipated by the modern nation-state. They fear that an Islamic state would once again deny them equal citizenship and ultimately ruin them. And they impart that fear to the wider world, which then cites the reintroduction of the dhimma as one additional reason to oppose the ascent of Islamism and support existing regimes.

Those Islamists with some strategic vision now understand that openly invoking the dhimma as Islam’s solution to the problem of non-Muslim minorities is self-defeating. What we see among these Islamists is an attempt to reconceptualize the status of non-Muslims by slightly refocusing their view of the Islamic tradition. If I were to summarize this, I would call it a shift from the idea of dhimma to that of mu’ahada or mithaq. All of these words can be translated as “convenant” or “pact.” But dhimma is understood more widely as a series of conditions and concessions extended unilaterally by the victorious Islamic state. Mu’ahada and mithaq are understood as more balanced contracts or agreements, entered into by the consent of both parties. What these Islamists are saying is that they don’t advocate the unilateral restoration of the dhimma, but a negotiated agreement between the Islamic state and its non-Muslim minorities. Let me give some examples of where this notion is made explicit.

Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Fadlallah is the spiritual mentor and oracle of the Shi’ite movement in Lebanon known as Hizbullah. Hizbullah desires an Islamic state. In Lebanon today, there is undoubtedly a Muslim majority, but there is also a powerful non-Muslim Christian minority, most notably the Maronites. While this minority has lost the grip on power which it once held, and has become sorely divided, it remains a formidable obstacle to the creation of an Islamic state. Were this minority to actually face the prospect of an Islamic state, and with it the status of dhimmis, it could still mobilize considerable resources against it. Ayatollah Fadlallah has taken the Islamist lead in trying to find a formula that will diminish Christian resistance to an Islamic state, and he has done it by raising the idea of mu’ahada.

Let’s begin with Fadlallah’s basic assumptions. He believes that the Christians, and especially the Maronites, are growing weaker all the time. The Maronites had been a European project, at a time when Europe pursued a policy of cultivating minorities. But America, the heir of Europe, has penetrated the entire Islamic world. It has no need of a small minority at odds with America’s more numerous Muslim friends in the region. This has made Lebanon’s Christians insecure. On the one hand, this makes them dangerous, but on the other, it makes them susceptible to persuasion. Fadlallah understands they are afraid, and that fear stiffens their will. But if that fear can be alleviated, might not their will be eroded?

Now in Fadlallah’s view, the dhimma was an ideal arrangement between Muslim majority and Christian minority. He argues that on close examination, it was not “the oppressive or inhumane system that some people imagine it to be.” But the problem, says Fadlallah, is that Christians remember the dhimma as a discriminatory system of subjugation, and portray it as a kind of religious apartheid. And so he suggests an alternative: a treaty, or mu’ahada, between majority and minority. The Prophet Muhammad, on coming to Medina, concluded precisely this kind of treaty with the Jews. Unlike the dhimma, which is a concession by the Islamic state, the mu’ahada constitutes a bilateral (or multilateral) contract. The Islamic state could conclude such a treaty with any kind of minority—with Christians and Jews, but also, for example, with Kurds or Turks. Such a treaty would guarantee cultural rights, customs, and traditions, while leaving politics to the Islamic state.

When pressed still further, Fadlallah can also envision an additional pact, or mithaq, between the state and its religious minorities, which could be negotiated within the broad lines of Islam. All offices in the state would then be open to members of the religious minority, with the exception of the highest decision-making authority. “Because of the Muslim majority in Lebanon,” he says, “the president should be a Muslim.”

Armed with this idea of a consensual contract with the Christians, Fadlallah has launched a dialogue offensive without parallel in the world of Islamism. Fadlallah has gone out of his way to grant interviews to the newspapers and magazines which are published and widely read by Christians. He has had “many long discussions” with a long list of Christian figures. His interlocutors have included the patriarchs of the Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Syrian Orthodox churches, as well as papal nuncio and the cardinal who presides over the Vatican’s Secretariat for Non-Christians. “I never felt there was any problem during our talks,” claims Fadlallah. “It was as though I was conversing with Muslim scholars.”

And Fadlallah makes gestures. One Christmas he gave a lengthy interview devoted to Muslim-Christian relations, arguing that “fundamentalist Islam” was far closer to Christianity than Lebanon’s “confessional Islam.” One Easter he gave a mosque sermon commemorating “the sufferings of Jesus,” one of Islam’s prophets, even though “we may not concur with Christians on certain details of theology.” Fadlallah’s most effective presentation came when the former Lebanese ambassador and minister, the journalist Ghassan Tueni, explored Fadlallah’s views of Muslim-Christian relations in a three-hour interview on Lebanese television, late last year. It was the media event of the year.

This campaign seems to be having some effect. I don’t think Fadlallah imagines he can persuade all of Lebanon’s Christians. But he does seek to build a reservoir of Christian trust, which might be tapped later to build a multi-confessional majority in favor of an Islamic state. In fact, I’ve met a number of Fadlallah enthusiasts among Lebanon’s Christians. Their logic seems to be that the position of the Christians is indeed declining, and that if they don’t freely accept the mu’ahada offered by Fadlallah, they might eventually face the dhimma dictated to them by vengeful Islamic extremists.

One hears an echo of this in some of the writings and sayings of Dr. Turabi as well. Sudan’s south is populated by large Christian and animist areas, parts of which have been in rebellion even before the Sudanese regime declared itself an Islamic state and sought to apply Islamic law. In discussing the status of these non-Muslim minorities in the Islamic state, Turabi has been careful to say nothing that could be construed as a demand for restoration of the dhimma.

Instead he puts forward the Sudanese mithaq, the so-called Sudan Charter, which calls for a decentralized federation, advocating equal rights for all citizens, and even allowing that non-Muslims may hold any political office in the land. Dr. Turabi has called this “the decentralization of Islamic law,” “a new equation for a multi-cultural, multi-religious society, in which culture and law should be decentralized.” Like Fadlallah, Turabi too has tried to promote a dialogue based upon this idea, taking him, as I mentioned earlier, even into the Vatican. And when pressed by Islamists for precedents, he does precisely what Fadlallah does, giving the example of early Medina at the time of the Prophet.

This emphasis on the early period of the Prophet’s stay in Medina is especially interesting. Fadlallah and Turabi specifically cite the so-called “Constitution of Medina” as the basis for Islam’s approach to non-Muslims. Leaving aside the issue of this document’s authenticity, the “Constitution of Medina” was a contract between the Muhajirun, the Ansar, and Jews, and which set up the newly arrived Muhammad as a kind of supreme arbiter among them. The references to ‘ahd and mithaq in the Qur’an are generally believed by scholars to refer to this document, which appears in the Prophet’s biography, but was largely overlooked in the great mass of the Prophetic Tradition, or Hadith. The “Constitution of Medina” is basically a contract of equals, by which all sides, Muslim and non-Muslim, agree to submit to Muhammad’s arbitration. It may be described as minimalist in its requirements of non-Muslims, who are envisioned as part of the same umma, or community, as the Muslims.

Now the basis of the dhimma is a later document, the so-called “Pact of ‘Umar,” Islam’s second caliph, and takes the form of a letter of submission by Syrian Christians to the conquering caliph. Leaving aside questions of dating and authenticity, here the circumstances are very different from that of the “Constitution of Medina”: Islam at this point is a conquering faith, the Prophet’s successor appears not as an arbiter but as a ruler and conqueror, essentially extending terms of submission. The demands made upon non-Muslims by the dhimma in the “Pact of ‘Umar” are maximalist, and the non-Muslims are clearly subject people, who are not of the same umma as the Muslims.

Turabi and Fadlallah, by looking to the “Constitution of Medina” rather than the “Pact of ‘Umar,” by evoking a mithaq or mu’ahada with non-Muslims rather than the dhimma, are working their way back in Islamic history to a period when Islam had very limited power even in Arabia, and governed simply through arbitration, and only by the consent of non-Muslims. At the present moment in Islamic history, when Islam of the Islamists is starting out afresh, seeking as it were a foothold in Medina, this early period seems much more a model than the later time of rapid expansion and conquest when the dhimma was formulated. By this reinterpretation, the non-Muslims cease to be dhimmis, and are entitled to status as citizens. Citizens, not dhimmis: this is even the title of a tract by the Egyptian Islamist Fahmi Huwaydi.

All this might seem very encouraging. But allow me to close this very brief presentation with two disturbing observations. The first is that anyone who has witnessed either the conduct of Hizbullah or the Sudanese regime has cause to ask whether Fadlallah and Turabi are sincere. Both are men of guile. Perhaps their reformulations are intended not so much to persuade fellow believers, as to persuade the world to stand aside while they take and consolidate power. I have no answer except to say that there is, for example, an immense gap between Turabi’s theorizing and the actual practice of Khartoum’s Islamist regime in the south. Over a million people have died of war or famine there, more than Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti combined.

A second disturbing observation is that there are many Islamists who have gone completely the other way. They have also discarded the dhimma, but have done so in favor of jihad against all non-Muslims, even those who are within the borders of Islam. No one can yet say what the triumph of Islamism will produce for the non-Muslim minorities. But much of what one hears and sees, beyond the exquisite texts of Fadlallah and Turabi, looks like trouble ahead.