Say goodbye to one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world. Last week, members of ISIS—the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” a Sunni Islamist group that recently has captured parts of Iraq and declared a new caliphate—began going through the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and marking the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter “Nun.” “Nun” stands for “Nasara,” from “Nazarenes,” a word that refers to Christians. The implications were clear. Mosul’s Christians faced the same fate the Christians of Raqqa, Syria, had when ISIS captured their city last spring. “We offer them three choices,” ISIS announced: “Islam; the dhimma contract—involving payment of jizya; if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.”
The dhimma is the notional contract that governs relations between the Muslim community, or umma, and Christians (as well as Jews) in classical Islamic law. The dhimma allows Christians to reside in Muslim society in exchange for payment of a poll tax called the jizya—in Mosul, ISIS required a jizya of about $500—and submission to various social and legal restrictions. The dhimma forbids Christians from attracting attention during worship, for example, from building new churches, and generally from asserting equality with Muslims.
The dhimma is said to date back to an “agreement” a seventh-century caliph made with the Christians of Syria, though nowadays most scholars dismiss that claim. Most likely, the rules developed over time; by the eighth or ninth centuries, they were standardized in the Islamic law books. From the classical Muslim perspective, the dhimma reflects the fact that Christians, as the recipients of an earlier, incomplete revelation, merit some protection and communal autonomy. But there is a price. The jizya and the many dhimma restrictions are meant to keep Christians in their place and provide a salutary incentive for them to convert to Islam.
By last week, most Christians in Mosul had already taken a fourth option—evacuation. Their departure marks the end of a continuous Christian tradition in Mosul. For thousands of years, Mosul has been a center for Christians, particularly for Assyrians, an ethnic group that predates the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia. Indeed, the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh, where the Prophet Jonah preached, lies across the Tigris River. Christianized in apostolic times, Assyrians have divided over the centuries into a number of communions that reflect the history of the religion: the Assyrian Church of the East, a small body, historically associated with Nestorianism, which once spread as far as China; the Syriac Orthodox Church, a member of the Oriental Orthodox family; and the Chaldean-rite Catholic Church, in communion with Rome. A small number of Assyrian Protestant churches exist as well, the legacy of nineteenth-century American missionaries.
As recently as a decade ago, tens of thousands of Christians lived in Mosul, some of them descendents of victims of the genocide the Ottoman Empire perpetrated against Assyrians, as well as Armenians and Greeks, during World War I. After this weekend, virtually none remain. On Saturday, ISIS expelled the fifty-two Christian families still in the city, after first requiring them to leave behind all their valuables. For good measure, ISIS also burned an 1800-year-old church and the Catholic bishop’s residence, along with its library and manuscript collection.
What ISIS has done in Mosul is a worrying hint of Islamism’s possible future. For the moment, ISIS is unique among Islamist groups in advocating formal reinstatement of the dhimma. Although Islamists everywhere reject the idea of equality for Christians, they typically avoid calling for the dhimma, as they understand that most contemporary Muslims would reject the idea. Nothing succeeds like success, however. ISIS has now shown that it is possible to reestablish the dhimma at the center of the Muslim world. Other Islamist groups will take notice.
The expulsion of Mosul’s Christians also serves as a reminder of what can happen to religious minorities when secular dictatorships in the Arab world collapse. Principal responsibility for this outrage lies with ISIS, and with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shia sectarianism has alienated Sunnis and created a situation in which ISIS can flourish. (ISIS brutalizes Shia Muslims as well as Christians.)
But the United States bears some responsibility as well. Its invasion of, and subsequent withdrawal from, Iraq set in motion a chain of events that has allowed radical groups like ISIS to succeed. Having intervened in the country, the United States had an obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent disaster from occurring. For Iraq’s Christians, American intervention has been an unmitigated disaster.
In the Middle East, secular dictatorships can be very brutal. But, bad as they are, they are often the only thing that stands in the way of the absolute destruction of minority religious communities. Toppling such dictatorships and hoping for their replacement by “moderates” is not a good bet. Incredibly, this seems to be a lesson the United States still has to learn. Consider Syria.
Mark Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and the Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. His previous blog posts can be found here.