An ISIS tax on Christians? The accurate word is ‘dhimmitude’

A month ago, I wrote a post about the events unfolding in Mosul and argued that journalists who covered this story — those brave enough to venture into the Nineveh Plain region — needed to grasp the meaning of the word “dhimmitude.”

Yes, this is a controversial term.

Yes, it is the right word to use when covering the unfolding strategies of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, when dealing with the ancient Christian communities in this region. As I wrote in that post:

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.

This term should have been used in the courageous New York Times piece — “Life in a Jihadist Capital: Order With a Darker Side” — that is getting quite a bit of online attention right now, and justifiably so.

Yes, I know that this article violates the Associated Press Stylebook’s rule on use of the historic term “fundamentalist.” What else is new? This appears to be a consistent policy at the Times, making sure that readers link this term from conservative Protestantism with the worst of what is happening under Islam. Thus, concerning ISIS, the world’s most powerful newspaper stresses that the group has “begun imposing its vision of a state that blends its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam with the practicalities of governance.”

However, this story is crucial because it includes on-site reporting in the region.

An employee of The New York Times recently spent six days in Raqqa and interviewed a dozen residents. The employee and those interviewed are not being identified to protect them from retaliation by the extremists who have hunted down and killed those perceived as opposing their project.

Included in this fresh reporting, near the bottom of the story, is the following information:

Raqqa’s three churches, once home to an active Christian minority, have all been shuttered. After capturing the largest, the Armenian Catholic Martyrs Church, ISIS removed its crosses, hung black flags from its facade and converted it into an Islamic center that screens videos of battles and suicide operations to recruit new fighters.

The few Christians who remain pay a minority tax of a few dollars per month. When ISIS’s religious police officers patrol to make sure shops close during Muslim prayers, the Christians must obey, too.

Note the reference to ISIS demands that members of minority faiths pay a special tax. What, pray tell, is that all about?

Clearly, this is payment for non-Muslims to be granted dhimmi status, in which members of minority religions accept limited protection — which may simply mean that they are not executed. But why not use the historic term for this policy? Also, “a few dollars per month” is rather vague. How much money are we talking about, in the context of a war-torn land?

Other media reports have also noted that ISIS soldiers are marking the doors of Christian homes with an “n” symbol, which stands for “Nazarene.” In other words, these believers are labeled as foreigners, even though they have lived in the Nineveh Plain since the earliest days of Christianity, long before the birth of Islam. This has led, in social media, to the #WeAreN campaign (see graphic at the top of this post).

Let me stress that the Times should be commended for daring to send its own personnel into this dangerous territory. Even with a reporter on the scene, it’s pretty obvious that most of the information is second hand. It must be very dangerous for outsiders to move around. Thus, readers listen in on dangerous, and anonymous, interviews:

In the city of Raqqa, traffic police officers keep intersections clear, crime is rare, and tax collectors issue receipts. But statues like the landmark lions in Al Rasheed Park have been destroyed because they were considered blasphemous. Public spaces like Al Amasy Square, where young men and women once hung out and flirted in the evenings, have been walled off with heavy metal fences topped with the black flags of ISIS. People accused of stealing have lost their hands in public amputations.

“What I see in Raqqa proves that the Islamic State has a clear vision to establish a state in the real meaning of the word,” said a retired teacher in the city of Raqqa. “It is not a joke.”

The purpose of this story was not to update the status of the thousands of refugees who are fleeing the region, many after refusing to convert to Islam. The goal of this story was to demonstrate why some locals welcome the relative calm brought by the ISIS regime, while others are suffering.

At the heart of the story, however, are the fine details of the ISIS interpretation of sharia law. Thus, we can only hope that members of the Times team are able to report additional details in future reports. There is more to this story than religion, but the story cannot be covered without getting the religion details right.

The word, again, is “dhimmitude.”

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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.