This month, the conflict in Syria enters its fourth year. The latest news is that the government has recaptured the border town of Yabrud, an important opposition stronghold. In fact, Yabrud is where the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate in the opposition, had been holding hostage a group of Greek Orthodox nuns. The Front released the nuns only last week, reportedly in return for a government promise to allow the Front to leave the city.
Yabrud’s fall will be welcome news to Syria’s Christians. Although they have tried to avoid getting too mixed up in the conflict, it’s no secret that most of them quietly support the Assad government. Some Americans express dismay at this fact. Earlier this year, in fact, Senator John McCain reportedly stormed out of a private meeting with Syrian Christian leaders who had traveled to Washington to warn about Islamist elements in the opposition. Presumably, Senator McCain thinks these warnings reflect badly on non-Islamist elements in the anti-Assad coalition, whom he favors supplying with arms.
It’s easy to support moderate rebels and hope for the best when one lives in the United States. Syria’s Christians do not have that luxury. They favor Assad because he represents the lesser of two evils. A member of a minority religion himself–he is an Alawite–Assad has been reasonably tolerant of other minorities, including Christians. Better to take your chances with him, even if he is a dictator, than risk life under jihadists who kidnap nuns and hold them for ransom.
Actually, for an al Qaeda affiliate, the hostage-taking Nusra Front is relatively tolerant. The opposition contains worse. Take, for example, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), another al Qaeda offshoot that fights with the opposition. ISIL has taken the eastern town of Raqqa and reinstated the centuries-old dhimma, the notional contract that governs relations with Christians in classical Islamic law. According to the dhimma, Christians may live in an Islamic society as long as they pay a poll tax called the jizya, accept restrictions on their activities–for example, they may not engage in public religious displays, affect equality with Muslims, or carry weapons–and refrain from cooperating with Islam’s enemies. If they break the terms of the contract, Christians forfeit the protection of Islamic society and become subject to retaliation.
ISIL has updated the dhimma for Raqqa’s several thousand Christians. For example, Haaretz reports,
According to the 12 clauses in the accord, the Christians will commit to pay a twice-yearly poll tax of “four gold dinars” – which at today’s rate, comes to about $500 per person – with the exception that members of the middle class will pay half this amount, and the poor will pay a quarter of it, on condition they do not conceal their true financial situation.
The Raqqa dhimma also requires Christians to turn over persons ISIL believes to be working against it. Interestingly, this might include other jihadists. At the moment, ISIL is quarreling with the Nusra Front, whose members have demanded that ISIL leave the country and allow the Front to represent al Qaeda’s interests in Syria.
The Ottomans formally abolished the dhimma in the nineteenth century, an act that led at the time to a widespread anti-Christian backlash. Since the founding of the modern Middle East, no Islamist group has seriously sought to reinstate it. Even the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, for example, did not propose that Christians formally comply with the old dhimmi restrictions. It’s no surprise that Syria’s Christians look at developments in places like Raqqa and decide that Assad, rather than the opposition, offers them a more secure future.