‘Three Choices’ and the bitter harvest of denial: How dissimulation about Islam is fuelling genocide in the Middle East
by- 12th August 2014
In northern Iraq religious genocide is reaching end-game stage. Islamic State (IS) soldiers, reinforced with military equipment originally supplied by the US, are driving back Kurdish defenders who had been protecting Christians and other religious minorities. While hundreds of thousands of refugees have been fleeing into Kurdistan, around 40,000 Yazidis and some Christians are trapped on Mount Sinjar, surrounded by IS jihadis. (Yazidis are Kurdish people whose pre-Christian faith derives from ancient Iranian religious traditions, with overlays and influences from other religions.)
The Assyrian Aid Society of Iraq has reported that children and the elderly are dying of thirst on Sinjar. Parents are throwing their children to their deaths off the mountain rather than see them die of thirst or be taken into slavery by IS.
The IS jihadis are killing the men they capture. In one recent incident 1500 men were executed in front of their wives and families. In another incident 13 Yazidi men who refused to convert to Islam had their eyes plucked out, were doused with gasoline and burned alive. When the men are killed, captured women and children are enslaved to be used for sex, deployed as human shields in battle zones, or sold to be used and abused as their new owners see fit.
The United States has ironically called for greater cooperation. UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, urged ‘all parties to the conflict’ to allow access to UN relief agencies. She called on Iraqis to ‘come together’ so that Iraq will ‘get back on the path to a peaceful future’ and ‘prevent ISIL from obliterating Iraq’s vibrant diversity’.
Of course it is not ‘vibrant diversity’ which is being wiped out in Iraq, but men, women and children by their tens of thousands. This is not about the failure of coexistence, and the problem is not ‘conflict’. This is not about people who have trouble getting on and who need to somehow make up and ‘come together’. It is about a well-articulated and well-documented theological worldview hell-bent on dominating ‘infidels’, if necessary wiping them off the face of the earth, in order to establish the power and grandeur of a radical vision of Islam.
The American administration, according to Nina Shea of the Hudson Institute, ‘withholds arms from the Kurds while awaiting a new, unified Iraqi government with a new prime minister. Meanwhile … no Iraqi troops are in Nineveh province.’ Only at a few minutes to midnight on the genocide clock has the US begun to launch military strikes against IS forces.
These events ought to be sobering to the West, not least because thousands of the IS jihadis were raised and bred in the mosques of Europe, North America and Australia, not to mention the madrassas of nations such as Malaysia, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Having been formed by the theology of radical Islam in their home societies, would-be jihadis are flocking to Syria and Iraq where they seek victory or martyrdom, killing and raping as they go.
Why is this so? How did the Arab Spring, hailed by so many armchair western commentators as the next best thing for the Middle East, blossom bright red into a torrent of blood?
Part of the answer is that the West is in the grip of theological illiteracy. It has stubbornly refused to grasp the implications of a global Islamic revival which has been gaining steam for the best part of a century. The Islamic Movement looks back to the glory days of conquest as Islam’s finest hour, and seeks to revive Islamic supremacy through jihad and sacrifice. It longs for a truly Islamic state – the caliphate reborn – and considers jihad to be the God-given means to usher it in.
This worldview was promoted in compelling, visionary terms by Indian scholar Abul A’la Maududi, whose writings continue to be widely disseminated by Islamic bookshops and mosques across the West. Maududi argued in his radicalisation primer Let us be Muslims that the only valid form of government is Islamic theocracy – i.e. sharia rule – and Muslims are duty-bound to use whatever power they can muster to impose this goal on the world: ‘whoever you are, in whichever country you live, you must strive to change the wrong basis of government, and seize all powers to rule and make laws from those who do not fear God. … The name of this striving is jihad.’ And ‘If you believe Islam to be true, you have no alternative but to exert your utmost strength to make it prevail on earth: you either establish it or give your lives in this struggle.’
My own copy of Let us Be Muslims, which lies open before me as I write, was bought from a well-respected mainstream Islamic centre here in Melbourne, Australia.
When Pope Benedict gave a lecture in Regensburg in 2006, in which he suggested that Islam had been spread by force, the Muslim world erupted in violent protests.
Sheikh ‘Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, responded with a revealing defence of Islam’s record. Without a glimmer of irony he argued that the Pope was wrong to say Islam had been spread by force, because the infidels had a third choice, apart from death or conversion, namely to ‘surrender and pay tax, and they will be allowed to remain in their land, observing their religion under the protection of Muslims.’ He claimed that those who read the Qur’an and the Sunna (the example and teaching of Muhammad) will understand the facts.
The reality unfolding in north Iraq today reveals to the cold light of day exactly what the doctrine of the three choices means for conquered non-Muslims populations, and why the dogma of the ‘three choices’ is no defence against the assertion that Islam was spread by the sword.
It is crystal clear that IS is not playing by the world’s rules. It has nothing but contempt for the Geneva Convention. Its battle tactics are regulated by sheikhs who implement the sharia’s rules of war. Many of the abuses committed by IS being reported by the international media are taken straight from the pages of Islamic legal textbooks.
Consider IS’s announcement to Christians in northern Iraq: ‘We offer them three choices: Islam, the dhimma contract – involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this, they will have nothing but the sword.’
These words are cobbled together from the pages of Islamic sacred texts. It was Sa'd b. Mu'adh, a companion of Muhammad, who said of the pagan Meccans ‘We will give them nothing but the sword’ ( A. Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad, OUP 1955 p. 454). Muhammad himself was reported to have said ‘When you meet your enemies who are polytheists [i.e. they are not Muslims] invite them to three courses of action. … Invite them to Islam… If they refuse to accept Islam, demand from them the jizya. … If they refuse to pay the tax, seek Allah’s help and fight them’ (Sahih Muslim. The Book of Jihad and Expedition [Kitab al-Jihad wa’l-Siyar] 3:27:4294). When the Caliph ‘Umar attacked Persia, he announced to them ‘Our Prophet [Muhammad] … has ordered us to fight you till you worship Allah Alone or pay jizya’ (Sahih al-Bukhari, The Book of al-Jizya and the Stoppage of War 4:58:3159).
I have analysed the doctrine of the three choices in my book The Third Choice: Islam, dhimmitude and freedom, drawing extensively on Islamic sources to explain the worldview of jihad and the dhimma. That book now reads as a grim prophecy of the tragedy unfolding in Syria and Iraq.
The Arabic word jizya is derived from a root j-z-y which refers to something given as compensation, in substitution for something else. According to Arab lexicographers, jizya is tribute taken from non-Muslims living under Islamic rule ‘as though it were a compensation for their not being slain’. It is paid by defeated communities to compensate or reward their attackers for forgoing the right to kill, enslave or loot them.
The nineteenth-century Algerian Qur’anic commentator Muhammad ibn Yusuf at-Fayyish explained that jizya is ‘a satisfaction for their blood. It is … to compensate for their not being slain. Its purpose is to substitute for the duties of killing and slavery … It is for the benefit of Muslims.’ Over a thousand years earlier, Abu Yusuf Ya’qub, a Hanafi jurist wrote ‘their lives and possessions are spared only on account of the payment of the jizya.’
In 1799 William Eton, in a survey of the Ottoman empire, reported that Christians under Ottoman rule, on paying the jizya, were addressed with a standard form of words to the effect that ‘the sum of money received is taken as compensation for being permitted to wear their heads that year’ (Eton’s emphasis).
To be sure, there are other ways to interpret the Qur’an, but the point is that this understanding of jizya has become the operative one in Northern Iraq and Syria. It also has the backing of centuries of Islamic jurisprudence and practice. It was with this understanding of Islam that the Middle East, South Asia and large parts of Eastern Europe were conquered and occupied under Muslim rule until modern times.
This grim fact – that the IS jihadis can ably defend their theology on the basis of Islam’s history and religious traditions – means that it will be no easy task to persuade Muslim clerics and intellectuals to ‘debunk’ them. Such a strategy, which has been proposed by Peter Leahy, former head of the Australian Army, will be fraught with difficulties. Debunking would be a whole lot easier if radical ideologies were in fact bunkum. The problem is, the jihadis hold far too many theological trump cards from the Qur’an and the precedent of Muhammad’s example to be so easily routed on the field of ideas. Indeed it is the radicals who have become expert at debunking, as their successful global recruiting drive shows.
Let us consider some of the weight behind the radicals’ theology.
According to Islamic law, Christians and other non-Muslims who agree to keep their religion and their lives by paying jizya are subject to a dhimma treaty of surrender.
The word dhimma is derived from an Arabic word meaning ‘to blame’. It implies a liability or debt arising from fault or blame. The idea is that the non-Muslims, known as dhimmis, owe a debt to their conquerors for their lives, and non-observance of the treaty of surrender would attract blame and thus incur punishment. The dhimma conditions include payment of jizya by adult men, but also many demeaning legal disabilities which are enforced upon non-Muslims and apply in one form or another across most of the Muslim world right up to the present day: one example is widespread restrictions on building new churches in areas formerly conquered by Islam; another is restrictions on freedom of religious expression.
The imposition of these disabilities upon non-Muslims is in accordance with a command of Muhammad:
‘… I have been sent with a sword in my hand to command people to worship Allah and associate no partners with him. I command you to belittle and subjugate those who disobey me, for whoever imitates a people is one of them’ (cited from Musnad (chain of) Ahmad Ibn Hanbali, founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence).
One of the means of belittling non-Muslims has been to ensure that they would not ‘look alike’, by requiring that they wear discriminatory clothing, patches or even, in ancient times, seals around their necks.
A modern-day manifestation of the principle of not ‘looking alike’ is the application of the Arabic letter nun (for Nazrani, the Arabic word for Christians) to the exterior of Christian homes in Mosul. Using similar reasoning, the Taliban required that Afghan Hindus should wear discriminatory patches on their clothing, so their non-Muslim status could be instantly recognizable.
IS is even looking to the model of first century Islam to set the level of the jizya tax. Early Islamic sources state that the jizya was a minimum of one gold dinar, and up to four dinars, depending upon the wealth of the individual dhimmi. Following these provisions to the letter, IS has made the following declaration:
‘Christians are obligated to pay Jizya tax on every adult male to the value of four golden dinars for the wealthy, half of that for middle-income citizens and half of that for the poor . . . they must not hide their status, and can pay in two instalments per year.’
A gold dinar weighs about 4.5 grams, which at $45 a gram means that a tax regime of one to four dinars equates to $200 to $800 US dollars per non-Muslim adult male. This is a heavy burden for a conquered people in a war zone, and the reality on the ground in both Syria and Iraq has been that the jihadis demand much more, and not once a year as its textbooks state, but again and again.
Convert or die
Reports show that IS has been setting jizya so high in both Syria and northern Iraq, and levying it so often, that it cannot be paid. This gives Christians who wish to stay in their homes but two choices: convert or die. Most have fled, but some, including those who are too frail or disabled to flee, have had to convert to save themselves. The fleeing refugees are in a particularly desperate situation, because they are progressively stripped of their belongings by IS checkpoints as they escape.
There is nothing new here. Throughout history the jizya has been a heavy imposition for non-Muslims. Large numbers of Christians converted to Islam in the early centuries of Islamic rule in order to avoid this tax. Dionysius, a Syrian patriarch writing in the eighth century, reported that the jizya often had to be extracted from Christians by beatings, extortion, torture, rape and killings. Many fled destitute from town to town after they had sold everything they owned to pay the tax.
Arthur Tritton reported in The Caliphs and their Non-Muslim Subjects about eighth-century Egypt that for ordinary day labourers the jizya tax was around a quarter of annual earnings, or ten times the zakat tax paid by Muslims. Shlomo Dov Goitein, writing on the situation of Jews in medieval Egypt, reported that men would enslave themselves or their family to pay the tax. Centuries after Dionysius of Antioch, he also reported that many, having sold all they had to pay it, took to wandering homeless as beggars.
Rules of war
The treatment of captives by IS is also in accordance with orthodox rules of war in Islam, which permit men to be killed, while women and children are enslaved. Sex slavery – concubinage – is permitted by the sharia principles which guide IS. The Reliance of the Traveller – a respected Sunni manual of sharia law – states: ‘When a child or a woman is taken captive, they become slaves by the fact of capture, and the woman’s previous marriage is immediately annulled’ (chapter o9.13). The option of converting to Islam to avoid death or capture – which is being urged upon non-Muslims by IS – is also clearly supported: ‘Whoever enters Islam before being captured may not be killed or his property confiscated, or his young children taken captive’ (chapter o9.12).
The widespread looting of property is also validated by Islam’s rules of war: ‘A free male Muslim who has reached puberty and is sane is entitled to the spoils of battle when he has participated in a battle to the end of it’ (chapter o10.1). And ‘Anyone who … kills one of the enemy or effectively incapacitates him, risking his own life thereby, is entitled to whatever he can take from the enemy, meaning as much as he can take away with him in the battle, such as a mount, clothes, weaponry, money or other’ (chapter o10.2).
The grim reality is that the fate of Christians and Yazidis in northern Iraq today all too often matches the stipulations of Islamic textbooks: non-Muslim men are killed, their women and children enslaved, and their property and possessions looted.
It is regrettable that the hard cold reality of Islamic imperialism and the dhimma system have been denied and obscured by scholars. For example Bernard Lewis claimed that ‘The dhimma on the whole worked quite well.’
As part of this obscurantist veil, the true meaning of the words jizya and dhimma have been hidden by scholars.
Anglican priest Colin Chapman, who was the then Archbishop of Canterbury’s envoy to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, claimed in his widely-ready book Cross and Crescent that Jews and Christians were ‘protected’ and implied that the jizya was paid in compensation for them not doing military service or paying the Muslims’ alms tax (zakat). In reality the main protection afforded to dhimmis is that they can keep their heads away from the sword of jihad, and it was in return for this privilege that the jizya is exacted. John Esposito similarly claimed that jizya is an ‘exchange’ in return for keeping one’s religion, protection from ‘outside aggression’, and exemption from military service.
Such dissimulations, also advanced by Muslim apologists, have served to prop up the myth of convivencia and a golden age in which Christians and Muslims lived contentedly side by side under Islamic rule.
Architects of multiculturalism and advocates of interfaith dialogue have repeatedly promoted this mythical Islamic construct as a model for different religions to flourish side by side in Europe today. This has gone hand in hand with the claims that European culture owes an unacknowledged debt to Islam, and Islam’s historical record has been misrepresented by hateful, bigoted people.
In reality Islamic coexistence with conquered Christian populations was always regulated by the conditions of the dhimma, as defined above, under which non-Muslims have no inherent right to life, but had to purchase this right year after year.
Wilful historical ignorance has been deeply debilitating for the intellectual elites of the West, who feel righteous in dismissing evidence which contradicts their corrupted worldview, on the grounds that they are taking a stand against the bigotry of Islamophobia. They have been schooled in this self-hatred by their Muslim dialogue partners.
Also debilitating has been the trend among scholars to deny or downplay the military meaning of jihad. An extreme example is Yale theologian Miroslav Volf’s preposterous claim that the use of military force to expand Islam is ‘rejected by all leading Muslim scholars today’.
The promotion of the idea of the ‘greater jihad’ as a personal spiritual struggle has also served to distract western leaders, such as CIA director John Brennan, who stated that ‘jihad is a holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one's community’.
In reality the meaning of jihad in all sharia textbooks is warfare against unbelievers. If the true meaning of jihad was a spiritual struggle with the self, IS would not be attracting so many willing volunteers from around the globe to the killing fields of Syria and Iraq.
There is a chronic and urgent need for a dialogue of civilizations between Islam and the post-Christian West. However this dialogue cannot be based upon myths. At the top of the agenda must be the twin institutions of jihad and the dhimma. It is essential for Western people to emphatically reject and stigmatize these two pillars of Islamic law, and to deplore to Muslims their application both throughout history and in the contemporary world.
One of the effects of enforced cultural blindness and intellectual amnesia is rampant theological illiteracy among Western policy makers. This is now having the direst of consequences for Christians and others in the Middle East. Those who managed the Western occupation of Iraq were deeply ignorant of the dangers to non-Muslim minorities posed by the Islamic revivalism combined with Western inference, and in particular by the re-establishment of the jihad-dhimma system. They overlooked the fact that re-establishing the dhimma has always been part of the agenda of Islamic revivalist movements. They did not grasp that jihad war zones always prove especially deadly to non-Muslims, even when the main conflict is between Muslims.
It had also been forgotten that advances in the rights of non-Muslim populations across the Middle East – such as the official dismantling of dhimma laws by the Ottomans in the mid-nineteenth century – were only achieved due to sustained political and military pressure from the Great Powers, and at the cost of suppressing mainstream Islamic dogmas. Indeed this ‘humiliation’ of Islam is one of the very things the global Islamic revival is supposed to be winding back: this is why the deterioration of the human rights of non-Muslim minorities – from Malaysia to Egypt – has been so marked in recent decades.
Today Islamic revivalist dogmas, which have become deeply entrenched in Muslim communities both throughout the West and in Muslim majority states, eulogize Islam’s glory days, when Christians and other non-Muslims paid jizya to keep their heads. Revivalists look forward to a time when sharia principles, implemented through unfettered jihad, will enforce the view that non-Muslims do not have an inherent right to life, but only a conceded right for which they must compensate Muslims in gold. We need not be surprised or shocked when young men from around the globe, reared on this poisonous theological cocktail, volunteer for jihad in Syria and Iraq to usher in a longed-for Islamic utopia. It should not shock us that they have no qualms about shedding non-Muslim blood.
The effect of the cultural jihad, waged not only by Muslim apologists, but also by western élites, is that Western policy makers have become blind to the enormity of present-day non-Muslim suffering under the yoke of Islam, for they have no reference points to comprehend it. To engage with this suffering and develop policies to counter it would require acknowledgement of its root causes, namely the theological framework of jihad and the dhimma, but that is simply too frightening for societies who have multicultural dogmas rusted onto their psyches, having embraced a false view of history and stubbornly obscurantist views about theology.
As long as policy makers continue to seek intellectual solace in calls for ‘conflict resolution’ and ‘reconciliation’, the vulnerable will continue to be killed, raped and looted in the name of Islamic revivalism. The lives of tens of thousands of vulnerable and peaceful Christians, Yazidis and others, whose crime is that their religion is unacceptable, now hang in the balance in northern Iraq, while the West sits paralyzed on the side lines, stunned and stupefied by the lies it has told itself for so many years.
This is not to say that reconciliation is unnecessary. Usama Bin Ladin got it right when he asserted that the doctrine of the three choices is the crux of the West’s problem with Islam: ‘The West avenges itself against Islam for giving infidels but three options’:
‘Our talks with the infidel West and our conflict with them ultimately revolve around one issue – one that demands our total support, with power and determination, with one voice – and it is: “Does Islam, or does it not, force people by the power of the sword to submit to its authority corporeally if not spiritually?” [The answer is:] Yes. There are only three choices in Islam: either willing submission; or payment of the jizya, through physical though not spiritual, submission to the authority of Islam; or the sword – for it is not right to let him [an infidel] live. The matter is summed up for every person alive: Either submit, or live under the suzerainty of Islam, or die.’
Bin Ladin was right about this, that Islam’s doctrine of three choices, encompassing the theological institutions of jihad and the dhimma, is and must be the central issue for the West in its dialogue with the Islamic world. An understanding of this doctrine and its implications for the human rights of non-Muslims should be a cornerstone of public policy in relation to Islam, both now and in the foreseeable future.
This will not be an easy or comfortable dialogue, judging from the howls of protest which greeted Pope Benedict’s comparatively mild Regensburg lecture in 2006. Yet appeasement of howling objectors through conflict-avoidance manoeuvers will bring nothing but grief, as we are seeing in northern Iraq.
According to the ‘Vicar of Bagdad’, Canon Andrew White, what is needed right now to help non-Muslim victims of Islamic jihadism is three things: Protection, Provision and Perseverance. The lie foisted upon the world was that there was nothing non-Muslims needed to be protected from.
Right now IS’s victims deserve military intervention, food, water and medical supplies. Many will need permanent sanctuary outside of their homelands.
Longer term, much more is needed. Certainly the will to persevere, because the world is in but the early stages of a (now resumed) centuries-long war with militant Islam, but above all, in order to make sustained progress in the long struggle ahead, we will require a greater appetite for the truth.
Mark Durie is a theologian, human rights activist, pastor of an Anglican church, a Shillman-Ginsburg Writing Fellow at the Middle Eastern Forum, and director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness. He has published many articles and books on the language and culture of the Acehnese, Christian-Muslim relations and religious freedom. A graduate of the Australian National University and the Australian College of Theology, he has held visiting appointments at the University of Leiden, MIT, UCLA and Stanford, and was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1992.