Journalists covering Iraq, please learn this word — ‘dhimmi’

Like it or not, journalists and editors who are handling coverage of events in Iraq are going to have to learn this controversial word — “dhimmitude.” Trust me, the faithful in minority religions who live in Mosul and on the Nineveh Plain, or who have recently fled this region, are already familiar with this concept.

Unfortunately, it is hard to point to a crisp, established online definition for “dhimmitude” right now because of waves of posts attempting to argue that this word is found somewhere in the Obamacare legislation. Ignore all of that, please. Instead, I suggest that readers surf through some of the material found in this online search for “dhimmitude,” “dictionary” and “definition.”

The key is that people of other faiths living in lands ruled by Islam are given “dhimmi” status in which they receive some protection under sharia law, in exchange for paying a Jizyah tax as a sign of submission. The big debates are about other conditions of submission which are, or are not, required under dhimmitude. Dhimmis are not allowed to protect themselves (some claim it is impossible to rape a dhimmi), to display symbols of their faith, to build (or even repair) their religious sanctuaries, to win converts, etc. Historically, dhimmis have been asked to wear some form of distinctive apparel as a sign of their inferior status. The key is that this is an protected, but inferior, status under strict forms of sharia law.

In a recent post, our own Jim Davis noted that some mainstream reporters have begun to notice the plight of religious minorities in the hellish drama unfolding in Iraq, including the suffering remnants of the land’s truly ancient Christian communities. Bobby Ross, Jr., also noted a fantastic New York Times piece about a related drama in Afghanistan.

Now, across the pond, The Telegraph has published a large news feature under the headline, “Iraq’s beleaguered Christians make final stand on the Mosul frontline.” There is much to applaud there, but one interesting gap linked to the failure to include dhimmitude in the picture. Here is some key background:

Between the Sunni and Shia Arabs of Iraq lie a patchwork quilt of other ethnic groups and faiths, many of whom have been reconsidering their future in the most obvious possible way since the allied invasion a decade ago unleashed the sectarian militias and their death squads. Anywhere between half and three quarters of Iraq’s Christians — Chaldean Catholics, Syriac Orthodox, and the rest — have left the country and the Middle East to start new lives abroad since 2003.

The town of Bartella, ten miles from Mosul, is largely Assyrian Orthodox, and its 16,000 citizens currently face a very vivid incarnation of an ever-present threat. They have been car-bombed at least twice in recent years, but this time their presumed adversaries have an army.

Focusing on the experiences of a Captain Firaz Jacob, a Christian who has refused to flee, the Telegraph notes:

If the jihadists are to be believed, he has nothing to fear. Through its social media accounts, the alliance of Isis and former Baathists from the Saddam Hussein regime that now runs Mosul has assured the wider world that they have no quarrel with the Christian minority.

So long as they observe the new rules — Sharia, implemented strictly — their places of worship will be protected. These are places of worship that go back thousands of years. The oldest extant church in the world, dated by its murals to the first half of the third century, is just over the border in Syria.

What does it mean to say that they will live under sharia “implemented strictly”? For example, some Christians left behind have even stated that their lives have improved, for the moment.

This story, however, fails to dig deeper than the sharia code that ISIS has established for the Muslim population. The dhimmis would be living under this code AND other stipulations that apply only to them. Read the following carefully, seen through the eyes of Umm Saad, a Christian woman who has taken refuge in St. Matthew’s Monastery near Bartella, which overlooks the Nineveh Plain.

Hers is one of 20 families living for the time being in the monastery’s cells. … Umm Saad said she and other Christian women would already wear the abaya — the long cloak and hood worn by women in the Gulf — when on the street, “otherwise there would be trouble”. Since the insurgents arrived, even if their forces of occupation are largely local Baathist remnants, they have posted rules for the implementation of their strict Sharia.

These demand that women should be covered and only go outside “if necessary”. Drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are banned, and all shrines, monuments and graveyards — seen as idolatrous in Salafi forms of Sunni Islam — will be destroyed.

When the jihadists arrived in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which they now completely control, residents also thought life was better for a while. Then they took over the two churches, tore down the crosses, and turned them into jihadi battalion recruiting stations.

Wait a minute. What does it mean to say that “shrines” are banned? How about icons?

The conditions being described here fit many of the characteristics of dhimmitude. Journalists who really want to look at this conflict through the eyes of human rights (think U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights) need to realize that they are now covering sharia, PLUS. Or you could say that journalists fail to realize that dhimmi status is a part of strictly implemented sharia.

There is an accurate word for what is happening to religious minorities in this drama. Please use it.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.