The Dhimmitude of the West: A New Trajectory?

The Dhimmitude of the West: A New Trajectory?

Dhimmitude is an Islamic phenomenon. It describes the condition of submission to Islamic dominance, yet without conversion to the Islamic faith.

Under classical theological formulations, developed in the first centuries of Islam, the region where Islam rules is known as Dar al-Islam ‘the House of Islam’. From the very beginning the Dar al-Islam included many non-Muslims, indeed they were normally in the majority after initial conquest. Based on the example of Muhammad’s dealings with the conquered Jewish farmers of Khaybar, Fadak, Tayma and Wadi-l Qura, the institution of the dhimma pact was developed in Islamic law to define the legal status of those who refused to convert to Islam. The dhimma was granted by Muslim conquerors as a concession to the vanquished: an institutional legal framework which promised a measure of religious freedom, and determined the social and economic place of non-Muslims in the Islamic state. In return the people of the pact, known as dhimmis, were required to pay tribute in perpetuity to the Muslim Community (the Umma), and to adopt a position of humble servitude to it.

The Koranic verse which dictates the fundamental character of dhimmitude is Sura 9:29:

“Fight those who do not believe in Allah nor in the Last Day, and do not forbid what Allah and His Messenger have forbidden, and do not practice the religion of truth, of those who have been given the Book [i.e. Jews and Christians], until they pay the jizya [tribute paid as compensation] readily and are disgraced.”

Within Islamic polity, all non-Muslims who are not objects of war or slaves are considered by the sharia to be dhimmis – communities who are allowed to exist within the Dar al-Islam by virtue of surrender under the conditions set by a dhimma pact. These are the permanently conquered peoples of Islam.

The term dhimma is often translated as ‘pact of protection’, and the conquered non-Muslims are described as ‘protected’. This is misleading. The Arabic verb dhamma means ‘blame, find fault, censure for evil conduct’, so in its original use, the word dhimma implied blame or fault: it referred to a covenant, the non-observance of which would incur a liability. It is therefore better translated as ‘pact of liability’.[1]

The historian Bat Ye’or has documented the social, political, economic and religious conditions of dhimmi communities – Jews and Christians – in the Middle East.[2] This is a sad history of dispossession and decline. Legal provisions applying to dhimmis ensured their humiliation and inferiority, and to this was added the often crippling taxes which were allocated to support the Muslim community. Under conditions of dhimmitude there was also a constant risk of jihad conditions being reinvoked – of lawful massacre, enslavement and looting – if the dhimmi community was considered to have failed to live up to the conditions of their pact.[3] According to some jurists, failure to a single non-Muslim’s failure to keep the dhimma conditions could result in the whole community losing their protection, and the jihad restarting.

History records many examples where dhimmis were attacked by their fellow Muslim citizens on such grounds, for example the massacres of the Jews of Granada in 1066, and of the Christians of Damascus in 1860.

Like sexism and racism, dhimmitude is not only manifested in legal and social structures, but in a psychology of inferiority, a will to serve, which the dominated community adopts in self-preservation. This was described by Bat Ye’or:

The law required from dhimmis a humble demeanor, eyes lowered, a hurried pace. They had to give way to Muslims in the street, remain standing in their presence and keep silent, only speaking to them when given permission. They were forbidden to defend themselves if attacked, or to raise a hand against a Muslim on pain of having it amputated. Any criticism of the Koran or Islamic law annuled the protection pact. In addition the dhimmi was duty-bound to be grateful, since it was Islamic law that spared his life.

The whole corpus of these practices … formed an unchanging behavior pattern which was perpetuated from generation to generation for centuries. It was so deeply internalised that it escaped critical evaluation and invaded the realm of self-image, which was henceforth dominated by a conditioning in self-devaluation. … This situation, determined by a corpus of precise legislation and social behaviour patterns based on prejudice and religious traditions, induced the same type of mentality in all dhimmi groups. It has four major characteristics: vulnerability, humiliation, gratitude and alienation.[4]

As one Iranian convert to Christianity put it, ‘Christianity is still viewed as the religion of an inferior class of people. Islam is the religion of masters and rulers, Christianity is the religion of slaves’. Often dhimmi Christians can be seen to collude to conceal their own condition, finding themselves psychologically unable to critique or oppose it.

Today Islam is exerting an increasingly influence on the destiny of Western cultures. Through immigration, oil economics, cultural exchange and terrorism, the remnants of what was once Christendom has been compelled to attend to Islam and its distinctive understanding of inter-religious relations. It is no coincidence that there was a dramatic increase in the use of the word Abrahamic after 9/11, to refer to a supposed family connection between Judaism Christianity and Islam, as the basis of European culture was discovered to be ‘Abrahamic’ rather than Judeo-Christian. This reflects an Islamic understanding that Abraham was a Muslim, and the common core of Judaism and Christianity was in fact Islam all along.

Although many of the laws of dhimmitude were dismantled during European expansion and colonisation, they have been making a comeback in many Islamic societies, and ISIS even attempted to fully restore the dhimma system.

Within a religiously conservative Islamic worldview, there are limited options for the roles that non-Muslims communities can play. The classical alternative to ‘enemies of Allah’ was the submission and submissiveness of dhimmitude.

The requirement that non-Muslims affirm and serve Islam, or else find themselves at war with it, greatly limits the repertoire of responses that dhimmified Christians can have towards it.  Where there are grounds for confrontation, the only way of struggling permitted to the dhimmi is by saying soft things and employing praise.  Such political correctness is itself an injustice that needs to be exposed and challenged.  This dynamic, when combined with the meanings of ‘struggle’ (jihad) that Islam claims as its divine right without apology of any kind, can intimidate and debilitate Christians who are free and do not live under Islam.  The cumulative effect can be that the gross injustices come to seem as somehow excusable or unexceptional.

A glaring example is the weak international response today to the persecution of non-Muslims (not just Christians) under Islam. This is epitomised in the slavish attitude adopted by Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a statement she read to an Organisation of Islamic Conference Symposium on Human Rights in Islam held at the Palais des Nations in Geneva in 2002. After offering praise, Robinson praised the inherent righteousness of Islam:

“It is important to recognize the greatness of Islam, its civilizations and its immense contribution to the richness of the human experience, not only through profound belief and theology but also through the sciences, literature and art.

No one can deny that at its core Islam is entirely consonant with the principle of fundamental human rights, including human dignity, tolerance, solidarity and equality. Numerous passages from the Qur’an and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad will testify to this. No one can deny, from a historical perspective, the revolutionary force that is Islam, which bestowed rights upon women and children long before similar recognition was afforded in other civilizations.

…And no one can deny the acceptance of the universality of human rights by Islamic States.[5]

Observe here the dhimmi themes of gratitude, affirmation of moral superiority of Islam (with the implication of inferiority of the infidel), and the denial of any possible voice of protest against human rights abuses in Islamic states. It is a classical dhimmi strategy to avoid confrontation by affirming what is best in Islam. Change for the better is only allowed to arise from values which Muslims can see as springing from their faith itself. This strategy conceals and disempowers the moral worth of non-Muslim value systems. It is the strategy of those whose existence is marginal and threatened.

For those living in liberal democracies this cannot be a healthy way to engage with the ‘other’ that is Islam.  It establishes a framework in which Islam takes on the role of a dominator that expects to be praised, admired, and stroked.  From the Islamic side, the reaction to deserved criticism of Islam can be shock, denial and outrage.

In 2007 a letter entitled ‘A Common Word between Us and You’ was addressed by 138 Muslim scholars to the Christians of the world. It received an appreciative response from a group of Yale theologians in a full-page advertisement taken out in the New York Times, which was endorsed by 300 Christian leaders, including such well-known figures as David Yonggi Cho, Robert Schuller, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and John Stott. Consistent with the worldview of dhimmitude, the Yale theologians adopted a tone of grateful self-humiliation and self-inculpation, using expressions such as:

• ‘It is with humility and hope that we receive your generous letter’;
• the Muslims’ letter was ‘extraordinary’ and written in ‘generosity’;
• ‘we ask forgiveness of the All-Merciful One and of the Muslim community around the world’.

No comparable expressions of humble gratitude or confession of guilt had been offered from the Muslim side. No doubt the Christians believed they were relating from a position of strength, by invoking Christian virtues of humility and self-examination. However they appear not to have taken account of the dynamics of dhimmitude and the possibility that these statements could be understood by Muslims as a display of self-acknowledged inferiority.[6]

For Christians there is a challenge here. In adapting to this requirement of grateful service, Christians can interpret their own submissiveness in gospel categories of forgiveness and service. Yet from the Islamic side this just looks like ‘submission’, i.e. the program of ‘Islam’ itself is working.  Islam interprets such submissiveness as its rightful due, not an expression of grace, and affords itself the right to the feeling of generosity. Likewise international aid can be seen as tribute, a rightful due.

Another cost of this dynamic is a widespread Islamic pattern of claiming the role of victim, whilst inculpating others for problems not of their making.  Since Islam is not confronted with its own difficulties, whilst having its virtues affirmed, Muslim communities have permission to feel themselves aggrieved.  This is enormously costly for the ongoing social and economic development of Islamic nations, and it is costly for Western societies.

9/11 was a horrific wake-up for the West. Just as, in the worldview of the sharia, the violence of jihad is intended to produce conditions leading to surrender to the dhimma, so 9/11 and other violent assaults triggered off waves of submissive gestures towards Islam from Western leaders, beginning with George Bush’s declaration immediately after 9/11 that Islam is ‘non-violent’: “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.”

President Obama, in his turn, expressed gratitude for America’s supposed debt to Islam in a speech to the Turkish Parliament: “We will convey our deep appreciation for the Islamic faith, which has done so much over the centuries to shape the world – including in my own country.”

President Sarkozy of France declared that Islam is “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known”, and Tony Blair, announcing a grant for the study of Islam, rejected the possibility that Islam could be anything but peaceable: “The voices of extremism are no more representative of Islam than the use in times gone by of torture to force conversion to Christianity represented the teachings of Christ.” The great irony in Blair’s remarks is that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, unlike Christ, did use torture and violence to further his religious goals.

On the ground, agencies of government have been impacted by the climate of appeasement. One of the more notorious examples has been the poor response of British police services and other agencies to a pandemic of grooming and sex-trafficking gangs, in which the large majority of traffickers have been Muslims, and the victims non-Muslim young teenage girls. The number of victims is estimated to be in the tens of thousands, or more. Repeatedly, when the perpetrators have finally been brought to justice, the authorities have been shown to have been reluctant to pursue investigation and prosecution. A number of harrowing testimonies have been presented of victims who attempted to get help from the police, without success. One Dr Ella Hill (a pseudonym adopted for reasons of safety) reported that when she approached the police five times after being trapped by a trafficking gang, with X-rays of broken bones in hand as evidence, they told her “there was nothing they could do about it”. Hill, who managed to escape the trafficking gang and went on to qualify as a doctor, has come to attribute police inaction to the training the police receive in the UK concerning race and religion. Her sexual abuse was expressed, in the words of her abusers, in terms of her race and religion: she was abused by her tormentors as a white Christian, but, as she explained,

“How the police have been trained for a long time is to preserve inter-racial relations, to not raise any racial hatred, to not accuse people of doing something in the name of religion which could cause anti-Muslim prejudice, or anti-Islamic prejudice. So this is the way that the police have been trained for a long, long time – years and years and years – so they are looking at it from completely the wrong way around. They are looking at it from the perpetrator’s perspective, rather than from the victims’ perspective, where a victim has been a victim of identity-based violence, where they have been attacked because of their race, and they’ve been attacked because of their religious status, which is a non-Muslim … whatever it is that the perpetrators feel is the religious justification for that person deserving punishment. … … The way that the system has been set up, it has been set up to have protected groups, and white people and non-Muslim people are not a protected group.”[7]

In the unfolding of this scandal, there has been an intersection of a broader social agenda of appeasement towards Islam in the UK with the grid of identity politics, in which white people are considered to be the oppressors of coloured people. By this understanding, Muslims are by definition victims, not perpetrators, and it even becomes taboo to identify them as perpetrators.

In the wake of a series of media reports about these gangs in 2017, Trevor Phillips, the former head of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission had said “What the perpetrators have in common is their proclaimed faith. They are Muslims, and many of them would claim to be practising. It is not Islamophobic to point this out, any more than it would be racist to point out that the most active persecutors of LGBT people come from countries where most people are, like me, black.”[8] However, in March 2020, Trevor Phillips was expelled from Labor party for expressing such views, which were alleged to be Islamophobic.

These developments must be seen against the background of rising concern in the UK about the formation of Muslim communities which pursue separation, a concern which has focused on the rise of sharia courts as an alternative legal system. In 2016 Prime Minister Theresa May committed an independent review of sharia law in the UK, to inquire whether their activities are compatible with British law, specifically in their treatment of women in relation to arrangement for divorce, domestic violence and custody of children.

In recent decades communities across Western nations have been subjected to a series of terrifying violent attacks linked, according to the testimony of the perpetrators, to Islam. At first the response to this violence of many Western leaders was to publicly praise Islam, and express gratitude for it.

In the 1930’s, psychologist Walter Cannon proposed that an animal, when stressed, can adopt one of two visceral reactions: ‘fight’ or ‘flight’.[9] There are other alternatives. One is the ‘freeze’ response. Another is what Shelley Taylor, psychology professor at UCLA in 2000 called the ‘tend and befriend’ response, whereby an animal responds to stress by caring for offspring – ‘tending’ – and by affiliating with others – ‘befriending’.[10] The impetus to ‘tend and befriend’ can also be directed towards the source of the threat, as when a dog which is being chastised by his master lies down and begins to lick the master’s feet. Among humans, captive-captor bonding – the “Stockholm Syndrome” – is a manifestation of this visceral response.

Over the longer term, ‘befriend’ responses towards Islam, marked by expressions of affection and respect towards both Muslims and Islam, have proved unsatisfactory. Displays of submissive respect have not led to the cessation of jihadi violence, and growing numbers of citizens have settled into a deep and informed discontent with what they regard as a dangerous and unsuccessful policy of appeasement.

After finishing up as Prime Minister, Tony Blair came to a more critical view of Islam’s potential to drive violence. The rise of ISIS and the extraordinary devastation it unleashed focussed his mind, as it did for many. In response to ISIS, Tony Blair commented that “many millions” of Muslims hold views which are “fundamentally incompatible with the modern world.”[11] Rejecting claims that western policies have caused the rise of Islamic terrorism, Blair acknowledged that ISIS seeks, not dialogue, but dominance, which needs to be be forcibly resisted.

Other Western leaders have shifted in their position on Islam (or Islamism) from praise to resistance. President Macron of France responded to the ritual killing of schoolteacher Samuel Paty by calling the battle with ‘Islamism’ an ‘existential’ struggle. He also said that France would not renounce the caricatures of Muhammad which Samuel Paty had shown to his students to teach them about freedom of speech. Already before Paty’s assassination, Macron had announced a suite of proposals to contain the influence of radical Islam in France, including greater regulation of mosques and imams. He said “We don’t believe in political Islam that is not compatible with stability and peace in the world.”[12]

Undoubtedly Macron’s policy of resistance to Islamic dominance and rejection of Islamic separatism reflects a changing mood in the general French population, many of whom have lost whatever appetite for appeasement they once had. Macron’s statements have predictably been met with howls of outrage from the Muslim world.

Across the West, dhimmitude was the flavour of the decade following 9/11. However the continued manifestations of jihadi violence, the fallout from ISIS, and growing concern about what Trevor Phillips has called ‘sleepwalking our way to segregation’:[13] these are gradually awakening the West to the existential challenge conservative Islamic polity presents to Europe and the West.

Europe is currently going through a period of realignment of popular attitudes to Islam and revision of expectations of how Muslim minorities should function. There are signs that the trajectory towards dhimmitude, of willing submission to Islamic dominance, is being increasingly resisted, even if it has not yet been fully overturned. Yet, it is late in the day for this change to be happening, and the eventual outcome for Europe is far from clear.


1 Durie, Mark. The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom. Melbourne: Deror Books, 2010, 123.
2 Bat Ye’or. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press & Associated University Presses. 1985. Bat Ye’or. The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Seventh–Twentieth Century. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press & Associated University Presses, 1996.
_____. Islam and Dhimmitude: where civilizations collide. Cranbury, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.
3 Durie, The Third Choice, 155ff.
4 Bat Ye’or. Islam and Dhimmitude, 103-104.
5 Mary Robinson, March 15, 2002.
6 Ironically, while this dialogue was being conducted in the New York Times, the Royal Aal al-Bayt Institute for Islamic thought, which hosted the Common Word process on the Muslim side, was broadcasting fatwas on its website by its Chief Scholar which condemned converts from Islam to Christianity as apostates, and saying they deserved death or else they should be stripped of all legal rights and treated legally as non-persons (because they ought to be dead).
7 Ella Hill, Interview on Triggernometry, 19 July 2020.
9 Cannon, Walter. Wisdom of the Body. New York, NY: Norton, 1932.
10 Taylor, Shelley E. ‘Tend and Befriend: Biobehavioral Bases of Affiliation under Stress’, Current Directions in Psychology Science, 2006, 15(6): 273-277.

This article appeared in Ruth Nicholls, ed. 2021. Perspectives on Islam and Politics. Occasional Papers in the Study of Islam and Other Faiths No. 9. Wantirna: MST Press, 85-95

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.


Bat Ye’or. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians Under Islam. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press & Associated University Presses. 1985.
______. The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Seventh–Twentieth Century. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press & Associated University Presses, 1996.
______. Islam and Dhimmitude: Where Civilizations Collide. Cranbury, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.
Cannon, Walter. Wisdom of the Body. New York, NY: Norton, 1932.
Durie, Mark. The Third Choice: Islam, Dhimmitude and Freedom. Melbourne: Deror Books, 2010.
Taylor, Shelley E. ‘Tend and Befriend: Biobehavioral Bases of Affiliation under Stress’, Current Directions in Psychology Science, 2006, 15(6): 273-277.

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