The term has several distinct, but related meanings depending on the author; its scope may be historical only, contemporary only, polemical only, or both. It may encompass the whole system of dhimma, look only at its subjects (dhimmis), or even apply it outside of any established system of dhimma. The term has also been called a myth or Islamophobic.
The term was coined in 1982 by the LebanesePresident and Maronite militia leader Bachir Gemayel, in reference to perceived attempts by the country's Muslim leadership to subordinate the large Lebanese Christian minority. In a speech of September 14, 1982 given at Dayr al-Salib in Lebanon, he said: "Lebanon is our homeland and will remain a homeland for Christians… We want to continue to christen, to celebrate our rites and traditions, our faith and our creed whenever we wish… Henceforth, we refuse to live in any dhimmitude!"
The concept of "dhimmitude" was introduced into Western discourse by the writer Bat Ye'or in a French-language article published in the Italian journal La Rassegna mensile di Israel in 1983. In Bat Ye'or's use, "dhimmitude" refers to allegations of non-Muslims appeasing and surrendering to Muslims, and discrimination against non-Muslims in Muslim majority regions.
The associations of the word "dhimmitude" vary between users:
Bat Ye'or defined dhimmitude as the condition and experience of those who are subject to dhimma, and thus not synonymous to, but rather a subset of the dhimma phenomenon: "dhimmitude [...] represents a behavior dictated by fear (terrorism), pacifism when aggressed, rather than resistance, servility because of cowardice and vulnerability. [...] By their peaceful surrender to the Islamic army, they obtained the security for their life, belongings and religion, but they had to accept a condition of inferiority, spoliation and humiliation. As they were forbidden to possess weapons and give testimony against a Muslim, they were put in a position of vulnerability and humility." The term plays a key role in the allegedly Islamophobic conspiracy theory of Eurabia.
A more recent pejorative usage variant of "dhimmi" and "dhimmitude" divorces the words from the historical context and applies them to situations where non-Muslims in the West and India are championing Islamic causes above others. "Dhimmi" is treated as analogous to "Quisling" within this context.
Sidney H. Griffith states that it "has come to express the theoretical, social condition" of non-Muslims "under Muslim rule".
According to Bassam Tibi, dhimmitude refers to non-Muslims being "allowed to retain their religious beliefs under certain restrictions". He describes that status as being inferior and a violation of religious freedom.
Mark R. Cohen, a leading scholar of the history of Jewish communities of medieval Islam, has criticized the term as misleading and Islamophobic.
"If we look at the considerable literature available about the position of Jews in the Islamic world, we find two well-established myths. One is the story of a golden age of equality, of mutual respect and cooperation, especially but not exclusively in Moorish Spain; the other is of “dhimmi”-tude, of subservience and persecution and ill treatment. Both are myths. Like many myths, both contain significant elements of truth, and the historic truth is in its usual place, somewhere in the middle between the extremes."
^Bat Ye'or, "Terres arabes: terres de 'dhimmitude'", in La Cultura Sefardita, vol. 1, La Rassegna mensile di Israel 44, no. 1-4, 3rd series (1983): 94-102
^Griffith, Sidney H., The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude, Seventh-Twentieth Century, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4. (Nov., 1998), pp. 619-621, doi:10.1017/S0020743800052831.
^Bat Ye'or (1996). The Decline of Eastern Christianity under Islam. From Jihad to Dhimmitude. Seventh-Twentieth Century. Madison/Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/Associated University Presses. ISBN0-8386-3688-8.
^Bat Ye'or (2003). Islam and Dhimmitude. Where Civilizations Collide. Madison/Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press/Associated University Presses. ISBN0-8386-3943-7.
^"I founded the word dhimmitude and I discussed it with my Lebanese friends [...] My friend spoke about this word to Bashir Gemayel who used it in his last speech before his assassination." in An Egyptian Jew in Exile: An Interview with Bat Ye’or, newenglishreview.org, October 2011