Colin Chapman responds to Mark Durie on Iraq 'jihad'

August 21, 2014

Durie is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that the Islamic State (IS) is based on a very literal interpretation of Islamic sources and a deliberate attempt to imitate the way some Muslims engaged in jihad during and after the time of the Prophet Mohammed.


He is right to question the way the so-called conviviencia of Spain has been used as a model of Muslim-Christian co-existence. He is right to point out that the emphasis on spiritual jihad is a comparatively modern development (even though it is based on a particular saying of the Prophet), and that for centuries the main meaning of jihad was the struggle for the (territorial) expansion of Islam. He is right to call a spade a spade and talk about ‘Islamic imperialism’ and the dhimma system that turned Jews and Christians into second-class citizens.




I suspect, however, that Durie has oversimplified the history. The jizya was imposed on Jews and Christians, and not on all non-Muslims.


The stipulations about dress come from the so-called Code of ‘Umar, which most scholars believe was written at a later period but attributed to the Caliph ‘Umar, and these stipulations were not enforced uniformly in every period and in every place.


In the early conquests the few thousand Arab Muslim conquerors probably didn’t want many Jews and Christians to convert to Islam because they needed their taxes. The conversion of large numbers of Christians came after two or three centuries.




For a much more accurate and nuanced account of the history of Muslim-Christian relations in the Middle East over fourteen hundred years I strongly recommend Philip Jenkins’ The Lost History of Christianity: the thousand-year golden age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa and Asia (Lion, 2008).


One of the strengths of the book is his account of the decline in numbers of the Christian communities in the region over many centuries, and the way he tries to be scrupulously fair in pointing out factors which had something to do with Islam and factors which had nothing whatsoever to do with Islam.


His account of the Mongol invasion between 1290 and 1330, the intense persecution of Christians in Egypt in the 14h century (which he calls ‘the Great Tribulation’), and the Armenian genocide is chilling.


But he never tries to blame everything on Islam: ‘Historically, all major religions have produced multiple instances of intolerance and persecution … At various times, some Muslim regimes have been inconceivably brutal, others mild and accommodating. That diversity suggests that episodes of persecution and violence derive not from anything inherent in the faith of Islam, but from circumstances in particular times and places.’


And here is Jenkins’ take on those today who only speak of the tolerance of Islam: ‘In reality, the story of religious change involves far more active persecution and massacre at the hands of Muslim authorities than would be suggested by modern believers in Islamic tolerance.


'Even in the most optimistic view, [Karen] Armstrong’s reference to Christians possessing "full religious liberty” in Muslim Spain or elsewhere beggars belief.’




Another difficulty I have with Durie’s approach is the way he seems to believe that everything that IS does can be explained by appealing to texts. Texts are important – for Muslims as they are for Christians - but we need much more than texts to understand the phenomenon of IS.


We need to understand the impact of centuries of Western imperialism in the Muslim world, the history of the Middle East since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the Zionist movement and the creation of Israel in 1948, the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979, the devastating results of the Iraq war in 2003, the increasing tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites, the renewed cold war between the US and Russia, and the proxy wars being fought out at the present time in several countries in the region.


The tragic mess unfolding in Iraq and Syria can’t be explained simply in terms of texts. And it’s a pretty bold accusation to ignore all the history and politics and suggest that the views of scholars who don’t agree with Durie’s understanding of Islam are actually ‘fuelling genocide’ in the Middle East!


I would like to hear how Durie talks to thoughtful Muslim scholars and leaders around him who are utterly appalled by what IS is doing. I hope he engages in some ‘hard talk’ with them, as I try to do with the Muslims I know.


But if he really listens to them, I hope that he doesn’t dismiss everything they say as ‘denial about Islam’, ‘lies’, ‘theological illiteracy’, ‘obscurantism’, ‘dissimulations’, ‘wilful historical ignorance’ and ‘self-hatred’.


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