In today’s New York Times appears an insightful op-ed by Mustafa Akyol, one of my favorite writers on Islam, offering an explanation for why certain Muslims are killing Christians in the Middle East, written in the wake of yesterday’s shootings of Coptic Christians in Egypt. He points out that the attackers are a militant strain of Islam and that many other Muslims have condemned the killings and sought to defend and assist Christians.
[W]hile such atrocities come from extreme groups like the Islamic State, most other Muslims — from ordinary people to mainstream religious authorities — condemn them. Some Muslims even actively try to defend Christians, like the female police officers who lost their lives during the Palm Sunday attacks, and the men and women who rushed to mosques to donate blood for the injured. Clearly, what threatens Christians is not Islam but a strain of extremism within it.
Akyol goes on to say that the strain of Muslims who are carrying out these attacks are seeking to uphold an earlier tradition by which Christians and other non-Muslims were considered dhimmis, communities that were inferior but could be tolerated.
However, a part of the modern crisis was also religious — and it was rooted in the very tolerance of classical Islam. This tolerance had been based not on equality but on hierarchy. Muslims were the superior rulers, whereas non-Muslims were protected but inferior communities called “dhimmi.” The latter had to pay an extra poll tax, their temples could not be too loud and new ones were rarely permitted, and they were subject to various social limitations. And while their conversion to Islam was encouraged, conversion from Islam to the faith of dhimmi could be a capital offense.
In the Middle Ages, this hierarchal tolerance of Islam was preferable to the alternatives at the time, such as forced conversion or mass murder. However, in the modern era, equality before law became the universal norm, and that is what the religious minorities rightly began to demand. (It is notable that the Ottoman Empire, the seat of caliphate, answered these calls with the Reform Edict of 1856, declaring Christians and Jews equal citizens of the empire.)
Most of all, the piece contains a shout-out to the Under Caesar’s Sword project that I direct in partnership with my friends at the Religious Freedom Institute. Drawing attention to incidents like yesterday’s attacks in Egypt, looking at how Christians respond, and promoting solidarity with them is what the project is all about.