ISLAMOPHOBIA AND ORTHODOX TRADITION by Phil Dorroll

georgekratovo“With this he planted hatred in their hearts.”

The above quote is drawn from the martyrdom of St. George, a goldsmith from Kratovo (d. 1515 in Sofia), as recorded in Father N.M. Vaporis’ authoritative study and summaries of the hagiographic accounts of the Orthodox neomartyrs* of the Ottoman period, Witnesses for Christ (SVS Press, 2000: p. 48). In this account, a local Muslim cleric tries to compel George to convert to Islam, and is angered by his refusal to do so. The mufti incites the local population with hatred against George, who is dragged before the local qadi (imperial judge). The qadi has George arrested and accedes to the demands of the angry Muslim mob to put George in prison.

George refuses subsequent enticements to convert, and is again dragged before the qadi, accompanied by the angry mob of local Muslims, who demand his execution. This time the qadi chastises the anger of the crowds, saying: “Because he praised his faith, and does not accept ours, he should be burned?” (p. 53). After a dialogue reminiscent of Pontius Pilate’s questioning of Christ, the qadi accedes to the wishes of the angry mob and tells them, “His sin is on your souls; do with him what you please” (p. 54). George is then tortured and murdered by the angry mob.

The lives of the Ottoman neomartyrs exhibit a number of common themes. They are often the victims of mob violence, or brutalization at the hands of invading Ottoman armies, or simply of individual prejudice directed against them by local Muslims jealous of their economic success. They are often suspected of sedition or conspiracy against the state by the Ottoman authorities, or are accused of apostasy from Islam or other crimes punishable by death during the Ottoman period.

Even if the details of these hagiographical accounts cannot always be historically verified, the events related therein emit the unmistakable ring of historical truth—not because they are instances of violence committed by Muslims in particular, but because they are instances of exactly the kinds of violence inflicted on subject or minority religious populations during this time period. The kinds of brutalities mentioned above are extremely reminiscent of the persecution of “schismatics” and pogroms against Jewish communities in Imperial Russia, for instance, or of the violence inflicted upon subjugated Catholic or Orthodox populations along the Polish-Russian borderlands of the early modern period. In other words, the lives of the neomartyrs are typical examples of widespread early modern phenomena—to say nothing of the modern systematic genocide and campaigns of ethnic cleansing against Jews in Europe, Muslims in Bosnia, or Christians in Armenia and the modern Middle East.

As Vaporis points out, these incidents were in fact deviations from the legal norms of Ottoman rule: “…[T]he treatment of Orthodox Christians by the early Ottoman Muslims could have served as an example of true religious tolerance, especially as compared to the same period in Western Europe where the treatment of minority religious groups by the dominant elements was quite different” (p. 9). Forced conversion or systematic persecution by the state was the exception, not the norm, in Ottoman law (p. 14).

This was the case for the vast majority of premodern Muslim empires and kingdoms, where since the Arab conquests of the 7th-8th centuries religious minorities were generally not forced to convert, or were even discouraged from doing so. Their status as non-Muslims meant they could be taxed more heavily than Muslim subjects, while at the same time they were generally considered protected minorities under Islamic dominion. In Sidney Griffith’s seminal treatment of Eastern Christian history under medieval Islamic dominion, The Church in the Shadow of the Mosque (Princeton, 2008), he notes: “Unlike the case in the pre-Constantinian, late Roman Empire, there was no general persecution of Christians as such in the Islamic world” (p. 148). At the same time, their inferior social status frequently left them exposed to exactly the kinds of injustices and violence described so powerfully in the lives of the Ottoman neomartyrs.

What does all this have to do with Islamophobia? There is a natural temptation to read these accounts as justifications for suspicion of, or even hatred against, Muslims or the religion of Islam itself, as somehow “natural” enemies of Orthodox peoples. This prejudice, however, can function as a “beam in the eye” of the interpreter attempting to derive the divine truth from these vital parts of Orthodox Tradition. Consideration of the historical context above reveals that ascribing the injustices suffered by the neomartyrs to Islam itself, but not ascribing the same blame to Orthodoxy itself for similar incidents in, say, Imperial Russia or Byzantium—where there was a close religion-state relationship, as with the Ottoman Empire—constitutes an historical and ethical double standard. An Islamophobic interpretation has the effect of obscuring the divine truth emanating from these accounts.

The truth of these accounts lies instead in the condemnation of injustice itself, particularly the cruelty inflicted by the powerful on the socially marginalized. This is a message that not only emanates from the Gospel, but is also featured prominently in the Qur’an, where the sin of zulm (injustice or oppression) is constantly denounced as an intolerable affront to the One God of justice and mercy.

In his article “Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam: An Historical Overview” (in Orthodox Christians and Islam, Holy Cross Press, 1986), Robert Haddad, an Antiochian Orthodox scholar of Muslim and Orthodox history, notes that “Orthodox Christianity and Islam mirror one another in so many ways that full appreciation of one is served by thoughtful and sympathetic attention to the other” (p. 31). In the paradoxical way that Truth so frequently manifests within Orthodox Tradition, a shared Islamo-Orthodox message of justice and mercy emerges when one reads the accounts of the neomartyrs in their historical context.

I hope to have more to say about Haddad’s general point in future writings.

*In a Greek context, neomartyrs (νεομάρτυρες, new martyrs) designates those martyred for the Orthodox faith under Ottoman rule from the 11th century onward. 

Phil Dorroll holds a PhD in Religion from Emory University and specializes in the history of Islamic theology in classical Arabic and modern Turkish. He is assistant professor of religion at Wofford College in Spartansburg SC. He was raised in a small Orthodox parish in Indiana and continues to explore historical interactions between Orthodoxy and Islam.