Bat Yeor’s remarks at Columbia Law School
On February 26th, Bat Ye’or, the Egyptian-born British historian who specializes in the history of Christian and Jewish dhimmis and is the author of Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis; Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide; and The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, took part in a panel discussion at Columbia Law School entitled “Candor or Respect? Talking About the Religion of Others.”
Here are her remarks:
I would like first to thank Prof. Philip Hamburger, for having invited me to participate in this panel and for having chosen a subject that suddenly emerges in the 21th irreligious century. There are reasons for the sudden international gravity of this topic and maybe we could touch a bit on that too in the discussion. I want to remind the participants that this is not just a theoretical problem, because there are people who have been assassinated, killed, and who live in fear and terror, their whole lives destroyed by what is called blasphemy.
There are reasons why this problem of blasphemy has taken on such importance. I want to say that it will take on more and more of importance, and if we don’t try to solve the problems, the questions, the issues which are related to the problems of blasphemy, of religious respect and so on, the whole of western civilization might be changed and even destroyed.
So why are religious issues such a touchy subject? Well, religions are very important for several reasons. Religions eliminate man’s metaphysical anxiety; it structures one’s life around a creed shared by others and practices through collective rituals; it provides consolation in time of grief and the comforting feeling to be a link in a chain that transcend time, and more than anything else, it gives the illusion to men that he can escape, he can be saved from death.
Criticizing religions therefore weaken the affective equilibrium of the person, and his own identity. Every believer gets angry when his religion is attacked, but they do not react all in the same way. Religion is not a touchy subject for everyone. In fact in Europe, a minority take religions seriously. It considers that it is a component, certainly a major one, of a general culture, with its good and bad aspects, that are in the public domain, under continual scrutiny and discussion in a civilized and polite manner where everyone can discuss and expose his arguments. Since religions are composed of several components: faith, ethic, legend, history, laws, art, rituals – it is clear that suppressing from discussion this major field of human history is tantamount to promoting illiteracy. Of course, different opinions, even insulting and choking ones can be heard by the faithful, but this is the democratic game which allows a pluralism of opinion and everyone accept it.
That said, we can ask, why for some, religions is so touchy? I do not know if it is so touchy for the Buddhists, the Hindus, but it is certainly so for Muslims. Are their specific reasons particular to this religion that provokes reaction to the extent of killing for a criticism? Well I think there are and I will explain why.
In my view this situation results from the character of the Koran. Contrary to the Bible, the Koran is considered uncreated and therefore consubstantial to Allah. Hence criticizing the Koran or holding opinions contrary to its principles is a blasphemy and a direct attack against Allah.
The other point is the particular character attached to prophethood and therefore Muhammad. The figure of Muhammad is like his revelation, he is considered the perfect model and therefore the Sunna, the compilation of his words and deed, are infallible. Any criticism is considered a blasphemy.
The third point relates to history, law and sociology. Muslims lived as an Umma, a religious community convinced, because of its military conquests worldwide and its power, of its superiority which is affirmed anyway in its sacred texts. The Umma developed around its religion not only its whole jurisdiction, historical myths, the feeling of grandeur, superiority and mission – but also its world cohesion. You can argue that Jews and Christians also feel that they belong to a religious group. But they have other pole of interest and of social cohesion, like nationalism, which in a way, competes with religion and is a secular concept. But nationalism came very late to the Muslim world, and it was a European initiative whereas the Muslim sense of unity was the Caliphate, a religious construction.
Any attack or doubt on the validity of its religion might destroy the whole structure. Islam developed through continuous wars and conquests. It has elaborated a code of war, jihad, which is integrated in its religion through the Koran, the Sunna and the biography of the Prophet. This war is justified by its doctrine of religious superiority and perfection. The feeling that Islam has the duty to govern the world is very pregnant today. This implies contempt for non-Muslims and their vilification. Dhimmis, non-Muslims were always obliged to exhibit signs of respect to Muslims. This behavioral obligations imposed upon death sanctions, form an important body of laws and social customs from the beginning of Islam till today, this is what I call dhimmitude. So what we are seeing now is the OIC policy to prohibit the West to criticize Islam in an effort to establish the rules of dhimmitude in the international arena. This objective motivates the fight against Islamophobia that has been declared a central element in the OIC policy.
My conclusion is that the OIC, the Organization of the Islamic Conference,which is a group that brings together 57 Muslim countries, has decided to bring into the international forefront and into the Western world, this rule of Dhimmitude that imposed the respect of Islam by non-Muslims. This is what we see now, and they have decided too, that the Muslims who are integrated in non-Muslim countries are a part of the universal Ummah, and that their rights to be respected must be applied.
There is another aspect also – which I do not have the time to expose – this is Islam theological relationship to Judaism and Christianity.
Question and Answer
Questioner: Concerning your personal accounting of Islam, and I’d like to ask two relating questions. Do you think that Islam can undergo the kind of changes or reformation that has been the case in Christianity and Judaism over the past three centuries, and if so, how long it might take. And connected with that, in view of your own views, would you agree with the idea, of Sam Huntington’s idea the Clash of civilizations?
Bat Yeor: Yes actually Islam can change. It has to find in itself the instruments to help the modernist Muslims to change. Unfortunately what I see now, organized in the OIC, is exactly the contrary. The OIC brings all the Muslim countries, the 57 Muslim countries, together, and I wouldn’t say the same rule of course, the same organization, the same politics, its aim at creating a block, a Muslim block, which is, it plans to unify it by rooting it in the Koran and Sharia and the Sunna. So we are going to see a stronger, even a stronger Islamic block, more fundamentalist. But I hope that Muslims, others inside the OIC or in Europe will challenge that, this return to the caliphate, in order to oppose the West, and that will find a way to collaborate on equal terms with other populations, and accept the other populations as equals. This is my hope. And because I always hope in human nature, I am positive and an optimist.
The other question was?
Questioner: The idea which was made probably by Samuel Huntington, of the Clash of Civilizations …..
Bat Ye’or: Yes, and also how long it will take, and how long the change, the evolution in the Muslim world will be. Well, it depends upon us, on the non-Muslims. How can we help the Muslims? Because there are many modernist Muslims, as I have said before that are living under a terrible threat, and because they want to challenge that order, and they want to bring another Islam. So how can we help them to achieve this change? We are together, we are in solidarity with them, to bring this renewal, this change.
How long will it take? Well we have to also take our responsibility and I think that our host did very well in bringing this subject up into the open. Now we are certainly in a clash of civilizations, and I don’t understand why we have to hide it. It is the OIC position to deny that we are in a clash of civilizations. Because the OIC position is even to deny that there are different civilizations, because the Muslim position is to say we are only one civilization. So I think that we have to recognize the truth that we are in a clash of civilizations and of values, and we have to solve that, because if we deny it, we shall never solve it. So it is better to discuss the problems that separate us in order to find solutions.
Questioner: How can we stop this progression of intolerance in the international legal community. I mean how can we stop the influence of the OIC at the UN?
Bat Yeor: About the reform… there are Muslims who are contesting the fact that the Koran is an uncreated book. They are trying to contextualize some verses by saying that is of this period, but now this version is different….. in fact what was done with the bible. And also others who say but the hadiths were written two centuries afterward so they doubt the veracity of the hadith.There are Muslims who are working within the possibility of Islam to change the rigidity that has inhabited for centuries …. so we have to help them and hope that this will change.
Now about the OIC, what can we do? This debate is related to this. How can we speak to Islam? How can we speak about religion? How can we avoid offending people? Do we have to be civilized and polite? Then we are missing candor and so on. I think we need candor in some situations where for instance where religions prescribe the death of people. Where religions are very aggressive and manifests an aggressivity towards other people and want to destroy their system. So we have to be candid about it and fight back.
The problem is that, in the West, the situation is not very well understood and also there is a great challenge of terrorism, indigenous terrorism in Europe. You don’t have it here in America. But we are very much afraid of European terrorism and also foreign terrorism and also economical boycott, which is very imortant. So for all these reasons we are not bringing a different or necessary answer to the challenges of our time