The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire

Can you guess who a new book blames the persecution of Christians on?

The following book review of The Politics of Persecution: Middle Eastern Christians in an Age of Empire by Mitri Raheb was first published by the Middle East Quarterly. Raymond Ibrahim is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Raheb, a Lutheran clergyman and academic in Bethlehem, argues that “Christian persecution is a Western construct that says more about the West than about the Christians of the Middle East.” Whatever persecution Christians may experience has little to do with Islam and is rather a byproduct of political developments that were and are almost always precipitated by Western or Israeli actions.

To make his thesis work, Raheb predictably begins his history in 1800 with the waning of Islam and the ascendancy of Europe. Christianity under Islam for the preceding twelve centuries—when it went from being the dominant faith to a tiny minority due to sporadic bouts of persecution and systemic discrimination—is otherwise presented in a rosy picture. Thus, the “persecution of Christians under the Ottomans, if any, was rare and localized.”

On the other hand, the “penetration by European powers had disastrous consequences for the region by introducing Zionism, nationalism, and colonialism.” The Mount Lebanon massacre of 1860 when Muslims butchered more than ten thousand Christians, and even the Turkish genocide of millions of Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek Christians, are presented as byproducts of European interference. Thus, “the only two cases of Christian persecution [by Muslims] in the past two centuries must be interpreted within the context of Western imperial penetration.”

Raheb avoids mentioning the obvious: While Western interference, past and present, may well have prompted and continues to prompt Muslims to massacre Christians, that is only because Muslims already see Christians as inferior infidels. Muslims massacred Christians in Mount Lebanon, during the Armenian genocide, etc., because they felt Christians were, thanks to colonial powers, becoming equals as opposed to knowing their place as second-class dhimmis within the Muslim social order as they did for the preceding millennium.

Although the European contemporary sources and eyewitnesses Raheb quotes disagree with him—always presenting the Muslim massacres of Christians as a byproduct of religious animosity—he gets around this by arguing that such Europeans did not understand the true, “political” significance of what they were reporting on—because they understood everything through an “Orientalist paradigm”:

In this paradigm, we depict an orientalist attitude of a superior and civilized Christian West that gazes at a barbaric ‘Orient’ that is Islamic, irrational, anti-Christian, and stuck in a primitive mindset … This discourse is part of an orientalist perception that persists in framing the Middle East as a backward, barbaric and intolerant region.

Clearly, Raheb, the Palestinian academic, is very much influenced by another famous Palestinian academic, Edward Said. This is especially evident in his presentation of Israel as one of the worst persecutors of Christians even though the examples he offers are sparse and pale in comparison to those furnished by Muslim-majority countries. Worse, whereas Israel’s conflict is not with Christians or Muslims but rather a territorial dispute with Arabs—and therefore furnishes the only example that truly conforms to his political thesis—he bemoans the actions of “radical Jewish groups” and “terrorists.”

Raheb boasts that an important and unique feature of this book is that it is written by a native Palestinian Christian theologian who has spent his entire life in the region … As such, it provides a decolonial interpretation … [and] allows us to expose the orientalist perception dominant in Western discourse.

But his pedigree also involves well-known drawbacks: Christians living in the Middle East tend to have a dhimmi/hostage mentality that accommodates Muslims, whereas those living abroad can speak more forthrightly.

The insistence that the persecution Christians suffer is an outcome of anything and everything except Islam—including “climate change [which] will take its toll on the Christian community”—is especially absurd.

Although Raheb makes some good points—for example, that Westerners can exploit the persecution of Christians for their own agendas without actually trying to make a difference—these are overshadowed by the book’s defects. In short, Politics of Persecution is fatally marred by the author’s own politics.

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