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.

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  • Julia B

    This is a great source – “Understanding Dhimmitude” by Bat Yeor

  • Julia B

    Some of the Iraqi-born attendees at a family wedding where the bride is from an Assyrian Catholic family told me, among other things, that the Christians who remain in Muslim countries are widely disliked because they are mostly well-off. This is the consequence of the heavy jizyah taxes that only the well-off could afford – the poorer folks over the centuries gradually became Muslim as they could no longer afford the taxes. It’s not the only reason Christians are not liked and resented by the ordinary Muslim folks, but it really complicates their position in society beyond the religion issue.

  • deann47

    Among many similar headlines yesterday was this one: “ISIS makes Mosul’s Christians pay $250 poll tax amid economic hardships” but in none of the reports did I see the word “dhimmi.” Buried in one report was a reference to a story run by the Assyrian International News Agency relaying that on June 12 ISIS supposedly decreed that unmarried women in Mosul must be sent to perform “jihad by sex” for their “brotherly mujihadeen” or else they’ll impose sharia. Christians are not mentioned in the supposed decree, but I can’t imagine any Muslim family handing over a daughter to such a “service.”

    • Julia B

      FWIW RE: The Assyrian International News Agency. Since I now have Assyrian relatives, I checked out how “Assyrian” is different from “Syrian”. It’s disputed, but this seems to be the most rational explanation: When Alexander the Great destroyed the Persian Empire the Greek overlords decided to call the people Syrians instead of Assyrians – something to do with the Greek language, I guess.

      Today, I understand, Syria is basically a geographical area with a number of different ethnicities. There is still an ethnic community of Assyrians in both Iraq and Syria. The Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, each have a church called “Syriac” and another called “Assyrian”. And it appears that Rome sometimes identifies the “Assyrian Catholic Church” as the “Syriac Catholic church”. It’s really messy and hard to untangle. I find it’s most helpful to ask the name of the group’s Patriarch and Google that name to find out what they call themselves.

      The Christian people in the region have inter-married over the centuries. One “relative” I met at the Assyrian Catholic wedding told me she was actually Armenian and escaped with her family from the Turks – her parents perished and she was taken in by Assyrians and now identifies as Assyrian. Altho this sounds like they have amicably blended, I also found out that you dare not confuse “Assyrian” with the better-known “Chaldean”. For some reason that gets people hot under the collar.

      I don’t know where journalists can find reliable explanations of these groups’ names and history that isn’t contradicted and disputed by the groups among themselves. But the bigger problem is that they are all disappearing from the Middle East no matter by what name they are known. However, it would be nice to describe these disappearing people accurately.

  • boinkie

    I just finished Jenkin’s book on the Lost Christianities of the East,LINK and i suggest journalists read that book, which tells a “non Eurocentric” history of Islam and Christianity. Dimmitude and outright persecutions destroyed the once vibrant Christian church of Asia.

  • Ira Rifkin

    To clarify: The Dhimmi status ONLY applies to Jews, Christians and, I believe, Zoroastrians. That means that Hindus and Buddhists living under immoderate Muslim governance can and are treated even worse.

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