May 27, 2009
In its June 2009 issue, National Geographic demonstrated just how far it is willing to go to scapegoat Israel for suffering in the Middle East. The magazine also showed how far it is willing to go to downplay the role Islam played in contributing to Christianity's decline in the region. In an article written by Don Belt, the magazine's senior editor for foreign affairs, National Geographic portrays the departure of Christians from the Holy Land as largely a consequence of Israeli (and American) policies in the region. The article offers no honest description of the well-documented mistreatment of Christians at the hands of Muslim majority populations in the Middle East.
Belt’s efforts to whitewash the role Islamic conquest played in the decline of Christianity in the Middle East becomes obvious in the third paragraph of the article which states that "it was during the Crusades (1095-1291) that Arab Christians, slaughtered along with Muslims by the crusaders and caught in the cross fire between Islam and the Christian West, began a long, steady retreat into the minority."
In reality, Arab Christianity began its "long, steady retreat" into minority status hundreds of years before the European crusaders ever set foot in the Holy Land. As Bat Ye’or and other commentators have documented, the process of forced conversion and subjugation of Christians in the Middle East began soon after the death of Mohammed in 632. Ye’or writes that after unifying the Arabian Peninsula under Muslim rule, Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s successor, brought war to non-Muslims, including Christians, outside Arabia. In her book The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude (Farleigh Dickinson Press, 1996) Ye’or writes:
Arab idolaters had to choose between death or conversion; as for Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, if they paid tribute and accepted the conditions of conquest, they could buy back their right to live, freedom of worship and security of property.In 640 the second caliph, Umar Ibn al-Khattab, drove the Jewish and Christian tributaries out of Hijasz by invoking the dhimma (contract) of Khaybar: the land belonged to Allah and his Envoy and the contract could be broken at the discretion of the imam, the religious and political leader of the umma [Muslim religious community] and the interpreter of Allah’s will. Umar also invoked the desire expressed by the Prophet on his deathbed: "Two religions should not co-exist within the Arabian peninsula." (Page 39)
While Ye’or is careful to explain that the subjugation of peoples and faiths was part and parcel of life in the Middle East at the time and that offering conquered peoples a chance to convert to Islam "curbed the barbarity of war," she also makes clear that Christianity declined under Muslim conquest in the region conducted under the rubric of jihad, or holy war against non-Muslims.
Instead of acknowledging this history, Belt portrays early Muslim history as a time of tolerance, describing the Levant’s history of "coexistence between Muslims and people of other faiths, which dates from the earliest days of Islam. When the Muslim Caliph Omar conquered Syria from the Byzantine Empire around 636, he protected the Christians under his rule, allowing them to keep their churches and worship as they pleased."
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