A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East. By Heather J. Sharkey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017. 394 pp. $31.50, paper
Despite its broad title, this volume deals primarily with Muslims, Christians, and Jews of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The author does a reasonable job of noting the oppression Jews and Christians endured under and in the name of Islam. Her explanation, however, is less straightforward: “To understand what happened, one must look to the intersection of economic factors (resentments over wealth), social factors (resentments over health, education, and lifestyle), [and] sexual factors (demographic anxiety).”
While these are fair considerations, left unstated is that they are byproducts of the dhimmi status (protection to religious minorities who submit to Muslim rule) imposed on Christians and Jews—which the author claims “once worked well as a means of managing religious diversity” but which created economic, social, and sexual disparities that naturally led to “resentments” between Muslims and non-Muslims.
This obvious answer is unsatisfactory for Sharkey; instead she asks, “To what extent is it accurate and fair to describe the Armenian massacres … as ‘religious’ conflicts, given that the Armenians happened to be Christians while their attackers, who spoke Turkish, Kurdish, and other languages, happened to be Muslims?”
The author’s dissembling is exacerbated by an ahistorical attitude. In order to offer “an alternative to the ‘banal violence’ interpretation of the Middle East,” she quotes on four occasions Salman Rushdie’s assertion that “redescribing the world is the first step towards changing it.” Rather than take history at face value, Sharkey thus turns to “memoirs, cookbooks, novels, anthologies, ethnographies, films, and musical recordings” for insights. The book’s concluding chapter has a section titled “The Smell of the Past,” which looks to pungent aromas for answers since “something as apparently banal as a cooking fat—in its economic, social, and olfactory dimensions—may carry a multiplicity of eye-opening meanings.” She closes with “counter factual scenario-making” about the Ottoman Empire as it might have been, an approach more reminiscent of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” than of a work of history.
Raymond Ibrahim, Middle East Forum