Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The tolerance of Islamic Regimes

"16. Further, harmony is often the result of fear: but such harmony is insecure. 
Further, fear arises from infirmity of spirit, and moreover belongs not to the 
exercise of reason: the same is true of compassion, though this latter seems
to bear a certain resemblance to piety." (Spinoza, Ethics)

I've been wondering about this quote by Slavoj Zizek, which I found here:

Regarding Islam, we should look at history. In fact, I think it is very interesting in this regard to look at ex-Yugoslavia. Why was Sarajevo and Bosnia the place of violent conflict? Because it was ethnically the most mixed republic of ex-Yugoslavia. Why? Because it was Muslim-dominated, and historically they were definitely the most tolerant. We Slovenes, on the other hand, and the Croats, both Catholics, threw them out several hundred years ago.

This proves that there is nothing inherently intolerant about Islam. We must rather ask why this terrorist aspect of Islam arises now. The tension between tolerance and fundamentalist violence is within a civilisation.

I was thinking that if we take into consideration what we know about Islamic regulations concerning minorities, this observation that "historically [Muslin rulers] were definitely the most tolerant"
makes some sense.

There was not an ongoing state of perpetual agitation and attrition of minorities and therefore violent confrontations and pogroms were relatively less common than in Christendom. Which led to a sense of harmony. But what kind of harmony and at what cost?

Minority members knew who they were, in relation to the dominant majority, that they were legally bound by a set of laws and rules which dictated to them every nuance of their obligations, conduct and rights relative to the Muslim owners of the land. When your own inferiority is inscribed into law, and when you know that any breach of it may entail painful judgments, and maybe death, you are not likely to walk with your head held high when you pass your Muslim neighbour in the street. Nor are you likely to pursue justice in court when your Muslim partner cheated you, since by law, your testimony counted for half the value of your adversary's. When a system is slated against you, legally, you adjust your ways and expectations and forgive a multitude of insults, slurs and crimes committed against you. It is an excellently efficient way to maintain the "tolerance" of a bellicose majority.

Hugh Fitzgerald explains how the kind of tolerance, suggested by the oft repeated Koranic injunction: "There is compulsion in religion" really worked:

"... the observable behavior of Muslims over 1350 years. What have Muslims done, when they have conquered, by force or otherwise, non-Muslim lands and peoples? They offer three possibilities: death, conversion, and, at least to those who can be classified as ahl al-kitab or "people of the book," permanent status as dhimmis, with a host of political, economic, and social disabilities which together added up to lives of humiliation, degradation, and physical insecurity, at times relieved -- but only at times -- by the occasional mollitude of a particular Muslim ruler. A slim reed on which to base one's happiness. And so, over time, many non-Muslims, in order to avoid this condition of degradation, humiliation, and physical insecurity, converted to Islam. "

My father grew up in Turkey, a secular Muslim country. Turkey is known for its tolerance towards Jews and Christians. Over the years he visited his native land many times. Turkish Jews speak Ladino amongst themselves. When he was out in the street walking with his brother, he was admonished to speak only in Turkish, and in a low voice, so as not to attract attention to his "Jewish" accent.

He was shocked when I told him about a friend of mine, a Turk, who had converted to Judaism. "We used to have good relations with the muslim neighbours" he told me "they always respected my father and showed us great hospitality. But this is unheard of. It would never have been tolerated".

Jewish Turkish woman I recently met told me that as she was growing up, her parents had forced her to speak only Turkish at home, so that their Ladino-Jewish accent would not expose them as Jews in school.

These anecdotes, such as they are, only re-enforce my understanding of what constituted the livable reality of that "most tolerant" Muslim rule that Zizek admires in the quote above. Fear, intimidation, violence to your identity, when your private sphere is porous and totally dependant on the whims of a religiously volatile majority.

It also tells me that Zizek often does not quite know what he is talking about.


At 7:03 AM EDT, Blogger bob said...

Noga, this is a really interesting and thought-provoking post.

I think it is ridiculous of Zizek - though superficially appealing - to make such a blanket claim about Islam. Tolerance has been very uneven in Christian countries. Recent research by Benjamin Kaplan, of University College London, on Jews and Muslims in early Protestant Amsterdam shows that the religious practices of both Jews and Muslims were more tolerated than dissenting Christians, because they were not a threat to the official church – until the state was confronted with renegade Christians who had become Muslim, at which point they were no longer tolerated. Such a situation clearly contrasts to, say, Catholic Spain during the Inquisition, on the one hand, or Protestant America in the days of either George Bush or George Washington, on the other.

Your points about Islam's "tolerance" to its minorities are convincing, and they undermine the glorification of Al-Andalus that is current among many Jews (probably including myself).

I'm not sure they apply to modern Turkey though. Turkish nationalism is both secular and Islamic, as you say, but what is intolerable is devitions from Turkishness (which includes, but is not identical with, Islam) rather than deviations from Islam. Thus the slaughter of Istanbul's Greeks as late as the 1950s, the on-going persecution of the heterodox Muslims the Alevis, and of course the terrible intolerance of the (mainly Muslim Kurds, who were denied the right to speak their language – many were jailed for this.

Similarly, the Balkan situation is more about nation-formation that which faith is most tolerant, as Marko AH showed here. Religion was not part of what meant to be Bosnian, so they could afford to be relaxed about Catholics, Orthodox and Jews (the same in Albania). But religion was precisely part of what defined Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia, so they were highly intolerant.

At 7:04 AM EDT, Blogger bob said...

P.S. the final paragraph is not directed against you, but against Zizek again, in case that's not obvious!


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