An interesting discussion has been going on about the historical treatment of religious minorities by Muslims and Christians in the blogworld. As usual, the discussion covers dhimmis (is dhimmitude a word?) and the Inquisition. It revolves around the Middle East and Europe (as is common for discussions about Islam; somehow Africa or Asia are rarely mentioned.)
It started with Disaffected Muslim:
Sometimes one will come across someone who will extoll the tolerance, high culture and harmony of Islamic culture, often in Andalusia, Spain, but also in Baghdad, Cairo, India, etc. However, when confronted with facts that perhaps it wasn’t a Utopian paradise, said evidence is simply ignored. In fact, you will sometimes get a rant about how “bigoted” and “racist” you are for mentioning these less-than-pleasant facts.
[…]Another more sinister reason for these views is, bluntly, as a sledgehammer to whack away at Western civilization and culture, and since Islam has traditionally been the “enemy of the West,” locked in countless struggles with Europe, it is the perfect weapon. I find the most ironic part of the whole thing to be the fact that the apologists, while bashing at the West with Islam, constantly attribute modern Western values to medieval Muslims, such as freedom of religion, peaceful coexistence of all religious groups, freedom of inquiry and speech, women’s rights, nonviolence (jihad as “peaceful struggle”) and the like. Even while trashing everything the West stands for, they can’t get far enough away from Western values and thought-patterns to see that Muslim views on the above are very different and come from a worldview 180 degrees opposed to theirs, instead acting as if Muslims were just Westerners at heart who just happen to have different clothes and prayer rituals.
From time to time, I have noted that I largely agree with Bernard Lewis’ assessment that, compared to their Christian contemporaries (who expelled or killed Jews, launched Crusades against heretical sects and so on), medieval Muslims were far more tolerant of minorities, who had legal standing and were protected. Islamic tolerance of the medieval type falls far short of the kind of equality that came out of the American Revolution, or the kind of tolerance that appeared in Europe during the Enlightenment, but it is not at all insignificant that Jews expelled from Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain found refuge and created a flourishing culture in the Ottoman Balkans.
On May 16, Disaffected Muslim wrote a much more detailed post on tolerance in Muslim societies. Her conclusion:
Eventually this record must be at least acknowledged by Muslims and condemned, instead of extolling how Muslims were exceedingly tolerant, respectful, and kind to non-Muslims in a fantastically rosy version of Islamic history, where the lands of Islam were not only more tolerant than Europe during the Middle Ages and the Inquisition, but the status of non-Muslims in Muslim lands compares very well with the status of religious minorities in modern states today, where those of all religions or none have the same rights and are equal citizens!
Buscaraons decided to compare dhimmitude with the Inquisition with this opening salvo:
Bill is quite right that tolerance in Moslem society during the medieval was somewhat more enlightened than contemporary Christendom. However medieval Moslem tolerence was founded on rather dubious foundations. First, the effectiveness of the dhimmitude is primarily psychological. Thucyledies pointed out that if a person is physically defeated he accepts his defeat; but that he’s legally wronged, he won’t sleep or eat until the injustice is rectified. Hence the second attitude explains why the Western Christian when they began to settle in the Mideast on a more permanent basis exacted from the Moslem rulers concessions that their fellow Christians would no longer be subject to the dhimmitude.
The Arabs invaded the Mideast and Northern Africa and defeated the various armies. So the defeated peoples accepted their plight; however, the victorious Arabs made sure that the defeated populations would never challenge the Arabs again and ensured that they’d suffer permanent disabilities and perpetual indignities. Throughout the period of Moslem ascendency there would be the occasional slave raids (razzias) to remind the Christians just how precarious their position is and the tolerance can be revoked at anytime. Second, the dhimmitude reinforced the Moslem belief that their ascendency would be perpetual and the rules laid down to the people of the book would stay frozen in time. Unfortunately for the Moslem, they forgot that laws may stand still but men always evolve.
Third, ironically enough, the dhimmitude was also to assuage the Moslems’ sense of low self confidence. How does this square with the second point? At first, when the Arab Moslem conquered the Mideast and North Africa, they were a minority and typical unsophisticated nomads of the Volwanderung. Hence they felt really uncomfortable and by imposing the various inabilities: Christians can build or repair their churches or monestaries, Christians couldn’t ring Church bells least the Moslems fall into apostasy and so on.
He then goes on to actually defend the Inquisition (I am exaggerating, but not by much).
The Inquistion was an ecclesistical court. Specifically it’s what the lawyers call a court of attribution. A law establishes the courts existence and then lists what areas of law it has competency to decide cases. If it errs in the determination of its competency, then its decision can be appeale or even annuled for being outide its powers (ultra vires in the legal jargon)
Thus, Inquisition was a legal creature subjet to law and thus limited by it. Further, contrary to public opinion, it wasn’t the KGB of its time; rather the Inqusitions did serve as one of the foundations continetial Europe’s judicial system of examining magistrates. Moreover, the Inqusition even had a rudimentary due process procedure that was quite advanced for its time.
The fact that the Inquisution was a judical body is signficant; it meant that it had to follow its own laws and procedures. Even though the medievals were fearful of the inqusitors, they did have recourses to limit its authourity and the kings’ lawyers would also ensure that the Inquistion didn’t cross the line into purely civil law cases. If you think today’s society was litigatious; the medievals were even more robust in protecting their rights.
[…]As terrible as the Inquisition was, it had the paradoxical effect of pushing Europe to become more tolerant; Moselm tolerance simply reinforced the contradictory sentiments of psychological insecurity and of pride at being dominant over the book of the people.
Ideofact compared Muslims and Christians in the middle ages thus:
Absolutely, the tolerance practiced in, say, the Ottoman Empire is far inferior to the ideals of Jefferson. But comparing the past to the present is a little bizarre. It seems to me worth noting that in the last 500 years or so there have been migrations of Jews, and they haven’t been from the realms of Islam to the West — quite the contrary.
Bill Allison also replied to Buscaraons here and here. The debate is continuing with the latest entry from Buscaraons.
I don’t have time to expound my views right now, but suffice it to say that I agree with Ideofact. The tolerance of minorities under Muslim rule during the middle ages wasn’t exactly what we would like in the modern world but it was definitely much better than Christendom. Modern Muslim countries have actually regressed in this as well as many other things. I’ll return to some of the substantive points in this debate in a later post.
UPDATE: Later post here.