Coptic priest surveys damage to church wrough
Coptic priest surveys damage to church wroughReuters

"My book is a travelling exploration through a nebulous and obscure history. One needs the courage to face the ugly side of human conduct."

These bold words come from a diminutive but feisty grandmother who calls herself Bat Ye'or. Her pseudonym, meaning Daughter of the Nile, not only recalls that she came to the West as a Jewish refugee from Egypt, but has given her a measure of personal protection from the opprobrium her work, as a pioneer historian of "Dhimmitude", has attracted over 30 years.

Her latest book, "Understanding Dhimmitude", is a compilation of 21 lectures given over the last 20 years. The book is a tribute to Bat Ye'or's late husband David Littman, who constantly encouraged her to dodge the brickbats, and thrust her into the limelight.

Bat Yeor is one of the few scholars to have done a study of the 'dhimmi' condition. Likening it to "the tip of an immense iceberg on an infinite and unexplored continent", she began popularizing the term 'Dhimmitude' in 1983:  the term had been coined -  under her influence, she claims - by Bashir Gemayel, Lebanon's ill-fated Maronite president. 'Dhimmi' applies to the subjugated legal status of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule.

Bat Ye'or balks at the term "minorities": before the Arab Muslim conquest, Christians and Pagans were "majorities". They only became minorities as a result of the attrition of slaughter, Arabization and Islamization.  

The "dhimmi" condition was a consequence of "jihad"' - "holy war" - in which conquered populations or "harbis" were taken as hostages,  massacred, converted, their property considered booty and their women and children taken into slavery.  

Later the 8th century Pact of Omar recognized that the dhimmi should be allowed to continue practicing his religion - on condition he surrendered his right to self-defense to the Muslims by paying a special tax (jizya), and submitted to certain humiliating practices. Inability to pay the tax resulted in economic oppression.

Jews and Christians were marked out by  special clothing, and even had to wear bells in public baths. Only the 19th century  intervention of the European powers ended the unequal status of the "dhimmi".

"Understanding Dhimmitude" is a useful 240-page distillation of the main concepts developed in Bat Yeor's's five books. Almost more illuminating, however, are Bat Ye'or's descriptions of the hostility and vilification she has encountered over her lecturing career.

She has been struck dumb, shouted down, gagged and boycotted. 

"You are a nobody," fulminated a professor  at a lecture she gave in memory of the pro-Zionist Christian James Parkes. At a Swedish conference, a German of Pakistani origin "almost suffocated with rage". She felt as if she had been  "thrown to the wolves in a circus".

In protest at Bat Yeor's "methodology" and her "lachrymose" approach to Muslim-Jewish relations, professor Mark Cohen walked out of one of her Hebrew University lectures with his Palestinian friend. At a conference at St Paul's Cathedral in 2003, she was refused a right of reply to a rant by the rabid anti-Zionist Stephen Sizer.

She was never very popular in France during the Mitterand presidency, when the writer Marek Halter was propagating the myth of "golden age" coexistence between Muslims and Jews. Some have accused her of making the facts fit an ideological agenda.  

But the denial and obfuscation greeting Bat Ye'or's work is itself a manifestation of "dhimmitude", which she calls the "psychological distortion brought about by oppression."

The press almost never use the word "dhimmi". Those who do often think it only applies to the Jews. Bat Ye'or is at pains to emphasize that Christians living under Muslim rule - Greeks, Armenians, Copts - are its main victims, but that over the centuries the rich and powerful church leadership "colluded" with the Muslims. 

Surprisingly, Bat Yeor's work has never found much support in the US, despite the massive influence of Christian Zionists. On the other hand, she has been feted by some sections of the Christian community in Britain, and counts among her friends Lady Cox, the "vicar of Baghdad" Canon Andrew White, and Dr Patrick Sookhdeo, whose Barnabas Fund speaks for persecuted minorities in the Muslim world.  

One would have thought that Christians should be the Jews' main allies in the struggle against the re-imposition of the 'dhimmi ' rules in the context of 'sharia' law - but no. Eastern Christians have historically been the main instigators of antisemitism. Bat Ye'or reminds us that  'dhimmi' rules were modelled on Byzantine strictures; in its early centuries, the Palestinian church obtained a ban on Jews living in Jerusalem.

In spite of their history of persecution in the Muslim Levant, the local Christians have been in the vanguard of  'replacement theology', which holds that 'Palestinians are the new Jews. Although it's a theory  some find a little far-fetched, a Judeophobic Europe  infatuated with the Palestinian cause - termed by Bat Yeor as "Palestinolatry'' - is colluding with the Arabs to demonize Israel. But the chickens are coming home to roost, and the Arab nationalism which eastern Christians thought would act to liberate then from Dhimmitude has brought only misery and exile.

Bat Ye'or urges Jews and Christians alike to make the point that they are in the Orient as of right and not under sufferance.

Like her or loathe her, there is no doubt that Bat Ye'or has made a massive contribution towards the study of Muslim/non-Muslim relations. Students of Middle Eastern history ignore her work at their peril. 

Understanding 'Dhimmitude' will is due to launch on November 20th in London.