In his “The Faith Divide” blog at the Washington Post’s website, Eboo Patel took umbrage Monday at two recent reviews in the New York Times Book Review charging “Dishonesty About Islam in the NYT Book Review.” Patel was angry at favorable reviews of what he called “Bruce Bawer’s alarmist book Surrender” (about which he huffed, “the subtitle says it all: Appeasing Islam, Sacrificing Freedom”) and Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe (which was reviewed by Fouad Ajami). Yet while making the improbable claim that the New York Times printed material that was dishonest and negative about Islam, Patel showed himself to be not a little disingenuous – suggesting that before he call these reviewers on their alleged dishonesty, he should look to his own.
“Ajami,” complains Patel, “opens his piece by juxtaposing two disparate pieces of history: the departure of Spain’s last Muslim ruler in 1492, and the terrorist attacks on Madrid in 2004. ‘A circle was closed,’ Ajami writes, ‘and Islam was, once again, a matter of Western Europe.’” What is wrong with this? “The Muslim presence in medieval Spain,” asserts Patel, “is widely regarded as a time of tolerance, good government and support for the arts and education. In fact, Ajami himself wrote a positive review of one of the many books on that era, Maria Rosa Menocal’s The Ornament of the World. Placing Al-Andalus, as it was known, in the same breath as a ghastly terrorist attack - as if to say ‘Here’s what happens when Muslims are around’ - is beyond questionable. A dead fish wouldn’t want to be wrapped in a newspaper article with that level of intellectual dishonesty.”
Funny that Patel should mention Menocal. Certainly her Ornament of the World is largely responsible for the contemporary myth of a tolerant, pluralistic, proto-multicultural Al-Andalus. But even Menocal, in that very book, admits that tolerance and pluralism went only so far in Muslim Spain, which institutionalized discrimination against Jewish and Christian dhimmis:
The dhimmi, as these covenanted peoples were called, were granted religious freedom, not forced to convert to Islam. They could continue to be Jews and Christians, and, as it turned out, they could share in much of Muslim social and economic life. In return for this freedom of religious conscience the Peoples of the Book (pagans had no such privilege) were required to pay a special tax — no Muslims paid taxes and to observe a number of restrictive regulations: Christians and Jews were prohibited from attempting to proselytize Muslims, from building new places of worship, from displaying crosses or ringing bells. In sum, they were forbidden most public displays of their religious rituals. (Pp. 72-3)
So much for a paradise of tolerance and multiculturalism. Historian Kenneth Baxter Wolf observes that “much of this new legislation aimed at limiting those aspects of the Christian cult which seemed to compromise the dominant position of Islam.” After enumerating a list of laws much like Menocal’s, he adds: “Aside from such cultic restrictions most of the laws were simply designed to underscore the position of the dimmîs as second-class citizens.”
Contrary to Patel’s claims, if Muslims, Christians, and Jews lived together peaceably and productively only with Christians and Jews relegated by law to second-class citizen status, then al-Andalus has precisely nothing to teach our age about tolerance. The laws of dhimmitude give all of Menocal’s accounts of Jewish viziers and Christian diplomats the same hollow ring as the stories of prominent American blacks from the slavery and Jim Crow eras: yes, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington were great men, but their accomplishments not only do not erase or contradict the records of the oppression of their people, but render them all the more poignant and haunting. Whatever the Christians and Jews of al-Andalus accomplished, they were still dhimmis. They enjoyed whatever rights and privileges they had not out of any sense of the dignity of all people before God, or the equality of all before the law, but at the sufferance of their Muslim overlords.
That sufferance, moreover, could be revoked at any time by Muslims who determined that Christians or Jews had overstepped the bounds of their “protection” agreement. If these Christians didn’t abide by the restrictions Menocal enumerates above, they could -- in accordance with Sharia -- be lawfully killed or sold into slavery.
This happened more than once in al-Andalus, but even on a day-to-day basis the situation of Christians and Jews in Muslim Spain was not as pleasant as it might seem in The Ornament of the World. According to historian Richard Fletcher, “the simple and verifiable historical truth is that Moorish Spain was more often a land of turmoil than it was a land of tranquility.” In fact, “Moorish Spain was not a tolerant and enlightened society even in its most cultivated epoch. The Mozarabic Christian communities whom John of Gorse met on his embassy to Córdoba were cowed and demoralized. . . . The Christians of al-Andalus were second-class citizens like Christians under Muslim rule elsewhere in the world such as the Copts of Egypt.”
Nor were the dhimmi communities free from the most extreme penalties. Menocal notes that Spain’s Muslim rulers “had zero tolerance for disparagement of their Prophet.” Consequently, according to Wolf, “in the spring of 850, a priest named Perfectus was arrested and later executed for publicly expressing his opinions about the errors of Islam to a group of Muslims. Months later a Christian merchant named Joannes suffered a severe lashing, public humiliation, and a long prison term for invoking the prophet’s name as he sold his wares in the marketplace.” This was the beginning of a series of public denunciations of Islam and the prophethood of Muhammad by Christians. All were followed by public execution; Menocal reports that after about fifty such horrifying events “the passions of the moment passed and life went on as it had before in this city of thriving religious coexistence.” But in fact Christian and Muslim sources contain numerous records of similar incidents in the early part of the tenth century. Around 910, in one of many such episodes, a woman was executed for proclaiming that “Jesus was God and that Muhammed had lied to his followers.”
Jews in al-Andalus sometimes had it even worse. On December 30, 1066, four thousand Jews in Granada were murdered by rioting Muslim mobs. Menocal called this a “relatively isolated Muslim uprising against what had been a warmly favored Jewish community.” But Fletcher correctly points out that the political power of the Jewish vizier Samuel ibn Naghrila and his son Joseph, although celebrated by Menocal as an example of Islamic tolerance, was also resented by Muslims as a “breach of Shari’ah.” Then as now, Islamic law stipulates that a non-Muslim must not have authority over a Muslim, as the Saudi Sheikh and legal expert Manaa K. al-Qubtan stated in a 1993 fatwa: “The command of a non-Muslim over a Muslim is not permitted based on the words of Allah: ‘and Allah will not open to the unbelievers against the believers a way.’ [Qur’an 4:140]” In 1066 the angry mob was incited to kill the Jews by a poem composed by the Muslim jurist Abu Ishaq: “I myself arrived in Granada and saw that these Jews were meddling in its affairs. . . . So hasten to slaughter them as a good work whereby you will earn God’s favour, and offer them up in sacrifice, a well-fattened ram.”
Since the mob was killing dhimmis who were considered to be in breach of their contract of “protection,” the attackers could claim that by the light of Islamic law the killings were lawful. Thus even if Menocal’s description of it as an isolated incident is correct, the legal justification for such incidents was always present. And the beautiful record of the culture of tolerance in al-Andalus is overshadowed by the fact that if any such tolerance was achieved, it was in spite of Islamic law, not because of it.
“Islam,” Patel asserts, “has much to contribute to the West.” Sure, “some loud and boorish Muslims in Europe claim Islam can only dominate,” and “yes, a few of them are dangerous to Europe - including the Muslims of Europe.” Yet nonetheless, he says, “Fouad Ajami should know better. And so should the editors of the New York Times Book Review.”
And so, above all, should Eboo Patel.