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Sunday, April 24, 2011

On the Difficulty of Reading the Quran, Part B: Fighting and Killing

My previous post discussed the difficulty of reading the Qur'an.  This post addresses a very specific challenging issue in Quranic translation, namely the meaning of certain 'fighting' verses.

There are many verses in the Quran which refer to fighting and killing.  I would like to consider the difficulty inherent in reading verses which attempt to translate the verb qātilū, found, for example, in Sura 9:29 'Fight the People of the Book…'; Sura 2:190 'Fight in the path of Allah those who fight you' or Sura 2:193 'Fight them until there is no more temptation (fitna)'.

There is a difficulty with the English translation 'fight', as found in many published translations.  The problem is that 'fight' is a deficient translation.  To understand why this it is deficient, we need to 'slow down' our reading process to the extent of engaging with Arabic grammar.

To understand what the word qātilū means, one needs to recognize that it is based upon a root q-t-l which means 'kill'(See the note at the end of this post on Arabic roots). From this root several other Arabic words are form for example qatala 'kill, murder'; qatīl 'someone killed, a casualty'; qatl 'homicide'; maqtal 'vital spot on the body (injuring which brings death)'. 

The meaning of words for taking life are highly culture-specific.  The modern English distinction between 'murder' and 'kill' goes back to early Germanic cultural norms in which it was regarded as a heinous and disgraceful crime to kill someone secretly. for example when they were sleeping.  Such an act was 'murder' (Old English morðor).  In contrast, killing someone openly in broad daylight was not a disgrace, if it was not concealed or denied, but the killing nevertheless could be subject to vengeance and demands for blood-compensation.  Over time the meaning of murder evolved to reach its current meaning, which is intentional unlawful killing done with 'malice aforethought'. Throughout this evolution the very negative connotations of the word murder have endured.

In contrast to English, in Arabic there is no single distinct word for 'murder'.  If you look up 'murder' and 'kill' in an English-Arabic dictionary, most likely the first option in both cases will be q-t-l.  The semantic range of q-t-l covers both 'murder' and 'kill'.  There is a distinction in Islamic law between lawful and unlawful killing, but both types of killing are referred to under the semantic range of the root q-t-l. 

The form qātilū, which we are focusing on here, is known as a 'form III' verb.  A feature of many form III verbs is that they denote an intentional, sustained activity directed towards an object, which may be in the context of a counter-effort.  For example form I kataba means 'he wrote', but the form III verb kātaba means 'he kept up a correspondence with someone'.  Form I araba means 'he hit' but form III āraba means 'he fought against'.   The form I verb arada means 'he drove away, pushed away', but form III ṭārada means 'he assaulted, launched an attack, stalked, gave chase to.' Form I sāma means 'he offered for sale', but the form III verb sāwama means 'he haggled over a price'.  (For an essay on the meaning of 'form III' verbs, see here - a PDF).

The form I qatala means 'he killed', but the corresponding form III qātala is the normal word used in the Qur'an for doing battle, hence the standard translation 'fight'.  The fact that this is a form III verb would lead one to expect a meaning 'he engaged in intentional and sustained activity with the purpose of killing, in a context of a counter-effort to kill.' This is not the same meaning as English fight.  In English, fight means to engage in a physical struggle for supremacy (with various non-physical, metaphorical extensions).  Although fight could involve killing, it does not necessarily imply it.  A contest between boxers is a fight, as is a wrestling match between boys in a school yard.

In contrast the Arabic form III qātala (qātilū in the 2nd person plural imperative), which is translated as 'fight' in English versions of the Quran, includes the meaning of killing.

The idea that the form III verb involves killing is expressed in the following verse, which justifies 'fighting' in the sacred month on the grounds that although 'fighting' (q-t-l form III) is a great sin, seducing Muslims away from Islam is worse than 'killing' (q-t-l form I).  Therefore fighting (i.e. to kill) is justified because it is prevents a sin worse than such killing:
They ask you about fighting [q-t-l form III] in the sacred month. Say "Fighting [q-t-l form III] in it is a great (sin), ... but seduction is greater (worse) than killing [q-t-l form I]." (Sura 2:217)
Another verse in the Quran captures the meaning of form III of q-t-l as each side trying to kill the other:
Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their wealth; for theirs (in return) is Paradise. They fight [q-t-l form III] in his path; they kill [q-t-l form I] and are killed [q-t-l form I].  (Sura 9:111).
Arabic has another root '-r-k which can be used to describe conflict ranging from an argument between neighbors through to military battle, without the meaning of killing, but the words formed from q-t-l all have meanings which involve killing.

The form III of q-t-l is very difficult to translate into English.  To simply translate qātilū as 'Fight!' is deficient, because the sense of 'killing' is lost in translation.  However no word in English means 'intentional sustained activity directed at another with the purpose of killing, in a context of a counter-effort to kill'. None of the English expressions with meanings similar to fight – such as combat, assault, wage war, do battle or duel – include killing as part of their core meaning.

In contrast the form III of q-t-l implies that killing is involved.  It suggests a kill-or-be-killed struggle, a 'fight' where death is in view, one way or another.

In English cultural understandings, the purpose of war is not to kill your opponents, but to defeat them (killing is merely a means of defeating the enemy).  In contrast, the form III of q-t-l reflects a different understanding of combat, one which is ultimately based upon pre-Islamic Arab culture, in which the point of battle is either to bring one's enemies down to the grave, or to subjugate them, after which the vanquished owe you their lives.

Of course people who speak English are quite capable of deliberate killing, and all kinds of atrocities (history gives plenty of examples), and there can be a good deal of hypocrisy in English-language discussions of warfare, but the fact is that there is no word in the English language which captures the idea of 'deadly combat' which appears to be part of the meaning of the form III of q-t-l.  In any case, to simply translate qātilū as 'fight' offers a watered-down reading which dilutes a core aspect of the meaning of the Arabic, and distances the text from its cultural context. It squeezes the Arabic text into the presuppositions of an English understanding of conflict.  

When Sura 9:29 is translated as 'Fight the People of the Book', without any qualification, this misleads English speaking readers.  Clearer might be 'Engage in a deadly fight with the People of the Book'.  And when Sura 9:123 says 'O you who believe, fight the disbelievers who are close to you', this could be better translated as 'Fight a deadly war against the disbelievers'.

It must be stressed once again that form III of q-t-l is the normal way to refer to military fighting in Qur'anic Arabic.  However this fact alone is not enough to make English fight an accurate translation, because the Arabic lexicon encodes a very different understanding of combat.

These observations have implications for understanding the Islamic sharia's rules of combat.  They align, for example, with the observation that the sharia law allows adult male captives of war to be killed, since killing is integral to the meaning of qitāl 'fighting', and when you vanquish someone, their lives are considered to be in your hand.  On the other hand, in English cultural understandings of 'fighting', killing unarmed captives is considered a criminal act.

This difference in understanding what 'fighting' actually is has a very practical impact on how battles are fought on the ground today.  Jihadis in Iraq understand that if they capture American soldiers, they are free to kill them, but if they throw down their arms and put their hands in the air, their American enemies are not supposed to kill them, but are expected by their superiors to take the jihadis prisoner.

These cultural differences create the conditions for an asymmetrical war.  American soldiers dislike the fact that if they are captured, they will most likely be killed, but if they capture and execute an enemy they could be found guilty of murder by a US military tribunal.

As another implication of these cultural differences, when in Sura 9:29 it says to 'fight [form III qātilū] the People of the Book' 'until they pay tribute out of hand and are humbled', the meaning conveyed by the use of qātala is that paying tribute and being humbled are what stops the deadly war, i.e. submission to the sharia rules for non-Muslims stops the killing.  

This simple observation about the dynamics of Islamic conquest of non-Muslim peoples is amply confirmed by a large corpus of opinions of Islamic scholars on this verse, dozens of which are referenced in my book The Third Choice.  The eminent commentator Al-Suyuti explained in relation to  Koran 29:46 (the very same verse cited at the head of the Amman letter to the Pope, which was discussed in my previous blog post) that when non-Muslims reject the arguments of Muslims and refuse to surrender to Islam, "by fighting you and refusing to pay the jizya, then argue with them by means of the sword until they become Muslim or pay the jizya." (the Arabic text is here).

This is also relevant for understanding the theological background of recent massacres of non-Muslims in Muslim countries, in the context of claims being made by some that the non-Muslims do not enjoy the benefit of a 'covenant of protection' which grants them their right to life.

What is in a word?  Quite a lot actually.  The act of reading requires strenuous efforts to unpack the meaning of even a single word.  I have described here some of the efforts needed to understand the word 'fight', as used in English translations of the Quran.  

All this highlights the difficulty of reading classical Islamic texts, not least of all in translation.  In part it also explains why Westerners, schooled in the linguistic norms of 'Standard Average European' languages, have so much difficulty understanding Islam, and why translations of the Quran into English are inadequate for comprehending its message. 

PS In releasing this post I note that I welcome comments and clarifications, as it is quite likely there are aspects to this complex and sublte issue which I have missed or not understood fully.

Arabic words are built up around consonantal roots.  Most of these roots consist of three consonants, which can be used in a wide variety of combinations with vowels and consonants. For example the root k-t-b has to do with writing, and from it can be derived kataba 'write'; kitab 'book'; kutubī bookseller' miktāb 'typewriter' kātib 'scribe' etc.  In Arabic script the root consonants stand out very clearly, and dictionaries are organized around them. For example maktaba 'library, bookstore' is listed in an Arabic dictionary under the entry for k-t-b.

On the Difficulty of Reading the Quran, Part A: from the Amman Letter to Yusuf Ali

I am grateful to the linguist Alton L. Becker for drawing my attention to a principle that language is both exuberant and deficient.  His words sank deep into my consciousness at the time of first reading them over twenty five years ago:
In the fifties, the Spanish Heideggerian philologist, José Ortega y Gasset (1959), began a seminar on Plato's Symposium with a discussion of "the difficulty of reading". To read a distant text – distant in space, time, or conceptual world – is a utopian task, he wrote, a task whose "initial intention cannot be fulfilled in the development of its activity and which has to be satisfied with approximations essentially contradictory to the purpose which had started it' (1959:1).  In that sense, the activity of language is in many particular ways utopian: one can never convey just what one wants to convey, for others will interpret what they hear, and their interpretation will be both exuberant and deficient.  As Ortega (p. 2) put it:
  1. Every utterance is deficient – it says less that it wishes to say.
  2. Every utterance is exuberant – it says more than it plans.
(From Alton L. Becker 'Beyond Translation: Esthetics and Language Description' [published in Translation: Essays toward a Modern Philology. 1995. University of Michigan Press]. The citations are from Ortega y Gasset's 'The Difficulty of Reading.' Diogenes 28 (Winter 1959). 
The problem of exuberance and deficiency in language is particularly apparent and 'in your face' for the translator.  Not only is the translator forced to deal with the utopian task of understanding a text in its original language, but the translation itself adds and subtracts meaning in a host of different ways.

The effect is amplified when dealing with what Ortega y Gasset referred to as 'distant' texts.  For example, to translate a piece of French journalism into English is to plunge into a veritable sea of exuberance and deficiency, but this pales into insignificance compared to the difficulties which arise when a classical Arabic text such as the Quran is translated into a modern European language.

Viewed through the eyes of the modern Western reader, the faith of Islam is replete with 'distant' texts, which are far in time, place and conceptual world from the average Westerner, whose native language is what Benjamin Whorf called 'Standard Average European'.  A great many of the concepts embedded in Islamic terminology are grounded in cultural practices and worldview of 7th century Arabia.  This distance causes many challenges for understanding.  Extracting even the most important ideas from Islamic texts can require great effort and care.

The discipline which Becker called 'philology' provides tools for the reader of distant texts.  A good 'philologist' (or 'linguist' — Becker used these terms interchangeably) is trained to attend to the realities of difficult reading.  He or she will be mindful, for example, of the utopian nature of translation.  A wide variety of techniques can be used which allow the philologist to identify the many ways in which their own reading is exuberant and deficient, and thus to increase the accuracy of their reading.

One of the most important of these techniques is just to slow down and pay attention to particularities.

An example of the Difficulty of Reading: the Amman Letter

Let us consider as an example a single word from the 'Amman letter', written in English by a group of Muslim scholars to Pope Benedict in response to his controversial Regensburg lecture in 2006.  At the head of the Muslims' letter a passage from the Quran is quoted.  It reads:
"In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,
Do not contend with people of the Book except in the fairest way …" (29:46)
The 'slowed down' reader, who is paying attention to particularities, will notice that word fairest in the second line of this quotation is multiply ambiguous in English.    It could mean 'impartial, free from bias', or 'most beautiful'.  In the context of disputation, the most likely interpretation of 'fairest' would be 'impartial, free from bias'.  But is this what the Arabic means?

The alert reader might then decide to consult other translations to investigate this question.  They would find that most use the word better or best where the Amman letter has fairest.  For example, Marmaduke Pickthall renders the verse "And argue not with the People of the Scripture unless it be in (a way) that is better." Far from resolving the ambiguity, these comparisons would open the field of interpretation to still more possibilities, and the reader would be alerted that further efforts are called for to reach accurate understanding.  At this point the Arabic original would need to be consulted.

The Arabic word being translated here is aḥsan.  This is an elative form form of the adjective ḥasan 'good'.  The elative implies preeminence, and it is often translated as comparative or superlative in English, which is why some translations of this verse say 'better', and others say 'best'.   Moreover ḥasan can also mean 'beautiful', and in this case aḥsan could be translated as 'more beautiful' or 'most beautiful'.

At this point the ambiguity in the Amman letter can be resolved. The Muslim scholars who drafted this letter must have read aḥsan as 'most beautiful', and so they rendered it as fairest.  This is, however, an obscure way to communicate this meaning, for although 'beautiful' was the original meaning of fair, this reading is now somewhat archaic and tends to be restricted to specific contents.  The older meaning is still widely understood, from people's exposure to fairy tales, as in the famous line of Snow White's step-mother:  'Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest [most beautiful] of them all?'

But now that we have resolved the ambiguity inherent in fairest, two others have arisen:  Is this verse about a beautiful manner or a good manner, and should the English translator use a superlative or comparative? In other words, how do we chose between 'more beautiful', 'most beautiful', 'bettter' or 'best?

At this point, one could slow down the reading process even further, and consult commentaries on the Quran and their translations into English.  There one finds that interpretations in terms of 'better' or 'best' are preferred.  For example, the eminent commentator Ibn Kathir writes in his commentary (see also here and here for other commentaries translated into English).
"What is meant here is that anyone who wants to find out about religion from them should argue with them in a manner that is better, as this will be more effective." (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)   [Ibn Kathir then goes on to say that for non-Muslims who 'turn a blind eye to clear evidence' and stubbornly reject Islam, Muslims should 'progress from debate to combat', and strike them with the sword.] 
This example illustrates both the exuberance and deficiency of translation, and also the difficulty of reading.  The Amman scholars' translation of Sura 29:46 is deficient in that it obliterates the usual interpretation of 'better/best', and it is exuberant because it suggests the meaning of 'impartial, free from bias' to the unwary English reader.   A 'slowed down reader' can mitigate these problems by paying attention first of all to the fact that fairest is ambiguous, and this could then give them reason to investigate the original Arabic, as well as to ask how commentators and translators have dealt with the word, and thus, step by step, they can work their way towards a better understanding.

This exercise in reading also raises questions about the intent of the eminent Muslims scholars who composed the Amman letter.   Why did they chose the word fairest, given that other translations such as better or best are available which seem clearer, are preferred in published translations, and which better match the commentaries?  This is an entirely valid question if one wants to have a proper understanding of the meaning of the letter.  Was this is a case of sloppy translation? Or should the reader consult a wider variety of commentaries to check whether 'fairest' has any supporters among the scholars?

Perhaps there was an intention to deceive or simply to present the 'best face' of Islam? (In this case the whole text could reasonably be examined for other evidence of 'spin': 'fairest' does seem more gracious than telling the Pope that Muslims should argue in a 'better' way, even if it obscures the original by introducing a possibility of misinterpretation.) Or, perhaps more charitably, one might explore whether this was this a rhetorical device, a misleading impression which the reader is meant to figure out.  Consider for example what the commentator As-Suyuti says of the device of tauriyat in his discussion of Quranic rhetoric (in Al-Itqan fi 'Ulum al-Qur'an):
The Deception or Double Entendre (al-tauriyat) is to use a word with two meanings concurrently... one being immediate and the other, more distant to comprehension; that it is the latter meaning which is intended is implied by the former, more immediate meaning. Because of this, the listener too, harbors doubts, from the very outset.
Thus the efforts of the reader go on and on, as the task of reading grows ever more complex.  Interrogating even a single word in a text can be like pulling on a piece of string – the more one looks into things, the more drawn out the whole exercise of interpretation becomes.

The Quran is difficult reading material

Reading the Quran presents many challenges.  One is that the Arabic of the Quran is often just hard to understand.  It contains many opaque words and expressions, and the mode of expression is often highly elliptical, leaving out material which the reader must infer.

Muslims can be reluctant to speak of translating the Quran itself.  Instead they will use an expression like 'translation of the meanings', which are the literal words in the sub-title of the Saudi-sponsored Noble Qur'an.  Some may put this down to Muslims having a very high regard for the Quran in its original Arabic form, as a kind of pious claim that the text is uniquely untranslatable because of its supposed divine origins.

However there is another reason speak of 'translating the meanings', which is that translators of the Quran do not so much translate the Arabic text, as the meaning of the text as it is explained by the commentaries.  In other words, the translator reads the commentaries and translates what they say the text means.  Thus Yusuf Ali states in the introduction to his translation 'In translating the Text, I have aired no views of my own, but followed the received Commentators.' 

The result of this process of translation is a 'smoothed' text, which has lost a whole host of ambiguities and particularities, and bears a very complex relationship to the Arabic original.  Similar 'smoothing' can also apply in Bible translations, however the challenge this presents for readers is — in my admittedly subjective impression – much greater for the Quran.

A further complication in Quranic translations is the value of the text for da'wa, or 'calling' people to Islam.  There is pressure to make the translation more attractive and this influences translators' choices.

Such pressure seems to be behind Yusuf Ali's translation of iḍribūhunna as 'chastise them' in a passage from Sura 4:34 discussing how to maintain marital harmony.  Although Yusuf Ali's footnote explains that what is meant is 'mild corporal punishment' (of the wife), the English word chastise can mean either 'punish by beating' or 'scold' (i.e. a verbal rebuke).  This ambiguity does not exist in the Arabic: the Arabic root -r-b simply means 'beat, strike, hit'.   

Muhammad Shakir's 'beat them', although an obvious and clear translation of what the Arabic actuallys says, was presumably avoided by Yusuf Ali because it was too confronting.  The use of chastise, which offers an alternative interpretation – however misleading –  softens the text, and makes it more appealing (or less unappealing) for the Western reader. Such considerations must be taken into account by the careful reader of Quran translations.

Or course bias in translation is not unique to the Quran.  A passage in the book of Isaiah has been translated 'a young woman shall conceive' (Isaiah 7:14).  However Christian translators have often preferred the inaccurate rendering 'a virgin shall conceive' (following the Greek Septuagint), because this strengthens the prophetic reference to the doctrine of Christ's virgin birth.  Modern translators of the Bible have tried to eliminate theologically-driven translation choices, and thus the New Revised Standard Version reads 'a young woman'.

All this brings me round to a discussion of fighting and killing in the Quran, which will be the subject of my next post, and illustrates the considerable cultural complexities of translation.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Dhimma Time Warp Returns for the Copts of Egypt

In recent weeks a series of incidents in Egypt give evidence that, post-Mubarak, the Copts are being pressured to assume the time-warped status of dhimmis, a captive people in their own native lands, whose status is to be tightly circumscribed by traditional sharia law.

The ancient dhimma pact, which determined the status of non-Muslims after Muslim conquest and occupation, includes specific regulations limiting the construction, repair and maintenance of churches, as well as the public display of religious symbols and public performance of rituals.  Muslim legal authorities based these regulations on the model of the Pact of Umar, a treaty attributed to the second Caliph, ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab, around the time of his conquest of Syria in 634-638.   A version of this pact can be found in Ibn Kathir's highly respected commentary on the Qur'an (see here), from which various quotations below are taken.

Now, 1400 years later, a series of assaults on churches in Egypt have demonstrated the enduring power of this piece of paper to control the lives of Middle Eastern Christians today.

In one incident, Muslim radicals occupied the entrance to the church of St John the Beloved in the village of Kamadeer, praying and sleeping there, while thousands of local Copts stages a sit-in in front of the governor's offices in Minya, demanding the return of their building. 

Why would Muslims not want Christians to use their church?  The explanation can be found in the Pact of Umar.  Back in the 7th century, the Christians of Syria agreed, as a condition of their surrender, that they would not build or repair any churches:
When you (Muslims) came to us we requested safety for ourselves, children, property and followers of our religion. We made a condition on ourselves that we will neither erect in our areas a … church …  nor restore any place of worship that needs restoration
In the Pact of Umar, Muslims also were given the right to occupy churches if they wished:
We will not prevent any Muslim from resting in our churches whether they come by day or night...
The Muslims who have occupied the church in Kamadeer this past week did so because they objected to a plan to repair it.  As Mary Abdelmassih for the Assyrian International News Agency reported:
The problem started when the heavy rain in January 2011 caused the church, which is built of clay bricks and has a timber roof, to suffer severe cracks. The Copts requested from the military permission for repairs. Last week inspectors from the local council visited the church and confirmed the church is dilapidated and poses a threat to the parishioners and must be repaired.
When Muslims saw that the Copts were going to get permission to repair the building, they occupied it, saying 'we allowed you to pray here, but there is no question of any building work to be done, this will have to be over our dead bodies'.

Why would fixing a crack in a roof be a matter for which these Muslims are prepared to sacrifice their lives?  The reason is devotion to sharia: the dhimma laws forbid Christians from repairing churches after Muslim conquest.

The Muslims in Kamadeer also demanded that the Christians move their church to another site, so, after a process of 'reconciliation' the Copts have been compelled to relocate to a site 200 meters away from the old church.  The new building is to be strictly limited in size: it must be one story high – not two as the old one was – and must not have any recognizable signs, visible or audible, of being a church, such as a dome, cross or bell.

Why these specific conditions?  The reason is that the dhimma demands them.  As the Pact of Umar puts it, Christians living under Islam are to refrain from all public displays of their religion:
We will not … publicize practices of Shirk ['idolatry' - i.e. non-Islamic belief]… We will … refrain from erecting crosses on the outside of our churches and demonstrating them and our books in public in Muslim fairways and markets. We will not sound the bells in our churches, except discretely, or raise our voices while reciting our holy books inside our churches in the presence of Muslims, nor raise our voices [with prayer] at our funerals, or light torches in funeral processions in the fairways of Muslims, or their markets.
The restriction on the height of the new church is also determined by dhimma regulations, which demand that non-Muslims' buildings cannot be as high as the houses and mosques of Muslims.

In another incident, Muslims demanded that approved renovations to St. George's Church in Beni Ahmad, 7 KM south of Minya, be demolished, or else they will destroy the church.  This also accords with the dhimma pact.  The authorities have backed the radical Muslims, telling the Christians they must comply with these demands. 

Part of the Pact of Umar is permission clause given by the Christians that if they breach any of the pact's conditions, they can be treated as rebels (i.e. killed, looted and enslaved):
These are the conditions that we set against ourselves and followers of our religion in return for safety and protection. If we break any of these promises that we set for your benefit against ourselves, then our Dhimmah (promise of protection) is broken and you are allowed to do with us what you are allowed of people of defiance and rebellion.
This is the threat which is forcing the Christians to accept such demeaning outcomes:  if they attempt to pursue justice by appeals through the  courts, and insist on their right to repair their churches, their whole community could be attacked, and the church destroyed and looted. Through acts of 'reconciliation' Copts are being forced to accept the demands of the Muslims for the delapidation or relocation of their churches, and the removal of overt Christian symbols from their buildings.

There is no justice here for the Christians, not in any reasonable understanding of the word.  The Egyptian authorities have failed them, by acquiescing to the revival of the dhimma in the streets of Kamadeer.

This is the  consequence of the collapse of the Mubarak regime, which devoted much of its resources to suppressing radical Islam.  Now the suppression is gone, supporters of the Islamic revival are gaining confidence to restore sharia law, including implementing it on the heads of their Christian neighbours.  With Mubarak gone, the state authorities seemingly have little will to stand in their way.

Of course, not all Egyptian Muslims wish to destroy Christian churches in this manner, so as to send the Copts back into the grim past!  But those who do have enough self-confidence and aggression to intimidate the rest.  Sadly, the worst is yet to come.

All across the Muslim world there are signs the dhimma is returning.  The Copts of Kamadeer are not suffering alone.  The whole point of the dhimma system, as the eminent (and mainstream) Pakistani jurist M. Taqi Usmani explained in his Islam and Modernism, is to demolish the 'grandeur' of non-believers, so that Islam will be attractive for all to follow.  Such is the utopia which the Islamic revival movement offers to the world.

It would be completely irresponsible and misleading to refer to such events as the destruction of the church in Kamadeer as a manifestation of 'sectarian conflict', 'ignorance' or 'extremism'.  Those who have worked for this outcome include trained religious scholars, and they have the solid backing of 14 centuries of Islamic jurisprudence behind them.  It is entirely correct to call such people 'radicals', because they understand and wish to revive the the radix or 'root' of their faith.

The real problem is that this legal foundation remains unrenounced by so many of the leading Islamic jurists of our day, and unacknowledged too by so many among the scholarly and political elites in the West, including those church leaders who know more about interfaith schmoozing than about radical  Islam.

Bringing the dhimma back is not extremism, but 'mainstream-ism' and it will remain so until both the Muslim and Western 'mainstreams' reject the dhimma comprehensively and without apology or camouflage, as an instrument of oppression best left to languish in the dark ages of Islamic history.

The destruction of the church in Kamadeer is a witness to the collusion of so many Western scholars and political leaders, who have proclaimed for more than a century that non-Muslims enjoyed unparalleled 'tolerance' living under Islamic rule.  The dhimma, we have been told, provided for an enviable conviviencia between faiths in a golden past.

What we are seeing in Egypt gives the lie to such claims.  To call the bitter dhimma conditions 'tolerance' only gives implicit support to such assaults as have been played out in Kamadeer this past week, for if the 'golden' Islamic past under dhimma conditions was the epitome of tolerance, then modern-day rigor in re-imposing these very same conditions on the heads of Egypt's Christians must also be quietly accepted as 'tolerance' too.

The demolition squad for the church of St John the Beloved is not only composed of the hot-blooded Salafi Muslims who have been rolling out their prayer mats in its entrance.  It also includes a legion of others, the cheer squad of silence, pursuing respectable and irenic careers in the West. 

The ahistorical cant which eulogizes the dhimma has become a poisoned chalice for the Copts of Egypt today.