The Power of Narrative: Subjugation in Uncle Tom and The Happy Dhimmi


Muslims have long promoted myths about harmonious relations with Jews, which they allege had always prevailed in Arab lands. These myths are similar to those elaborated by elites in the American South about the comity between whites and blacks in the ante-bellum and post-bellum South. Both fables enjoy wide support beyond their regions, with both ignoring or dismissing numerous travelers’ accounts and reports detailing how Jews, like blacks in the US South, were subjugated.

The Southern plantation society’s idyllic image, resembling the happy Jewish dhimmi in the Islamic world, was prevalent in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Southerners viewed their social system, based on white supremacy and slavery, as the “summit of human achievement.” After the Civil War, white Southerners tried to control public perception, convincing textbooks and mass media to emphasize slavery’s “benevolent features.” The “happy darkey” fable justified the Lost Cause for a century after the Civil War.

The myth of a peaceful Southern plantation society with loyal slaves living harmoniously with their masters is closely related to the image of the happy Jewish dhimmi in the Islamic world. This image emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with Southerners viewing their social system as a “summit of human achievement.” After the Civil War, white Southerners tried to control public perception of the South’s “peculiar institution,” promoting slavery’s “benevolent features.” The “happy darkey” fable served as a foundation for Southerners to justify their Lost Cause. Arab political and religious leaders have also created myths about the conditions of Jews in Muslim lands, claiming mutual respect between Arabs and Jews.

Arab/Muslim leaders claimed that the concept of Jewish nationhood was lost only upon the invasion of the foreign ideology of “political Zionism.” They argued that the concept of Jewish nationhood was only fashioned at the end of the nineteenth century in response to the travails of European Jews and had no relevance or interest for Jewish people living in Muslim lands. They also mocked the fact that a Jew is a Jew and mocked that “the people of the Jewish religion … are now called the Jews.”

Arabs argued that the relationship between Muslims and Jews had been disrupted by European colonial rule, claiming that Jews had enjoyed all the privileges and rights of citizenship before colonialism introduced an “artificial separation.” However, colonial powers extended citizenship, equality, or near-equality to the Jews, liberating them from their status as subjugated and humiliated dhimmis.

Arab commentators dismissed accounts contradicting their claims about Jews’ conditions under Islamic rule, claiming they were largely derived from Jews. This myth gained more support in the mid-1950s as Western scholars and activists embraced Third Worldism, relocating to formerly colonized lands. The Suez War of 1956 saw this intellectual model applied to the Middle East.

In the 1960s, the discourse on Arab lands became more politicized, with Zionism as the last imperialist villain. Scholars and commentators portrayed an interfaith and interracial utopia before imperialist invasions and the founding of the Jewish state, ignoring centuries of travelers’ accounts and investigative reports.

Muhammad, the Muslim leader, legitimized lethal pogroms against the Jewish tribes of the Medina oasis, seizing their land and belongings, and presenting them as spoils to his followers. He initiated the violent conflict with the Jewish tribes of the Medina oasis after they rejected his identification as the last prophet, the successor to Moses. Muslims would express and experience their superiority and the supremacy of their religion through the abasement, above all, of the Jews, who had been too “puffed up with pride” to recognize the “final revelation” granted to Muhammad.

The eighth-century Pact of ‘Umar established Qur’anic mandates that allowed Jews and Christians to remain alive as subjugated dhimmis, debased, and persecuted. The exact stipulations varied over time and place, with Jews being the only dhimmis left in the Maghreb and Christians securing protection from European authorities or fleeing to Christian states.

In some Islamic lands, particularly those under Shi’a rule, the abasement of Jews was a common practice. Jews were seen as both ritually polluted and polluting, and any object they touched had been contaminated. Muslims would enter a Jew’s house at will, seize any household object to their liking, and the Jewish owner would not protest. Even the murder of a Jew was generally punished by a fine or beating.

Muslims attacked Jews in the early twentieth century, claiming they had overstepped their limits and were responsible for massacres. However, Jews generally followed a cautious path, adhering to the dhimmi role, which included keeping their houses lower than those of Muslims, stepping off a path, never mounting a horse, and never bearing arms. Jews in Yemen dressed like beggars and made their houses appear decrepit, wearing the yellow Jew badge of shame or a red cloth on their chest.

In the early twentieth century, Jews had to agree to their humiliation, such as jumping and dancing, which provoked the mirth of Muslims. Muslims also animalized Jews, chasing them and making them eat the dust. Muslims perceived any violation of the Pact as an occasion for a pogrom, targeting the Jewish quarter.

White American Southerners and Middle Eastern Muslims held similar views about Jews, believing they were innately cowardly and unqualified for military service. They feared that black soldiers bearing weapons would project power and threaten the racial caste system. Confederate troops who encountered black Union soldiers viewed them with hatred and disgust, leading to horrific atrocities such as the Fort Pillow Massacre in 1864.

White Southerners perceiving African American soldiers as a potential threat to the racial order in the first half of the twentieth century insisted on acknowledging their racial inferiority by publicly displaying deference whenever encountering whites. Lynching was used to intimidate, terrify, and degrade African Americans and Jews, respectively. From the 1940s, Jews in Muslim lands were often falsely accused of being Zionist agents. The 1948 lynching of Shafiq Ades in Basra and the 1969 public hangings of eleven “accused Israeli spies” in Baghdad showcased the intense antisemitism of Muslims.

For North African Muslims in the early decades of the twentieth century, the Jewish soldier in French uniform elicited a rage similar to that which white Southerners expressed toward African Americans in the Union army. In 1934, Muslims precipitated a large-scale pogrom in Constantine, Algeria, by spreading a false rumor that a Jewish Zouave, a decorated member of a French infantry unit, had committed sacrilege in a mosque.

In the 1930s, Muslims invaded Constantine’s Jewish quarter and massacred Jews, claiming that Eliahou Kalif, a Zouave, barged drunk into a mosque during evening prayers, made insulting remarks about Islam, and urinated on the mosque wall.

Muslims attacked Jewish homes, looted, and destroyed shops, causing widespread destruction. The London Times reported that Muslims dragged Jews into the street, butchered them, and locked them in their homes. Le Populaire challenged the Muslim claim that a “one-man invasion” caused the pogrom. Arab troops dehumanized African Americans and Jews, committing brutal treatment of prisoners of war.

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