How does Islam understand the concept of non-Muslims or “different” Muslims? Do Sunnis believe non-Sunni Muslims have rights equal to Sunnis? Is there one central authority that can decide today who speaks for all Muslims?
Sadly, the Muslim world is in total turmoil. We could discuss the traditional Muslim legal code regarding non-Muslims, but, given the political upheaval now going on in the Muslim world, none of the historic answers seem relevant.
Why is this so? Though we in the West tend to view Islam as a religion and understand it in that context, Islam has always had another side—the political side—that throughout Islamic history has often been the dominant factor in Islamic politics. This is true both when the Muslim world is stable, and most definitely so when that Muslim world is filled with instability, as it is today.
Those who know their place
According to what we might call “classic” Muslim understanding, those who had revelations from G-d before Islam were allowed to live in the Muslim world in a status called “dhimmitude,” roughly meaning political and societal inferiority. As long as the Jew, Christian, or a few other pre-Islamic monotheistic groups “knew their place,” they usually managed to survive. One rarely witnessed in the Islamic world the pogroms and massacres so common against the non-Christians in Christian Europe throughout history. Apologists for Islam often bring this up when trying to “prove” how much better non-Muslim life was under Muslim rule, than non-Christian life in Christendom.
Probably a better metaphor is the manure market in Isfahan in central Iran. There are different types of manure available for sale—actually different qualities—each used for different purposes. There are different grades/levels, but no matter how one defines it, it is manure. Which roughly corresponds to the way non-Muslims were treated in the Muslim world—a higher level than in the Christian world, but in the end, they were treated as inferiors or worse.
Iranians often claim that before the Islamic regime, Jews were treated well in (Shiite) Iran. Interestingly, however, Jews are always described in Iranian literature in derogatory terms. The same is true to a slightly lesser extent in (Sunni) Turkish and Arabic literature.
As for Christians in the Muslim world, they also suffered constant disdain at the hands of the Muslim majority. Arabic-speaking Middle Eastern Christians actually created Arab nationalism in an attempt to find the equality that eluded them in the traditional Muslim Middle East where they, like Jews, were constantly humiliated by their Muslim rulers and neighbors. All Arabic speakers—according to this Christian theory of Arab nationalism—were equal as Arabs. But once Muslim Arabic-speakers read what the Arabic-speaking Christians wrote, the Muslims laughed and argued, with strong justification, that in order to be a good Arab, one had to be a Muslim, which again put the Christians in their “proper” place, as it should be in the Muslim Middle East.
Other groups, such as Yazidis in northern Iraq and a few in Syria, who also are members of an ancient pre-Islamic monotheistic religion, suffered the same fate. Yes, they managed to survive, but from time to time, the Muslims made their lives miserable.
‘Alawites, originally from the mountains along what remains of Syria’s coastal region, have a religion thought to be essentially an offshoot of Shiite Islam augmented with many ancient Hellenistic traditions, and even some festivals very similar to Christianity (they have a Trinity, and holidays very similar to Christmas and Easter). They, for example, deify ‘Ali in a way similar to the role of Jesus in Christianity. At times their leaders claimed they were Muslims, but no “self-respecting” Sunni Muslim—about 70% of Syria’s population before the last few years of wanton destruction in what used to be Syria—accepted them as Muslim. Upper-class Syrian Sunnis called them “Abid,” which means “slaves” in Arabic, and treated them as such.
In short, it was by and large nice that Muslims “tolerated” non-Muslims or “different” Muslims in their midst, but non-Muslims constantly had to be on guard, never knowing for sure what might happen if they raised their voices. What developed almost universally in the Muslim world was a certain “docility” which enabled non-Muslims to survive.
The Collapse of Order and Political Stability
Where does that leave us today, given the almost total collapse of the traditional post-World War I geographic and political area in the Middle East? There is now no central authority in Syria or Iraq that can enforce order. Add to that the fact that the Americans and Europeans are obsessed with maintaining “political stability,” i.e., maintaining the political boundaries of the past hundred or so years, and it is a recipe for disaster everywhere. No one has the upper hand militarily.
Adding insult to injury, the Western concept of compassion is almost totally lacking in the Middle East. To say this is obviously completely politically incorrect according to the rules enforced by Western intellectuals and academics, but this is the reality. We are constantly witnessing atrocities committed by various—usually Muslim—groups in the Middle East against what we would call their “fellow-Muslims” and the destruction of pre-Islamic and even some Islamic archeological sites.
Western academics and intellectuals claim these heinous crimes against people and property are not Islamic, just as they have gone out of their way to say that Islam is a religion of peace. But is it true? Why are Westerners the arbiters of what is and is not Islamic? Shouldn’t this be the domain of Muslims to decide for themselves?
It’s very quaint for people sitting in far off places such as Washington or the Western ivory towers to pontificate about Islam, but the reality on the ground in the Middle East is different.
The World of ISIS/Daish
ISIS/Daish rules over much of what was Iraq and Syria, and has branches ruling in other parts of the Arab world. Their form of Islam is largely an imitation of the life of their prophet in the 7th century, as explained clearly in the Sira—the biography of the prophet Muhammad written approximately one hundred years after Muhammad’s death. From the color of their flag, the small daggers they use to behead their enemies—non-Muslims, Shiites, and Sunni Muslims who don’t follow their rules—to the clothes they wear, they are imitating what they believe to be their prophet Muhammad.
This is, for them, Islam.
The longer they survive the more adherents they attract, and they constantly show themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Middle Easterners are drawn to the strong horse—and deeply respect and admire force, strength, and cruelty, even if they fear that cruelty. Until they are stopped, ISIS will continue to spread murder and mayhem against anyone they deem to be either a non-Muslim or a renegade Muslim.
What, then, is a renegade or non-Muslim in their eyes? Anyone who doesn’t see the world as they do. That of course includes Shiites, who, from their point of view, are apostates. But it also means Sunnis who don’t agree with them. ISIS labels them apostates as well and the penalty for apostasy in Islam is death.
Westerners seem appalled by the myriad YouTube videos and other social media articles and movies produced by al-Ajnad, the first class media apparatus that produces some of ISIS’s best videos and songs. But they appeal to the deepest reaches of the Sunni Muslim souls who learn, almost from birth, that they should live in one Muslim state ruled by a Caliph, where Sharia is the law of the land. ISIS claims to be doing just that, and murdering those who disagree with them.
How to Survive
How do those who disagree with ISIS and other “extreme Sunni groups” survive? Since the advent of Islam, non-Muslims or some Muslims who disagree with their rulers developed very sophisticated ways of combating the constant oppression and tenuousness of their lives. The following example illustrates one way to deal with the problem.
A Christian who grew up in a large Middle Eastern city was on the way to his university to take his final exam in an engineering class. He hailed a cab outside his house. A Sunni Muslim taxi driver picked him up in this Christian neighborhood and naturally assumed he was a Christian. The taxi driver immediately turned on a recording of chanting of the Koran. This is one of many ways Muslims remind non-Muslims who rules the roost.
The passenger wanted those last few minutes in the cab to study his notes and the blasting Koran recording prevented him from doing so. It would have been dangerous to ask the driver to lower the volume or turn off the Koran recording. After all, Muslims rule, and there can never be any “ands, ifs, or buts” about it.
So what did he do? He told the driver he was drunk, and had just had marital relations and had not washed—both of which incur an aura of impurity in Islam. Immediately, the Muslim driver turned off the recording—what Muslim, after all, would be willing to defame the Koran? The Christian was able to use the time in the taxi to study.
What can we learn from this story? Non-Muslims have lived and continue to live in Muslim societies as long as they “know their place,” and they have developed ingenious skills to find ways around the rules that are set by Muslims… and only by Muslims.
Given the reality of the Middle East, Muslims can and often do change those rules at will. Nothing is written in stone. And when chaos reigns, as it many times has during the 1400+ years of Muslim history, all hell often breaks loose. No one is safe. The strong make the rules and the weak must obey or face the consequences.
And that is the case today. The chaos that reigns in the Middle East is forcing huge numbers of people to abandon their ancient homelands and seek refuge in the non-Muslim world. The refugees include Christians, Druze, Alawites, Shiites, Yazidis, and even many Sunnis from whom ISIS and others of their ilk claim to be purifying the Muslim world.
Can this be stopped? Undoubtedly. There is no compromising with these murderers who claim to be setting up a state according to Allah’s rules. All of them, especially ISIS and others like them must be eliminated.
Remember the “Surge” in Iraq
The only force capable of doing so today is the United States, which has the power to eradicate these groups if it chooses. Many ISIS soldiers travel in open convoys in the desert and can be terminated; they have training bases that can be attacked. America did it in the 2007 Surge General Petraeus led in Iraq. Once the Iraqi Sunnis realized that America was serious—that America would destroy their al Qaeda enemies and work with local Iraqi Sunnis to establish order, America managed to take the most dangerous and rebellious area of Iraq and tame it within a year. The locals understood that the Marines were the strongest “tribe” with whom it was smart to have good relations and with whom they should work.
But one year after the Surge, a new regime took over in Washington that wanted to leave Iraq and Afghanistan. Once the locals again realized the Americans did not have the staying power and resolve to help them keep order, many turned against the Americans in order to protect themselves against their new ruler—ISIS, which stepped in to fill the vacuum. Nearly 40% of ISIS is comprised of Iraqis who formerly served in the Iraqi military, some with U.S. training. But once the Americans left, they felt they had no choice.
In other words, the Americans chose to lose. They did not have the willpower to stay and support those Muslims who threw their lot in with America. America abandoned them and they had to look for cover.
What Is the Future for Minorities in the Middle East?
What does this mean for the future of non-ruling Muslims and non-Muslims of the Middle East? Since America has abandoned them to their fate, countless numbers have been slaughtered. Others have found refuge in Jordan, one of the few stable Muslim states in the Middle East. Still more are taking advantage of the almost open-border policy adopted by the Europeans—especially the Germans—who might find some advantage in having an unlimited number of immigrants to man their factories. But the resulting cultural impact will be unimaginable. There will probably be upwards of one million immigrants—mostly from Syria—this year.
Previous immigrants to Germany, up until the 1960s, became German within a generation. Newer immigrants, mostly Muslims from Turkey and now Arab lands, have no intention of being culturally German. They form their own Muslim communities that mirror the cultures and countries they left behind. By the tens of thousands they have boarded airplanes and trains and rickety boats to find asylum outside the Middle East. Are we witnessing a new conquest of Europe by the Muslims who were thrown out of Spain in 1492 and stopped at Vienna on September 11, 1683? The choice of date for the World Trade Center bombing was not coincidental.
And what about those who remain behind? Do they have a future? Unless some outside force comes in to stop the chaos, murder will reign supreme. If things continue as they are, we can expect to see a non-Muslim free Middle East in the not too distant future, with the exception of Israel, which seems to be the only country prepared to do what is necessary to survive. In the wider sense, unless America is prepared to resume its unwanted role as policeman of the world, we can expect the area to suffer hundreds of thousands—if not millions—more people slaughtered, until either some outside force restores order, or much of the Middle East becomes devoid of its inhabitants.
Harold Rhode, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute. He served as Advisor on Islamic Affairs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense – Net Assessment, 1994-2010.