Posted on Wednesday, January 9th, 2008 at 3:29 am
Author: Jonathan Mok
This is a review of Zachary Karabell’s People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West. John Murray. 2007.
In Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, the author envisioned that, after the collapse of communism, the Christian West inevitably would start conflicts with Islam, due to different values, traditions and ideologies. His prediction, seemingly, has become real for lots of people since the attack of 9/11. The Iraq war and the bombings in London in July 2005 have intensified this belief. Religions, which were once becoming irrelevant in our lives, have again proven to be crucial factors in the long negotiation toward some semblance of peace and harmony in the world. The emergence of Islamic fundamentalists and the Christian Right in the United States have made people doubt the very possibility of co-existence.
In his latest book, Zachary Karabell (who obtained his doctorate degree from Columbia and published books on American college education and politics before the previous book on the Suez Canal), tries to present the history of happy co-existence among Muslims, Christians and Jews: from the era of Muhammad till twenty-first century Dubai.
Karabell suggests that the decline of relationships among Muslims, Christians and Jews can be traced back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when Western-educated Arab intellectuals imported nationalism into their homes. Zionism, an ideology that began to grow popular after the First World War, further altered the former friendship between Muslims and Jews.
Rather than blaming Muslims for prejudice against Jews and Christians, Karabell asks us to think about the responsibility Christian Europe should bear for recent violence. What caused the departure of European Jews and, therefore, resulted in conflicts between Muslims and Jews? What brought about the plight of Palestinians? For Karabell, it would be easy to point a finger at Arabs, but he believes that without the persecution of Jews and the Holocaust, violence would not plague both Muslims and Jews.
As an example of restoration of harmony between followers of Muhammad and People of the Book, Karabell speaks about the city of Dubai, suggesting that the path to co-existence can be shaped by global-minded business strategy.
Obviously, Karabell understands that this is easier said than done. He illustrates his point by bringing up the enormous voting power of the American Christian Right, whose support was instrumental to the George W. Bush White House. The stronghold of religious parties in the Israeli government is another example he uses.
Karabell’s bibliography is well-stocked, from Turkish and Arabic sources, to publications of English-language conservative scholars, including Robert Spencer and Bat Ye’or. Both Spencer and Ye’or are contributors to Jihad Watch, a famous site, and have been accused of sparking Islamophobia. By going straight to such sources, Karabell has exposed the heart of present religious hostilities.
Chronicling the history of encounters between Islam and the West in the last fourteen hundred years, Karabell attempts to see a path toward peaceful co-existence today. I am not entirely sure that he has found a useful solution to the crises we face. Yet he has delivered a fascinating exploration of the good and bad that is to be found in the expressions of the Abrahamic faiths. There is some hope that we can get along yet, even if some of us continue to believe that killing people is the only answer.
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