Will Jews and Christians on American college campuses have the freedom — and more importantly, the courage — to speak out against oppression of their people in Islamic nations? Not, it seems, at Georgetown University, where Jewish student leaders turned on the leading historian of dhimmitude — the state of formal discrimination historically imposed on Jews and Christians living under Islamic occupation — when Muslim students became angry and emotional over her remarks.
Bat Yeor, who occasionally contributes to National Review Online, made her reputation by documenting the tragic fate of the dhimmi Christians of the East, in lands conquered by Islam. Classical Islam prescribes a state of existence for subject Jews and Christians under which they must live as second-class citizens, paying a special tax to their Muslim rulers, living under special rules, and not granted the same basic human rights enjoyed by Muslims. Bat Yeor, born a Jew in Egypt but exiled to Europe, is the best-known historian of what she has termed dhimmitude, and has written three books on the subject.
A coalition of Jewish and Christian student groups at Georgetown invited the historian and her husband, historian David Littman, to deliver a lecture a week ago today on the stated topic of "Ideology of Jihad, Dhimmitude and Human Rights" — which was the title of the speech, according to flyers the event organizers produced. If statements the Littmans provided to National Review Online are accurate, it is hard to believe that their hosts were unaware of the nature of their work in the field.
"The various flyers in my possession that were prepared, posted, and widely circulated via e-mail by the organizers (I considered some of them somewhat provocative — and said so), confirm that all were fully aware of the subjects and themes to be addressed by both speakers," David Littman said.
Littman says the organizers agreed to provide special security for the event, indicating that they anticipated the possibility of trouble. Littman says he and his wife met with Ben Bixby, one of the Jewish student organizers, a week before the lecture, gave him copies of Bat Yeor's books, as well as copies of her recent articles. "Anyone glancing at these publications would know exactly the thrust of subjects and themes of the evening lectures," he tells NRO.
On the morning of the lectures, says Littman, he and Bat Yeor met Bixby and fellow students Julia Segall and Salamon Kalach-Zaga for breakfast. They spoke about the planned speeches. Littman says he decided to present a version of a talk he had given at the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, and provided a copy to the organizers. For her part, Bat Yeor says it is impossible for her to believe that she would have been invited to speak by students who were unfamiliar with her work.
Of her lecture, Bat Yeor says, "I explained the roots of jihad according to Muslim theologians and jurists, its aim, strategy, tactics and rules. This was followed by a short description of the jihad war of conquest on three continents over a millennium: from Portugal to India, from Budapest to Sudan, as those war operations, victories and conquests were described in Muslim and Christian chronicles. Dhimmitude is the direct consequence of jihad. It embodied all the Islamic laws and customs applied over a millennium on the vanquished population, Jews and Christians, living in the countries conquered by jihad and therefore Islamized.
"Then I spoke of the return of the jihad ideology since the 1960s, and of some dhimmitude practices in Muslim countries applying the sharia [Islamic] law, or inspired by it. I stressed the incompatibility between the concept of tolerance as expressed by the jihad-dhimmitude ideology, and the concept of human rights based on the equality of all human beings and the inalienability of their rights."
According to a letter written to the campus newspaper by Scott Borer-Miller, a Jewish student who was present at the lecture, students "openly laughed and made comments" during Bat Yeor's half-hour lecture. In the question-and-answer period that followed, Bat Yeor reported "sometimes vehement" opposition from Muslim students in the audience. She describes it as "religiously motivated."
"They wouldn't accept a word of criticism on jihad and dhimmitude," she says. "I had approached and explained the subject as a matter of human history, like any other such subject. My vision was pluralistic, and based on countless testimonies, including Muslim ones. It was clear that the students who objected would not accept nor even tolerate the perception of jihad's victims."
Bat Yeor describes the Jewish students as looking "miserable and stunned." David Littman told me last week in New York that one of the Jewish students came to him and asked him not to deliver his lecture. He refused, and faced another outcry from Muslim students, particular when he mentioned disapprovingly that Muhammad's favorite wife, Aisha, was a small child when she was married off to the Prophet. Bat Yeor told me last week that several Jewish and Christian students approached her and her husband after the event and thanked them for their testimony. "I asked them, 'Why didn't you stand up for us when we were being attacked?'" she said. "They didn't have an answer."
Three days after the lecture, a story appeared in The Hoya, the campus newspaper, in which Kalach-Zaga, spokesman for the Georgetown Israel Alliance, alleged that Bat Yeor and her husband misled the organizers. "We wanted an event that talked about authoritarian regimes and how they twist and distort Islam to justify repression against minorities. The information that [Yeor and Littman] provided us with was about this topic, but their presentation wasn't concerned at all with this," the paper quoted Kalach-Zaga as saying.
"The speakers gave us certain ideas about what they would speak about so that they could get in the door, and once they were in, they gave a completely different idea of what we had wanted. It was two-faced and manipulative," he continued.
In a letter to The Hoya, Jewish student leaders Julia Segall and Daniel Spector called the event "a disaster, and [we] denounce the views brought forth by Bat Yeor and David Littman." The pair called their guest speakers "hateful, slanderous and a crude surprise to us." They accused the speakers of making "no effort to make a clear distinction between pure, harmonious Islam, and the acts of a few who falsely claim to act in the name of Islam."
"This is pure nonsense," Bat Yeor replies. "When one studies the Inquisition or the Crusades, one does not feel obliged to make a clear distinction between 'pure' Christianity and those historical events. In a university, the examination of several analyses of history should be encouraged. The Muslim view is exclusively religion-based, and proceeds from the assumption that there is only one valid interpretation of history: the Islamic one. No criticism of jihad is accepted because it is a just war according to Muslim dogma.
"This attitude imposes the worst law of dhimmitude on non-Muslims: the refusal of their evidence. The historical testimony of the millions of human victims of jihad is rejected on its face by this doctrinal attitude."
It strains credibility to believe that the Jewish student organizers thought that Bat Yeor, whose work makes plain that jihad and dhimmitude are inextricably linked to Islamic doctrine and practice, would present them with a lecture saying the codified oppression of non-Muslim peoples is a peculiar distortion of Islam. None of several Jewish students involved with putting the event together responded to NRO's request for comment. David Littman says that unless the student organizers retract their accusations that he and his wife deceived the event's organizers, he will consult a lawyer about a libel suit.
Rabbi Harold White, the Jewish chaplain at Georgetown, said he was visited by several of the "horrified" organizers the day after the presentation. "They didn't have problems with the facts [Bat Yeor and David Littman] were presenting," says Rabbi White. "They believed [the historians] were very rude. From what the students said to me, it was their mannerisms, and cutting off questions, that led to the apology. No [student] said to me that they doubted what she said was true. The just didn't like the presentation."
That contrasts starkly with the complaints the three students — Spector, Segall, and Kalach-Zaga — made for public consumption, in the pages of the campus newspaper, in which they mostly complained about the content of the Yeor-Littman speeches ("we in no way agree or support what was said"), and in Kalach-Zaga's case, accused the husband-wife team of being "two-faced and manipulative."
Rabbi White at first told NRO he suspected that the Jewish students had not read any of Bat Yeor's work prior to bringing her to campus, but corrected himself when he recalled that a Palestinian student group had requested of the Jewish student leaders that they cancel Bat Yeor's talk. "I know [the Jewish students] were provided with the material in advance, because in justifying the program to the leadership of the Arab group, they said they had read it and were convinced the program wouldn't be offensive."
When Muslim students in attendance reacted angrily to the speakers' presentations on jihad and dhimmitude, the Jewish students apparently changed their tune. "I don't think it was intimidation," says Rabbi White. "I think it was based on the fact that the week before, they had participated in a successful program on Jewish-Palestinian dialogue, and I think they must have figured it would endanger dialogue in the future."
As for Chi Alpha, the lone Christian group co-sponsoring the event, Shawn Galyen, the group's (non-student) chaplain, said he had never heard of Bat Yeor, but agreed to co-sponsor the lecture when Jewish organizers told him she would speak on the human rights situation of persecuted religious minorities in Islamic countries. Galyen said he was "disappointed" when her speech took up Islamic theology.
"I didn't think I heard a clear distinction when there could have been one between religion and people using religion for bad purposes," Galyen tells NRO. "If I would have known that was her work, I would have never been involved in it. It just isn't helpful, that kind of presentation."
But if what Bat Yeor and David Littman said about Islamic doctrine and history is true, I put it to Galyen, isn't it "helpful" — as opposed to a lie that keeps social peace? Galyen demurred, saying that his group isn't political, and that he only wishes that Bat Yeor had shown more "graciousness." The chaplain added that he wasn't sure that her voice belonged on a college campus, but when pressed, couldn't explain why.
All this, say Bat Yeor and Littman, shows how the Jews and Christians of Georgetown have embraced a dhimmi mentality, by abasing themselves before the sensibilities of Muslims, whose co-religionists persecute and oppress Jews and Christians abroad. Political correctness demands that Islam be thought of as inherently peaceful and tolerant, and no explorations of its history and doctrines that would lead to a contrary view may be presented.
Walid Phares, a professor of Middle Eastern studies and ethnic-religious conflict at Florida Atlantic University, calls the Georgetown controversy "significant, but not unique."
"In the past two decades, any intellectual who advocates the fact that Middle Eastern Christians have suffered, or presented their research on this phenomenon, has been repressed," said Phares, who is a Maronite (Lebanese Catholic). "After 9/11, and continuing jihadist attacks on Christians around the world, it's very sad that students at a prominent university would try to suppress voices of academics, of researchers who are just trying to shed light on a very difficult issue. History is history, and in the same way Christians have criticized their own history, including the Crusades, it's time for the Muslim intellectuals to start criticizing the Islamic conquests and the jihad."
It's notable that this controversy erupted at Georgetown, says Phares, given the role its influential, Islamophilic Middle Eastern Studies department has played in what Phares calls "the erasing of the plight of Middle Eastern Christians under Islamic regimes."
Charles Jacobs, director of the Boston-based American Anti-Slavery Organization, says Bat Yeor's historical argument must be heard because she is describing the basis for laws and ideology today in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Iran, parts of Nigeria, and other Muslim nations, that determine how non-Muslims are governed.
"In most of the Middle East, the legacy of this religious inequality exists today," he says. "How can centuries of religious discrimination — cemented in daily practices through the requirement to wear distinctive garb, through the enforced custom of not looking at a Muslim in the eye, of not being able to defend yourself in court against a Muslim for any charge conceivable — how could this disappear overnight? This is what stokes the jihadi fires, and this is what Bat Yeor is calling attention to."
Could it be that Jews and Christians at Georgetown and other elite universities, who are among the small number of Americans in a position to do something to draw attention to the plight of the dhimmi peoples, may not want to hear about their suffering, past and present, because it upsets the social peace on campus? Because it gainsays the comforting multiculturalist nostrum that any unpleasant manifestation of Islam is not Islam at all? Because preserving good relations with Muslim groups requires not noticing dhimmitude — and, if it comes to it, possibly even dishonestly trashing the reputations of two scholars who do?
Any peace built on a lie is no peace at all, and a dialogue based on anything but the truth is self deception. It is to be hoped that the Georgetown debacle may result not in Bat Yeor's voice being silenced by dhimmitized Americans, but amplified by Americans who are tired of the silence on Islamic persecution of dhimmis. There is a nascent effort underway in certain Washington circles to establish an institute affiliated with Bat Yeor to promote scholarship on dhimmitude. This distressing incident at Georgetown underscores the need for such an institute, so Eastern Christians and Jews of dhimmi heritage can preserve and defend their history. "Ignorance is the enemy of reason," says FAU's Phares. "Maronites, Copts, Syriacs and others have been victims of jihad for centuries. After 9/11, the role of these communities in the West is extremely important. They can tell what has happened to them."