infidel

Unfolding in Iraq, a fierce campaign by the Sunni Muslim organization ISIS against “infidels”, in particular, Shia Muslims, Christians, and Yazidis. (I’m skipping here what ISIS stands for, and whether some other label entirely should be used for the organization.) Jews would of course be on the list, but there aren’t many left in Iraq; ISIS proposes to get to the Jews by attacking Israel, but only after they eliminate Iraqi infidels first — by the classic tactic of requiring them to convert or be killed. (The Convert or Die tactic is familiar in the West from the long history of Roman Catholic impositions on other groups, especially the Ottoman Turks, but also Jews and (what the Church saw as) heretical Christian sects.)

Obviously, what counts as an infidel depends on your point of view, as will become clear from a run through the OED2 entry. But first, some notes on the etymology.

The English word is a negative based on the Latin fidel- ‘faithful’ stem, as in fidelity in its many senses (including the audio term high-fidelity, clipped to hi-fi); the US Marine Corps motto Semper Fideles (clipped to Semper Fi); the hymn title Adeste Fideles (“Oh, come, all ye faithful”); the Spanish masculine name Fidel (as in Fidel Castro); and the dog name Fido.

So an infidel is someone without faith, that is, without the contextually appropriate religious faith, which of course differs from context to context. In OED2, among the senses labeled as nouns (note especially sense 2):

†1. One who does not believe in (what the speaker holds to be) the true religion; an ‘unbeliever’. Obs. [first cite from 1526, in Tyndale’s Bible]

2. In specific applications: a. From a Christian point of view: An adherent of a religion opposed to Christianity; esp. a Muslim, a Saracen (the earliest sense in English); also (more rarely), applied to a Jew, or a pagan. Now chiefly Hist. [first cite 1470–85, in  Malory’s Morte d’Arthur]   b. From a non-Christian (esp. Jewish or Muslim) point of view: = Gentile, Giaour, etc. [first cite from a1535, in More’s Dialoge of Comfort]

3. A disbeliever in religion or divine revelation generally; especially one in a Christian land who professedly rejects or denies the divine origin and authority of Christianity; a professed unbeliever. Usually a term of opprobrium. [first cite a1530, in W. Bonde’s Pylgrimage of Perfeccyon]

In sense 3, call me an infidel.

[Digression. A note on Giaour, from Wikipedia:

Giaour or Gawur or Ghiaour, written gâvur in modern Turkish …, is an offensive religious and sometimes ethnic slur used by Muslims in Turkey and the Balkans to describe all who are non-Muslim, with particular reference to nearby Christian populations like Greeks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Serbs, ethnic Macedonians, Romanians, and Assyrians. The term is considered highly offensive by Christians in the Balkans. ]

And then back in the OED, adjectival uses, “including appositive or attributive uses of the substantive”:

1. a. Of persons: Unbelieving; adhering to a false religion; pagan, heathen, etc. (Cf. the n.) [first cite 1551, in Cranmer’s Answer S. Gardiner]

Back in Iraq, the Kurds for the most part are not infidels, according to the ISIS viewpoint — because they are mostly Sunni Muslims. Not ethnically Arabs, and not speakers of Arabic (Kurdish is Indo-European), but religiously Sunni Muslim, so they are “believers”. On the other hand, Iraqi Kurdistan has been sheltering Christians and Yazidis, and it sits on a lot of oil, so it’s become an ISIS target.

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