Published: 00:00 GMT Standard Time - Friday 02 February 2007
Islamic theology and Iraqi Christians - Part I
As the rising tide of sectarian violence in Iraq pits Sunni against Shi'a, many in the West struggle to understand why religion plays such a part in the violence. In the fourth of a series of special reports on life within Iraq, Barnabas Fund looks at some aspects of Islam that insurgents are using to place a low value on the lives of Christians.
22nd January 2007; a bomb rips through the market in Karada, a mixed Sunni-Shi'a and Christian area of Baghdad. Tit-for-tat reprisals follow in the exclusively Shi'a area of Sadr city and the Sunna district of Adhamiya. The attacks seem indiscriminate - Sunni and Shi'a Muslims attacking fellow Muslims, Christians and anyone else who happens to be in the region.
It is hard to see how religion can be a part of this bloodletting. Yet a look at the motivations behind the attacks reveals that the extremists are using the justification of religion for their atrocities.
Religious tolerance and religious freedom in Iraq
Relations between Christians and Muslims in Saddam’s Iraq were relatively peaceful. Although a Muslim, Saddam ruled Iraq as a secular state, and was more concerned with cementing his own wealth and power than promoting an Islamic way of life. However the rise of Islamism since his overthrow has seen many Muslims turn against their Christian neighbours.
On one level the violence meted out to innocent Iraqi Christians stems from the perception of the current war being the product of the 'Christian' West. You find many examples of Iraqi Christians who have been called 'Crusaders' and threatened on that basis. Yet the full extent of anti-Christian feeling stretches back long before the current war, to the position of Christians in classical Islamic thought.
Muslims have always recognised the Christian religion - indeed Jesus is mentioned in the Qu'ran as one of the prophets that preceded Muhammad - and in classical Islam Christians received state protection. However, Christians were viewed as inferior to Muslims in every way, in part because of the belief that their faith was an aberrant form of the 'true' faith, and that Islam had superseded Christianity.
Christians and Jews were known as “dhimmi”. In order to claim state protection Jews and Christians were required to submit to a raft of humiliating discriminatory laws, including paying a special tax called “jizya”. They were required to demonstrate in their clothes, their buildings, their form of transport and many other ways their subservience to Muslims, and could never have authority over Muslims.
The modern legacy of the 'dhimmi' laws is a general attitude of contempt for non-Muslims. Even in modern secular Muslim states that have constitutionally guaranteed equal rights to all citizens, non-Muslims are discriminated against in numerous ways. It is worth bearing in mind that radical Islam, with its desire to hark back to the Islamic practice of the 7th to 9th centuries, includes a desire to accord Christians their “proper place” in society - in other words, below that of Muslims.
Christians marked out by appearance and practice
In many ways Islam is a religion that is defined by external appearances and is conducted largely in the public domain. Islam defines every aspect of a person’s conduct, from their mode of dress, to the way their day is structured around prayer, even to their position within the hierarchies of communities within the state. It is thus a religion that lends itself to state control in a way that Christianity, with its emphasis on internal belief, does not.
Iraqi extremist Muslims prescribe strict modes of dress for all, Christians and Muslims alike. Iraqi Christians, with their differing practices and modes of dress, would stand out from the crowd. This alone could mark them out for persecution, especially any women who do not cover their hair or who tend to western modes of dress. Some also stand out as being fair-skinned.
Violence against Christians
Despite the classical Islamic teaching that Christians are a protected minority, allowed to live in the Islamic state and keep their Christian religion, many Islamic militants in Iraq today are going beyond what Islam teaches and attacking the 'protected' Christians. Some claim that Christians are no longer protected people of the book but infidels for having rejected Islam for so long. Others claim that Christians have broken their dhimmi pact by 'assisting' the Western Christian enemies of Islam as well as by claiming equality in a Muslim state.