by Abu Daoud
A reader of the blog asked this good question:
I've heard various Western historians say that Islam has historically been more tolerant than Christianity. They point out the treatment of non-Christians, particularly the Jews, in Europe and compare that with the treatment of Christians in the Middle East. It is true that even after the Arab conquests, there was a substantial Christian population in the Middle East for many centuries. The Muslim overlords needed the jizya, so Christians were tolerated. I believe it was only after the Crusades and Mongol conquests, when Christians sided with the Mongols, life for Christians got tougher. Now, of course, with the rise in Muslim fundamentalism things have got a lot tougher.
What do you say? Has Islam been historically tolerant, more tolerant than Christianity? Or has Christians always had it tough since the days Muhammad blazed on the scene?
Here is my answer: Islam does, in general, tolerate religious groups like Jews and Christians, but in such a way that Christians and Jews (called dhimmis) have curtailed religious, political, and economic freedom. They are doomed to a long slow decline. For instance, they cannot in general build new churches, convents, or synagogues, and can only repair existing ones with government permission. Their women can be married off to Muslims (or enslaved) in which case all the children will be Muslims, but they themselves cannot take Muslim wives (who would then produce Christian children, as per the father's religion). Dhimmis must pay something called the jizya or the poll tax, which fluctuated throughout Islamic history, it could be a crushing burden or something rather light. Once a Christian converted to Islam they were no longer obliged to pay that tax. Certain positions in government and military were, at times, limited to Muslims only, which provided another incentive for dhimmis to convert to Islam.
Outbreaks of anti-Christian violence likewise occur to this day. But the Christians cannot really do anything about it, can they? If they defend themselves then they are guilty of fighting against Muslims, and all will be punished. The Islamic government will sweep it under the rug and rarely are those responsible punished. The violence occurs. It is ignored by the government. Christians have no choice but to accept the injustice. If they call for justice they will be punished. It is a long, slow strategy of elimination. It has worked well over the centuries, leading to massive emigration of Christians and Jews from Muslim lands.
In other words, Islamic countries have the inhumane system of dhimmitude which is the Islamic equivalence of 'tolerance'. There never has been, and never will be, in an Islamic country genuine religious freedom. The key test in this area is simple: can a Muslim convert to Christianity (or some other religion) without being persecuted or resisted by the government? There are a very few Islamic countries where a person can indeed legally convert (Turkey is the only one I can think of, and maybe Lebanon?). It is legal in Turkey because Ataturk felt Islam was outdated and antiquated, in Lebanon, if indeed it still legal, because of the historical predominance of Maronites.) As the Prohet said, "man baddala diinahu, fa'aqtaluuhu"--Whosoever changes religion, slay him.
Regarding Muslims in Christian countries, they enjoy genuine religious freedom, something Christians in Muslim lands never have and never will experience because religious freedom and Islam are, in esse, incompatible. Historically, we don't have examples of large numbers of Muslims in Christian countries until recently. The expulsion of the Moors from Spain was more political than religious. Many of the Moors (Muslims) were explicitly treasonous and sought to overthrow the current political order, Europeans are glad to let such people remain in Europe nowadays, but in previous days Europeans had a bit more common sense and realized that you can't have a substantial population in your country that wants to overthrow the government. Europeans then realized what they seem incapable of understanding now: that Islam is not a 'religion', it is rather an imperial political movement sanctioned by theological myth.
Regarding the Jews in the lands of Christendom, there is a mixed bag. Certainly there were times when the Jews of Islamdom were better off than the Jews of Christendom. That was not always the case, and Christendom never totally purged itself of Jews, which is indeed what dar al islam today has done. So when we are talking about getting Jews our of your lands, at least as it stands today, Muslims have been more successful than Christians, even taking into account the Holocaust, which is viewed favorably by many Muslims today.
Hope that answers your question. When people toss out these slogans it is worthwhile to do some good historical research, something most Muslims will not do, as it inevitably leads to the conclusion that the Qur'an is wrong and Muslims are by no means 'the best of all people'. It is also sad that some contemporary authors (non-Muslims) perpetuate these myths (Armstrong? Menocal?), but it is very PC to do so, and leads to grants, published articles, and cushy positions at Oxford. And in Western academia today, these things are much more important than trivial things like truth.