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Peace Be upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence in the Middle East

Peace Be upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence in the Middle East by Zachary Karabell. Knopf Doubleday, 2009, 352 pp.

Zachary Karabell’s book, Peace Be upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence in the Middle East, is one of the latest in a recent spate of Islamic apologetics whose basic thesis can be summarized as: “Muslims, Christians, and Jews can live together peacefully . . . provided it is the Muslims who rule.”

Looking primarily at Muslim history from the seventh century AD to the present, the author carefully selects periods when relations between the religions are relatively calm under Muslim rule and glosses over or ignores completely similar periods under Christian rule, such as the reign of Roger II in Sicily. This provides an inaccurate picture of the history between the religions and underscores the author’s bias toward Muslim rule. This bias is reinforced through several examples throughout the text. For example, in describing the Arab conquest of Egypt, he implies that the Christian Copts possibly helped in the attack, “having been promised by Amr that their churches would be undisturbed and their tax burden manageable. For the Copts and their bishops, it was a tolerable trade-off. They knew they had to pay taxes to someone, and at least the Muslims would allow them to practice their faith the way they wished, free from the repressive, arrogant authority of Constantinople” (p. 28). This example is amplified further: “Communities were left to organize themselves, with minimal intrusion from the state. While the Copts, for instance, were second-class citizens relative to the ruling Arab elite, they had also been second-class citizens relative to the ruling Byzantine elite. At least under the Arabs they did not face religious persecution” (p. 37).

To counter critics who would claim that Islam is a violent religion, the author often resorts to employing moral equivalency as a defense, as evidenced in his depiction of the violence between Muslims and Christians in Damascus in 1860: “But to indict Islam for this violence is the equivalent of condemning Anglicanism for the occasional depredations of the British army in its many wars of conquest in the nineteenth century, or to excoriate Catholicism because of French massacres of Algerians during the same period, or to charge American Protestantism for the slaughter of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1890” (p. 219). Arguing that Islam is no worse than other religions fails to bolster the author’s central premise that peace may come from Islam’s relative superiority.

Though reasonably researched and replete with ample endnotes and bibliography, certain statements in the text should raise eyebrows. For example, Karabell writes, “Scholars have long since disposed of the image of Islam being spread by the sword, but that has not altered popular imagination” (p. 31). Such rhetorical devices, provided with no supporting evidence to allow the reader to verify the claim or research it further, detract from the author’s argument as well as bring into question the validity of his thesis.

A book of this scope is no small undertaking and, understandably, certain restrictions must be imposed to keep it to a manageable length. Though this text provides a readable overview of the relations between three of the world’s great religions, the author’s bias keeps it from achieving its true potential, since it fails to analyze key questions thoroughly that spring from his thesis.

Maj Edward Ouellette, USAF

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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