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Myths and Politics: Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Origin of the Myth of a
Tolerant, Pluralistic Islamic Society
Why the British Empire Fostered the Myth of Islamic Tolerance
[30 March 2005]
Ladies and gentlemen:
My subject this evening is: Myths and Politics: Origin of the Myth of a Tolerant Pluralistic Islamic Society. I stress the world "tolerant," which was omitted from the program.
Ten years ago, when I came to America for the launching of my book: "The Dhimmi, Jews And Christians Under Islam," I was struck by the inscription on the Archives Building in Washington: "Past is Prologue." I had thought, at least at the beginning of my research, that my subject related to a remote past, but I realized that contemporary events were rapidly modernizing this past. Muslim countries where Islamic law -- the Shari'a -- had been replaced by modern juridic, imposed by the European colonizing powers, were abandoning the secularizing trend, replacing it with Islamization in numerous sectors of life. This impression of the return of the past became even more acute when I was working on my next book, published in 1991, the English edition of which will appear in a few months under the title, "The Decline Of Eastern Christianity Under Islam - 7th To 20th Century: From Jihad To Dhimmitude."
In this study, I tried to analyze the numerous processes that had transformed rich, powerful Christian civilizations into Islamic lands and their long-term effects, which had reduced native Christian majorities into scattered small religious minorities, now slowly disappearing. This complex Islamization process of Christian lands and civilizations on both shores of the Mediterranean - and in Irak and Armenia - I have called: the process of "dhimmitude" and the civilization of those peoples who underwent such transformation, I have named the civilization of "dhimmitude".
The indigenous native peoples were Jews and Christians: Orthodox, Catholics, or from other Eastern Christian Churches. They are all referred to by Muslim jurists as the "Peoples of the Book" - the Book being the Bible - and are subjected to the same condition according to Islamic law. They are called dhimmis: protected peoples, because Islamic law protects their life and goods on condition that they submit to Islamic rule.
I will not go into details here for this is a very long and complex subject, but in order to understand the Serbian situation one should know that the Serbs were treated during half a millennium just like the other Christian and Jewish Dhimmis. They participated in this civilization of dhimmitude. It is important to understand that the civilization of dhimmitude grows from two religious institutions: Jihad and Shari'a, which establish a particular ideological system that makes it mandatory - during the jihad operation -- to use terror, mass killings, deportation and slavery. And the Serbs -- because I am speaking of them tonight -- did not escape from this fate, which was the same for all the populations around the Mediterranean basin, vanquished by Jihad. For centuries, the Serbs fought to liberate their land from the laws of Jihad and of Shari'a, which had legalized their condition of oppression.
So while I was analyzing and writing about the processes of dhimmitude and the civilization of dhimmitude, while listening to the radio, watching television, reading the newspapers, I had the uncomfortable feeling that the clock was being turned back.
Modern politicians, sophisticated writers -- using phones, planes, computers and all the modern techniques -- seemed to be returning several centuries back, with wigs or stiff collars, using exactly the same corrupting arguments, the same tortuous short-term politics that had previously contributed to the gradual Islamization of numerous non-Muslim peoples. I had to shake myself in an effort to distinguish the past from the present.
So, is the past always prologue? Are we doomed to remain always prisoners of the same errors? Certainly, if we do not know the past. And this past -- the long and agonizing process of Christian annihilation by the laws of Jihad and dhimmitude -- is a taboo history, not only in Islamic lands, but above all in the West. It has been buried beneath a myth, fabricated by Western politicians and religious leaders, in order to promote their own national strategic and economic interests.
Curiously, this myth started in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 19th century. It alleges that Turkish rule over Christians in its European provinces was just and lawful. That the Ottoman regime, being Islamic, was naturally "tolerant" and well disposed toward its Christian subjects; that its justice was fair, and that safety for life and goods was guaranteed to Christians by Islamic laws. Ottoman rule was brandished as the most suitable regime to rule Christians of the Balkans.
This theory was advanced by European politicians in order to safeguard the balance of power in Europe, and in order to block the Russian advance towards the Mediterranean. To justify the maintenance of the Turkish yoke on the Slavs it was portrayed as a model for a multi-ethnical and multi-religious empire. Of course, the reality was totally different! First the Ottoman Empire was created by centuries of Jihad against Christian populations; consequently the rules of Jihad, elaborated by Arab-Muslim theologians from the 8th to the 10th centuries, applied to the subjected Christian and Jewish populations of the Turkish Islamic dominions. Those regulations are integrated into the Islamic legislation concerning the non-Muslim vanquished peoples and consequently they present a certain homogeneity throughout the Arab and Turkish empires.
The civilization of dhimmitude in which the Serbs participated had many aspects that evolved with changing political situations. In the 1830s, forced by the European powers, the Ottomans adopted a series of reforms aiming at ending the oppression of the Christians.
In the Serbian regions, the most fanatical opponents of Christian emancipation were the Muslims Bosniaks. They fought against the Christian right to possess lands and, in legal matters, to have equal rights as themselves. They pretended that under the old system that gave them full domination over the Christians, Muslims and Christians had lived for centuries in a convivial fraternity. And this argument is still used today by [Bosnian Muslim] President Izetbegovic and others. He repeatedly affirms that the 500 years of Christian dhimmitude was a period of peace and religious harmony.
Let us now confront the myth with reality. A systematic enquiry into the condition of the Christians was conducted by British consuls in the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s. Britain was then Turkey's strongest ally. It was in its own interest to see that the oppression of the Christians would be eliminated in order to prevent any Russian or Austrian interference. Consul James Zohrab sent from Bosna-Serai (Sarajevo) a lengthy report, dated July 22, 1860, to his ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Henry Bulwer, in which he analyzed the administration of the provinces of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He stated that from 1463 to 1850 the Bosniak Muslims enjoyed all the privileges of feudalism. During a period of nearly 300 years Christians were subjected to much oppression and cruelty. For them no other law but the caprice of their masters existed.
The Devshirme system is well known. Begun by the Sultan Orkhan (1326-1359), it existed for about 300 years. It consisted of a regular levy of Christian children from the Christian population of the Balkans. These youngsters, aged from fourteen to twenty, were Islamized and enslaved for their army. The periodic levies, which took place in contingents of a thousand, subsequently became annual. To discourage runaways, children were transferred to remote provinces and entrusted to Muslim soldiers who treated them harshly as slaves. Another parallel recruitment system operated. It provided for the levy of Christian children aged six to ten (Ichoghlani), reserved for the sultans' palace. Entrusted to eunuchs, they underwent a tyrannical training for fourteen years. (A system of enslaving Black Christian and Animist children, similar to the Devshirme, existed in Sudan as is shown from documents to be published in my book. A sort of Devshirme system still exists today in Sudan and has been described and denounced by the United Nations Special Report on Sudan and in a recent article last Friday's Times of London.)
In 1850, the Bosniak Muslims opposed the authority of the Sultan and the reforms, but were defeated by the Sultan's army aided by the Christians who hoped that their position would thereby improve, "but they hardly benefited." Moreover, despite their assistance to the sultan's army, Christians were disarmed, while the Muslims who fought the sultan could retain weapons. Christians remained oppressed as before, Consul Zobrab writes about the reforms: "I can safely say, they practically remain a dead letter."
Discussing the impunity granted to the Muslims by the sultan, Zohrab wrote:
Commenting on this situation, the consul [Zobrab] writes:
In the spring of 1861 the sultan announced new reforms in Herzegovina, promising among other things freedom to build churches, the use of church bells and the opportunity for Christians to acquire land.
Commenting on this, Consul William Holmes in Bosna-Serai writes to Ambassador Sir Henry Bulwer that those promises rarely applied. He mentions that the Serbs, the biggest community, were refused the right to build a church in Bosna-Serai. Concerning the right to buy land, he writes,
Consul Longworth writes, from Belgrade on 1860 that by its Edicts,
The biggest problem, in fact, was the refusal to accept either Christian or Jewish testimony in Islamic tribunals.
Consul Longworth comments on "the lax and vicious principle acted upon in the Mussulman Courts, where, as the only means of securing justice to Christians, Mussulman false witnesses are permitted to give evidence on their behalf."
The situation didn't change, and in 1875 the Grand Vizier Mahmud Pasha admitted to the British Ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Henry Elliot, the "impossibility of allowing Christian testimony at courts of justice in Bosnia." Thus, the Ambassador noted: "The professed equality of Christians and Mussulmans is, however, so illusory so long as this distinction is maintained."
This juridical situation had serious consequences due to the system of justice, as he explained:
The difficulty of imposing reforms in such a vast empire provoked this disillusioned comment from Sir Francis, consul-general, judge at the British Consular Court in 1875 Constantinople:
From Consul Blunt writing from Pristina on 14 July 1860 to Ambassador Bulwer, we learn about the situation in the province of Macedonia:
Ten years before he said:
Fifteen years later, in another report from Bosna-Serai, dated December 30, 1875, from consul Edward Freeman, we learn that the Bosnian Muslims had sent a petition to the sultan stating that before the reforms, "they lived as brother with the Christian population." In fact, wrote the Consul, "their aim appears to [be to] reduce the Christians to their former ancient state of serfdom." So once again we go back to the myth. When reading the literature of the time, we see that the obstruction to Serbian, Greek and other Christian liberation movement was rooted in two main arguments:
1) Christian Dhimmis are congenitally unfitted for independence and self-government. They should therefore remain under the Islamic rule.
2) The Ottoman rule is a perfect model for a multi-religious and multi-ethnical society.
Indeed these are theological Islamic arguments that justify the Jihad since all non-Muslim people should not retain political independence because their laws are evil and must be eventually replaced by Islamic rule. We find the same reasoning in the Palestinian 1988 Covenant of the Hamas. Those arguments are very common in the theological and legal literature and are exposed by modern Islamists.
The myth didn't die with the collapse of the Turkish Empire after World War I. Rather it took another form: that of the National Arab Movement, which promoted an Arab society where Christians and Muslims would live in perfect harmony. Once again, this was the fabrication of European politicians, writers and clergyman. And in the same way as the myth of the Ottoman political paradise was created to block the independence of the Balkan nations, so the Arab multi-religious fraternity was an argument to destroy the national liberation of non-Arab peoples of the Middle East (Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Maronites and Zionists.)
And although from the beginning of this century until the 1930s, a stream of Christian refugees were fleeing massacres and genocide on the roads of Turkey, Irak and Syria, the myth continued to flourish, sustained mostly by Arab writers and clergyman. After the Israelis had succeeded in liberating their land from the laws of Jihad and Dhimmitude, the myth reappeared in the form of a multi-cultural and multi-religious fraternal Palestine which had to replace the State of Israel (Cf. Arafat's 1975 UN speech). Its pernicious effects led to the destruction of the Christians in Lebanon. One might have thought that the myth would end there.
But suddenly the recent crisis in Yugoslavia offered a new chance for its reincarnation in a multi-religious Muslim Bosnian state. What a chance! A Muslim state again in the heartland of Europe. And we know the rest, the sufferings, the miseries, the trials of the war that this myth once again brought in its wake.
To conclude, I would like to say a few last words. The civilization of dhimmitude does not develop all at once. It is a long process that involves many elements and a specific conditioning. It happens when peoples replace history by myths, when they fight to uphold these destructive myths, more then their own values because they are confused by having transformed lies into truth. They hold to those myths as if they were the only guarantee of their survival, when, in fact, they are the path to destruction. Terrorized by the evidence and teaching of history, those peoples preferred to destroy it rather than to face it. They replace history with childish tales, thus living in amnesia.
** End of speech **
About the author: Madam Bat Ye'or, author and scholar, was born in Egypt. A British citizen living in Switzerland, she is a specialist on Dhimmis and 'Dhimmitude,' a word she has coined, and the subject of her pioneer research for the past thirty-four years. She is author, since 1971, of numerous articles on non-Muslims under Islamic rule
For A list of Bat Ye'or's books and articles, go to http://www.dhimmitude.org/d_bycv.php
It is common to hear from Western intellectuals that Christians and Jews have been treated with great tolerance in Muslim-run societies. In fact this is a myth, as a study of the historical record shows. In the talk transcribed above, Madame Bat Ye’Or, author and scholar, born in Egypt, now a British citizen living in Switzerland, discusses the conditions of Serbs under Muslim rule during the Ottoman Empire. Madame Ye'or is the preeminent authority on the conditions of Christians and Jews in Muslim societies.
To learn more on the historical roots of the myth of Muslim tolerance, please open any encyclopedia and look for the "Eastern Question."
To simplify it: The superpower of the 19th century, Great Britain, waged a geopolitical game with the other potential superpower, Russia. The interests of the two crossed in the Balkans, then under Turkish occupation.
It would be most natural that Russia should have the strongest influence in that area. Most of the subdued Balkan nations were/are Eastern Orthodox, like the Russians. That did not fit British interests. That is how come Britain allied itself with Turkey and invented the myth of Muslim tolerance.
When the Ottomans cut throats, raped women and stole the children of Balkan Christians - and this is not hyperbole, it all happened with horrible regularity - it was OK for the Brits. It was an expression of tolerance...as long as Russians did not get influence in the Balkans.
History repeats itself. The portrayal of Mr. Izetbegovic and his associates in Bosnia, of the Palestinian Authority and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East and of the Karzai government in Afghanistan as advocates of tolerance is, as someone once said, "déjà vu all over again."
Does nothing change? Superpowers are playing again with the destiny of the peoples of the Balkans, Central Asia and the Middle East.
They play with fire.
-- Petar Makara
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