I've recently put up a list of books I've either read in the past months or am in the process of reading now. I'd like to give a general review of each book as I finish, but I also have a bit of a backlog in that area.. so here's the first one.
The Dhimmi: Jews & Christians Under Islam, by Bat Ye'or
I read this book sometime in the past year, and it is not as fresh in my mind as it was when I first read it. However, there were some points in it that made quite an impression on me.
To understand the book, I think it is first important to understand the author. Bat Ye'or is a pseudonym, meaning "Daughter of the Nile" in Hebrew. Bat Ye'or was indeed a Daughter of the Nile - a Jew, she was born in Egypt. Due to their Judaism her family was forced to flee, leaving Egypt in 1957.
I had witnessed the destruction, in a few short years, of a vibrant Jewish community living in Egypt for over 2,600 years and which had existed from the time of Jeremiah the Prophet. I saw the disintegration and flight of families, dispossessed and humiliated, the destruction of their synagogues, the bombing of the Jewish quarters and the terrorizing of a peaceful population. I have personally experienced the hardships of exile, the misery of statelessness−and I wanted to get to the root cause of all this. I wanted to understand why the Jews from Arab countries, nearly a million, had shared my experience.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part gives an analysis of the laws discrimminating the Dhimmi (ie, Jews and Christians) in the Muslim world, as well as the various safeguards, such as consular protection and then the emancipation forced by the European powers that helped them escape their downtrodden condition. Bat Ye'or then moves on to a discussion of how the Muslims view the Dhimmi today, how they use these terms and what has evolved/changed in the past century. So, for example, we see in the recent past the claims that the Muslims are the real Jews (ie, taking away the Dhimmi's very existence in history) and there are similar claims regarding Christianity.
The 2nd part, which is much more extensive (~250 pages), consists of documents from different time periods and different locations throughout the Arab world showing how the Dhimmi were treated. Bat Ye'or brings documents from Muslim jurists, Dhimmi observations of their own situation as well as documents from travellers who passed through Muslim lands and recorded their impressions.
I confess I did not read all the documents, but mainly the documents referenced in the main part of the text.
I was already aware of the general condition of the non-Muslims in Muslim countries, having studied this subject in the past, but there were several points which struck me when I read this book.
1. The book shows how noble are those peoples who have managed to hang on to their religion through the ages of Muslim rule. Yes, there have always been time when the situation wasn't as bad as it could be, but there were other times when most people either fled or converted to Islam. In discussions about the minorities under Islam it is important to keep in mind that the minorities which remained did so despite enormous pressures. In some places - such as Arabia - they have been completely wiped out.
2. Most Jewish communities in Muslim lands have been decimated, the Jews forced to flee in the past 50 years, but there are still minorities in existence, mainly the Christians. According to Bat Ye'or the Christian community is in a very difficult situation, mainly because they see themselves as Arab and feel they share in the Arab destiny. Though on the surface they are accepted, Bat Ye'or feels (and brings quotes to support her position) that this is only a temporary situation. Many Muslims tolerate the Arab Christians and enable them to fight "for the cause", but feel that once these goals will be achieved, they would then be able to turn to "cleaning out" the Arab nation and making it into a fully Muslim one, as it should be.
3. I got a general impression from the book that there is nothing to be done. The relation of the Muslim to the non-Muslim is inherent in Islam. It is very hard for me to accept, as I believe that people can change. However, I do realize where Bat Ye'or is coming from. Having grown up believing she was part of the society in which she grew up, she was forced to realize that indeed she wasn't - it did not matter that her family had lived in Egypt for generations, she was still an outsider in a Muslim country.
I still think that we cannot face the future without believing that this situation can be changed. In fact, I think that it is wrong to face the future otherwise. This situation will never change as long as the world as a whole accepts the fact that Muslims cannot live alongside non-Muslims (as it did this past August when all Jews were forced out of Gaza and as it does when it stays silent when Christians are oppressed). It is up to the Western world to press the point and to make sure that non-Muslims can live safely within Muslim countries, just as Muslims can live safely in non-Muslim lands.