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A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East

A History of Muslims
  • Book Title:
 A History Of Muslims
  • Book Author:
Scott Savran
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  Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East   

When the twentieth century opened, Muslims, Christians, and Jews inhabited shared worlds in the region that stretches across North Africa and through western Asia. They held in common daily experiences, attitudes, and languages –  even foods that they cooked and ate.  1  

They rubbed shoulders in villages, city neighborhoods, and apartment build-ings, and crossed paths in shops and markets.  2   In the history that this book examines  –  a history that goes roughly up to the start of World War I in 1914 –  these contacts were on wide display.

 The richness and depth of this shared history was no longer appar-ent as the twentieth century ended and the twenty- fi rst century began. Indigenous or permanent resident communities of Jews and Christians had dwindled, following the impact of wars, decolonization movements, and the politics of the Arab- Israeli confl ict, all of which propelled waves of migration. The Islamic societies of the Middle East were more solidly Muslim than ever before in history.

   During the twentieth century, Jews dispersed almost completely from Arabic- speaking domains.   By 2014, for example, the Jewish population of Egypt numbered just forty or so people  3   –  a steep drop for a com-munity that, at its peak during the 1920s and 1930s, had included some 75,000– 85,000 members, many with deep roots in the land of the Nile.  4      

In Libya, not a single Jew remained by 2000.  5     In Turkey, whose territory was once a haven for Jews fleeing the Iberian peninsula in the wake of the Reconquista, just eighteen thousand remained in 2012.  6    

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the largest Jewish population living within an Islamic polity may have been in Iran, a theocratic republic that justified its official tolerance for non- Muslims on readings of the Qur’an. Iranian government census data from 2012 only counted about nine thousand Jews, but outside observers estimated that Iran may have actually hosted a Jewish population that was closer to twenty- fi ve thousand.  7       The striking exception to this pattern of Jewish diminution was Israel, whose mid- twentieth- century creation provided a haven for Jews around the world but at the same time uprooted several hundred thousands of Arabic- speaking Muslims, together with a proportionally smaller number of Christians, who became known as Palestinians.      8  

   During the twentieth century, Middle Eastern Christian populations also diminished.   In Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria, historic Christian communities persisted but dwindled as a proportion of the population.  9     A dramatic version of this shrinkage occurred in the territory that became the British mandate of Palestine, where in 1900 Christians had comprised perhaps 16 percent of the population.  

A century later they accounted for less than 2 percent in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza –  a demographic shift that resulted from voluntary migration, displacement, and prob-ably also lower birthrates.  10       Twentieth- century change was even more extreme in Anatolia, a territory that belonged to the Ottoman Empire until the empire’s demise after World War I, but then became the heart of the Republic of Turkey. Approximately two million Christian Armenians were living in Anatolia in 1915, when Muslim Turks, Kurds, and muhajir s (the latter Muslim refugees from Russian imperial expansion in the Caucasus) carried out a series of massacres and forced marches that nearly annihilated them.  11    

Today, only about sixty thousand Armenians remain in Turkey as citizens, while the Turkish population as a whole is 99 percent Muslim.  12    

     As the twenty- fi rst century opened, many Christian churches, monasteries, and other landmarks  –  in Israel, the West Bank of Palestine, Turkey, and parts of Jordan –  had lost the local Christian populations that once sustained them.  

One scholar remarked that these Christian sites ran the risk of becoming theme parks for Western tourists, and thereby cash cows for Middle Eastern governments eager to boost their tourist revenues.  13       In Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, civil wars prompted Christians to fl ee abroad disproportionately even as one- third of Syrians –  Muslims and Christians alike –  became refugees by 2016.  14       And while economically motivated migration from Asia and Africa added diversity to Middle Eastern populations   (with workers from Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and other backgrounds arriving in countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel), migrants tended to be short- term guest workers.  15    

Throughout the Middle East, permanent resident and citizen populations had become more homogeneous in religion.    

 Locally rooted Jewish populations have vanished throughout most of the Middle East, vast numbers of Muslim Palestinians have lost their place in the “Holy Land,” and Christians in the region have experienced an attrition that one observer called a “never- ending exodus.”  16   So then why bother to tell a history of contact among Muslims, Christians, and Jews as this book does, by studying the Middle East before World War I? Why focus on community –  even comity –  rather than on confl ict, rup-ture, and trauma?

   Looking back on the expanse of Islamic history, many historians have argued that Islamic states, with few exceptions across the centuries, tolerated cultural diversity and promoted stability so that Muslims, Christians, and Jews were able to persist, coexist, and often flourish together. Islamic civilization, thus understood, was a collaborative and amicable enterprise.

Other historians, however, have emphasized violence and tyranny as leitmotifs of Islamic statehood, arguing that non- Muslims fared especially badly during long periods of political decline, however one dates them.

In interpretations of the twentieth century, an emphasis on repression persisted, with critics pointing to cases such as the Armenian massacres (1915), the Arab- Israeli conflict (1948– present), and the Lebanese Civil War (1975– c. 1990)  to emphasize a Middle Eastern propensity for a kind of political violence that drew on religious antipathies.

 The long history of intercommunal relations in the Islamic Middle East may never have seen a “golden age,” but neither was it a saga of perpetual crisis. A sober look at history suggests that, in most times and places, relations between communities were, as one might say in col-loquial Egyptian Arabic,  kwayyis  (“pretty good” or “okay”); Muslims, Christians, and Jews simply persisted in proximity. Daily lives were the sum of getting by –  the quotidian with an admixture of tension and rap-port. When the twenty- fi rst century started, this picture of the unsensational in Middle Eastern intercommunal relations did not prevail in Europe and North America.   Instead, the more common notion was that the history of intercommunal relations in the Middle East reflected what one may call a “banality of violence,” with routine, even absentminded, religious conflict assumed as the normal way of life.  17    

   In an essay collection titled Imaginary Homelands , the novelist Salman Rushdie (b. 1947) suggested not only that “description is itself a political act” but also that “redescribing a world is the necessary fi rst step towards changing it.”  18     Certainly redescribing a lapsed world may offer a way of living with the past, in the sense of putting up with it, recovering from it, and coming to terms through a  modus vivendi .   This redescribing involves choice and selection –  what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur characterized as an active searching for the past, a going out and doing something, in the perpetual sifting of history for meaning.  19      

 In sifting through the past, this book offers an alternative to the “banal violence” interpretation of the Middle East by reclaiming the history of

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