- - Thursday, August 7, 2014

When shocking events happen, it is worthwhile to consider how future generations will retell them. In April 1945, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower wrote to Gen. George Marshall, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to explain why he visited the concentration camps even though it was “so overwhelming as to leave [him] a bit sick” and too powerful for even Gen. George S. Patton to enter. Eisenhower wrote, “I made the trip deliberately in order to be in position to give firsthand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to ‘propaganda.’”

It is for the same reasons that the world must pay attention to what has been happening in Iraq. Our society does exhibit a tendency to forget and dismiss atrocities.

By now, anyone who cares has heard the horrifying news that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has eradicated the ancient Christian community of Mosul after forcing an ultimatum on the population to choose between conversion to Islam, paying a special tax, or dying. ISIS relied on a centuries-old Islamic practice of placing Christians and Jews in a lower societal rank, referring to them as “dhimmi.” The associated tax non-Muslims paid to preserve their lives and religion historically was called “jizya.”

The dhimmi system and the jizya requirements were not universally applied in historic Muslim states and, in fact, they were adopted from the Sassanid (Persian) Empire that predated Islam. These practices were common in medieval caliphates and the 600-year Ottoman Empire. Yet today, in a revision of history, it has become common to minimize, ignore or misinterpret such historic subjugations and discriminations. In near-lockstep, essentially every world history and geography textbook emphasizes the “tolerant” nature of historic Muslim states, often in the same paragraph it teaches about dhimmis and jizya.


A McGraw-Hill middle-school text, “World History and Geography,” reads, “Muslim administrators were relatively tolerant, sometimes allowing local officials to continue to govern. Both Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religions. Following the concept of dhimmitude, however, these peoples were free to practice their religions, but they were also subjected to some regulations in order to make them aware that they had been subdued by their conquerors. Those who chose not to convert were required to be loyal to Muslim rule and to pay special taxes.” In other words, it is “relatively tolerant” to require people to pay, convert or die — the same choice ISIS offers today.

A high school McGraw-Hill textbook, “World History,” reads, “The Ottoman system was generally tolerant of non-Muslims, who made up a significant minority within the empire. Non-Muslims paid a tax, but they were allowed to practice their religion or to convert to Islam.” This textbook deems it generally tolerant to require people to pay, convert or die — just like ISIS does.

Another text avoids applying the modern concept of tolerance, but it also minimizes the jizya requirement and the dhimmi system. Pearson-Prentice Hall’s, “World History” reads, “These Arabs imposed certain restrictions and a special tax on non-Muslims, but allowed Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians to practice their own faiths and follow their own religious customs within those restrictions.” It is disputed how often Zoroastrians were afforded the same privileges as Christians and Jews, but the text takes the rosy view on that. It obscures the historical fact that Arab rulers decreed a choice for non-Muslims: pay, convert or die — just as ISIS does.

The history of non-Muslim minorities in Muslim-ruled states is well known and well documented, but for decades now there has been an effort to sanitize it in education and even in scholarship. This happens when we are not dedicated to promoting truth and teaching facts. This is why it was vital that Gen. Eisenhower and many others witnessed the Holocaust, recorded it and refused to allow people to deny it.

Similarly, today it is vital to witness and record the destruction of the ancient community of Mosul, just as yesterday it was important to witness and record the atrocities in Rwanda and Sudan. If we do bear witness without wavering, maybe the textbooks of future generations will actually teach the facts about ISIS’ intolerance.

Ellen R. Wald is a professor of Middle East history and the executive director of Verity Educate.