Americans must transcend ignorance on mosque near Ground Zero

By Mark R. Cohen The proposed Ground Zero mosque in New York (like a similar mosque opened recently in Roxbury, … Continued

By Mark R. Cohen

The proposed Ground Zero mosque in New York (like a similar mosque opened recently in Roxbury, Mass.) has triggered a fierce controversy, with advocates and opponents engaged in a vigorous war of words. Some of that debate has taken place recently in the pages of the Washington Post’s “On Faith” section.
In a thoughtful On Faith post, John Kiser weighed in in favor of the construction of the mosque and emphasized the need for better understanding of Islam. Several of the many negative reader-responses to his article mentioned the concept of “dhimmitude” as ostensible proof of Islam’s inherent intolerance. Reflected in these responses is a common misconception about Islam’s treatment of its religious minorities.

The term “dhimmitude” was coined in 1982 by the Maronite-Christian President of Lebanon, Bashir Gemayel, referring to the state of subordination to Muslims that Christian Lebanese would not tolerate. It was made famous in western discourse by Bat Ye’or, the pseudonym of an Egyptian Jewish émigré of the 1950s who writes about the status of Jews and Christians from the rise of Islam in the seventh century to modern times. She portrays a demeaning Islamic policy towards these non-Muslims, a policy aimed at humiliating and even persecuting them, and, by extension, a foundation of modern Muslim anti-Semitism.

As an historian of Jewish-Muslim relations, I feel that a clarification is necessary. The dhimma status conferred upon non-Muslims has its skeletal origins in the Qur’an and its characteristic elaboration in the so-called Pact of ‘Umar, ascribed to the second Caliph after Muhammad’s death, who ruled 634-644. The term “dhimma” actually means “protection,” specifically the protection granted to non-Muslim People of the Book, mainly Jews and Christians. This included protection of property, freedom of religion, and the right of communal autonomy. This “policy” of Islam, in its classical, authentic form, reflects a certain kind of tolerance–but not the kind of tolerance we think of today. Protection didn’t come without a price: payment of an annual head tax (usually limited to adult males) and maintenance of a “low profile,” acknowledging the superiority of Islam.

In the Middle Ages, tolerance as we know it was not a virtue, not for Judaism, not for Christianity and not for Islam. Each saw itself as the recipient of a new, divine election, replacing its predecessors and charged with the responsibility of asserting its superiority, of keeping others in a lowly position, of proselytizing, even to the point of forcing others to convert. This hierarchical relationship determined interreligious relations throughout the Middle Ages. In the Islamic world, other monotheists occupied a low rank in this hierarchy, but it was a rank nonetheless. The dhimmis were never excluded from the social order of the Islamic polity, nor were they expelled from majority society, as they were in medieval Christendom. They were second-class subjects, to be sure, but they benefitted from the protection conferred by their dhimma status. Moreover, the strictures of the Pact of ‘Umar were frequently ignored, by dhimmis and rulers alike.

During roughly the first half of Islamic history, from the seventh through the twelfth or thirteenth centuries, Muslims and dhimmis lived, not in an interfaith utopia, but in a live-and-let-live situation, each recognizing its assigned place in the hierarchical order of things. Within this hierarchy many different religions and ethnic groups lived side-by-side, occupying the same physical space, creating a pluralistic mosaic of cultures and religions. But tolerance, if by “tolerance” we mean the equality of all peoples, did not exist. Nor should we expect it to have existed. What is important is that, despite, or perhaps by virtue of the dhimma system, non-Muslims and Muslims interacted rather comfortably in day-to-day affairs, shared fully in economic life, and practiced medicine in the same hospitals. Episodes of persecution–and they periodically occurred–were almost always triggered when dhimmis were perceived to be violating the low rank to which they were assigned by Islamic law. Yet some dhimmis occupied important positions in Islamic government, with the tacit consent of Muslim rulers and in violation of the code of the dhimma. Finally, non-Muslim intellectuals studied, often in interdenominational settings, the same scientific, philosophical, and medical texts as did Muslims–Arabic translations of works originally written in Greek. They argued about religion and philosophy in sessions that were governed by rules of gentlemanly conduct. These were intellectual exchanges, not polemical “trials” in which the minority was guaranteed to lose out to the majority. The deep immersion of non-Muslims in Arabic-Islamic culture is the basis of the “Golden Age” conception of harmony. There was harmony, though it had its limits.

Applying contemporary standards of tolerance to medieval Muslim history and policy does a disservice to the prospects of reconciliation in our times. The assumption by some that an inherent medieval Islamic intolerance prevailed and that it underlies present-day Muslim terrorism is a distortion of reality. On the other side, the self-ascribed mission of the small minority of “card-carrying” Islamist fundamentalists to revive the pristine Islam of the Qur’an is itself a distortion that conveniently overlooks the pluralism of medieval Islam and the promise of freedom of religion embedded in the Qur’an and in other foundational Islamic texts. Until non-Muslims begin to understand Islam in all its facets, we will be destined to live in ignorance of the “real” Islam and to act out of fear. The presence of Muslims in our midst, and of mosques like the one planned near Ground Zero, which will be an educational center as well as a place of prayer, is one good way of transcending this ignorance.

Mark R. Cohen is The Khedouri A. Zilkha Professor of Jewish Civilization in the Near East in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and a Rabbinical graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary). He is the author, among many books, of Under Crescent and Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages, and is the first recipient of the Goldziher Prize for scholarship promoting better understanding between Jews and Muslims, awarded by Center for the Study of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Relations at Merrimack College.

  • DAS2

    ISLAM IS NOT A RELIGION! IT IS A VERY DANGEROUS, MILITANT AND BARBARIC CULT, WHOSE CORE PRINCIPLES ARE IN DIRECT CONFLICT WITH THE PRINCIPLES OF THE UNITED STATES. MOSQUES ARE MILITARY CENTERS AND SHOULD NOT BE ALLOWED ANYWHERE.ISLAM DOE S NOT ALLOW FOR:FREEDOM OF SPEECHTO READ MORE ON WHAT ISLAM TEACHES, GOOGLE: TOP TEN REASONS WHY SHARIA IS BAD FOR ALL SOCIETIES

  • DAS2

    ONE QUESTION FOR MUSLIMS: ARE YOU A FOLLOWER OF MUHAMMAD?GOOGLE: AMERICAN THINKER SHARIA LAWIS THIS WHAT YOU BELIEVE? DO YOU BELIEVE THERE SHOULD BE NO FREEDOM OF SPEECH WHEN CRITICIZING THE VIOLENT TEACHINGS OF MUHAMMAD?DO YOU BELIEVE WOMEN SHOULD BE BEATEN BY THEIR HUSBANDS?DO YOU BELIEVE THAT HOMOSEXUALS SHOULD BE KILLED?DO YOU BELIEVE THAT ANYONE WHO DENOUNCES ISLAM AND BECOMES A SECULAR PERSON OR CONVERTS TO ANOTHER RELIGION SHOULD BE MURDERED – AS REQUIRED UNDER ISLAMIC LAW, WHICH WAS BASED ON THE TEACHINGS OF MUHAMMAD?IF YOU BELIEVE THESE THINGS, THEN YOU ARE A FOLLOWER OF MUHAMMAD AND YOU WILL BE ON AN INEVITABLE PATH TO VIOLENCE AND WILL NOT BE ABLE TO SUBSCRIBE THE PRINCIPLES OF FREEDOM – EVER.IF YOU DO NOT BELIEVE IN THE TEACHINGS OF MUHAMMAD, THEN YOU MUST DENY ISLAM AND BECOME A SECULAR PERSON OR CONVERT TO A PEACEFUL RELIGION.PERHAPS YOU SHOULD TRY READING WHAT JESUS TAUGHT INSTEAD!WHAT MUSLIMS DON’T UNDERSTAND IS THAT THEIR “HONOR KILLINGS” ARE FUTILE, AND A WASTE OF HUMAN LIFE; BECAUSE YOUR “HONOR” HAS ALREADY BEEN RESTORED THROUGH JESUS CHRIST!

  • ron10

    Cohen writes, “The presence of Muslims in our midst, and of mosques like the one planned near Ground Zero, which will be an educational center as well as a place of prayer, is one good way of transcending this ignorance.”And it’s a GREAT way to say, come on in, you 157 million militant, radicalized Muslims. We infidels are a soft target. Follow your Qu’ran and win your way to the afterlife.”Applying contemporary standards of tolerance to medieval Muslim history and policy does a disservice to the prospects of reconciliation in our times.”No, Mr. Cohen. We are applying contemporary standards of tolerance to current, modern Muslim history and policy– and their actions.Are you blind? Why do you defend murderers hell-bent on killing your own race as directed by their own holy scriptures? Innocent blood will be on your hands, Mr. Cohen, and on those of anyone supporting this blatantly evil travesty.

  • responsiblepublic

    There is one sure way to gain radicals’ “moral victory over us” – to get Americans to deny the truths that we find self-evident, to get Americans to deny the religious freedom guaranteed in our Constitution, and to get Americans to deny our universal human rights of freedom of religion, freedom of worship, and freedom of conscience. After the Holocaust and Hitler’s Nazi Germany, the United Nations bound together to say “Never Again” through a Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” We will stand responsible for equality and liberty.

  • hellooutthere

    Yes Americans are “ignorant” about the true face of Islam. They see women being stoned to death and not extended even the basic human rights in Islamic countries and they are to “ignorant” to see the true face of Islam. They see Muslim countries trying to legislate universal blasphemy laws through the UN yet they are too “ignorant” to see the true face of Islam. They see demands in their public schools to accommodate Muslims religious beliefs, they see Christian ministers ostracized for praying in Jesus name, they see Muslims demanding the segregation of their public swimming pools and gyms to accommodate their religion yet they are too “ignorant” to see the true face of Islam. They see shariah law implemented in Britain and the advocating for the same in the US (advocated by Abdul Rauf) and yet they still remain “ignorant. They see Muslims demanding that their women have the “right” to cover their faces in public regardless of the fact that no one else has the “right” to do so…all these things and thousands of others Americans are shown and yet they are still “ignorant” about Islam. so we must build this thirteen story mosque. no wait it is a community center with a mosque in it…no wait it is a community center with a prayer space in it….no wait (stay turned for the next metamorphosis) to be named Cordoba House (until it became public knowledge exactly what that name stands for)…no wait it is to be named ……yes Americans are “ignorant” about the true face of Islam.

  • hellooutthere

    Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them. – Karl Popper

  • nyadrian

    What condescending nonsense. The reason the plurality of Americans opose a mosque at ground zero is that what they have learned about Islam appalls them. This one way street of tolerance, where Muslims hostile to the West and its values still immigrate here, neeeds to stop. This mosque is intended as a symbol of defiance, of dominance, and of victory. Why else build it as close to ground zero as possible AND plan to open it on 9/11?

  • scoran

    It’s actually a “cultural center” and not a mosque, that is supposed to promote understanding and tolerance. But I’ll asking the leftists who support this place, if it’s supposed to promote tolerance, do you think they will be tolerant of homosexuals there?

  • ThomasBaum

    hellooutthereYour response on July 30, 2010 10:50 AM: “The recent and controversial call by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, primate of the Church of England and spiritual leader of 80 million Anglicans, for incorporation of Sharia law into British law will not be the last utterance in favor of Islamic law. Nor should it be. The addition of Sharia law to “the law of the land”, in this case British law, complements, rather than undermines, existing legal frameworks. The Archbishop was right. It is time for Britain to integrate aspects of Islamic law.First, the increased integration of Sharia law would merely sanction and improve upon what is already occurring: western Muslims practicing Sharia law without violating western law.”,is quite clear on the fact that you believe that islam and sharia should dictate to the rest of the world.As I have said, islam whether by terrorism, the ballot box, lies, or whatever is about world domination and the imposition of “sharia” law.At first, the “sharia law” may be binding only on Muslims but wait and see.By the way, Jesus is God-Incarnate, He is NOT the prophet of the god of islam, who is not God but a god wannabe.The True, Living, Triune, Triumphant God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof.Yes, God is a Trinity and this really seems to irk the god-wannabe, doesn’t it?God’s Plan, which God has had since before Creation, will come to Fruition and God’s Plan is for ALL of Creation to be in God’s Kingdom which includes ALL OF HUMANITY.Take care, be ready.Sincerely, Thomas Paul Moses Baum.

  • mollyfreeman

    Informative, powerful statement. Thanks, Mark.

  • heathergreeneyes

    This article refers to “protection” of christians and jews under islamic law.But doesn’t this mean that for this to occur, Islamic law must be in place and then under it this protection is then given?Is Islam willing to be a co-equal instead? Or do the other religions have to be subject to Islams governance and then simply except its “protection”?There is a very big difference between one faith assuming it is in control and then allows the other two faiths to exist UNDER it and all three faiths being equal.We are told, in relation to the idea of a Mosque at ground zero, that this mosque is named for a time when Islam Christianity and Jeadism all “co-existed” in peace.But did this mean they co-existed as equals? Did Muslims, jews and christians all have votes on governance? Did Muslims Jews and christians all hold public offices? Could muslims, jews and christians all own land? Or did just Muslims have these rights?It is fine to say that all three religions “co-existed” but I think we also need to know how “co-existed” is defined!

  • heathergreeneyes

    I would except this mutli faith center at ground zero if it were to contain a mosque, a christian church and a synagog.Why is it called a multi faith center, when it appears it will only have a mosque within it’s walls?A multi faith center, but with a house of worship for only one religion?

  • chimom

    This cultural center/ mosque is supposed to be a lesson in TOLERANCE, from …ISLAMIST’S! ….Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha….

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