As the birthplace of Christianity, the Middle East has historically been home to a significant proportion of Christians, the vast majority native Arabs who held on to their Christianity in the face of the Islamic conquest of the region. Throughout the latter part of the 20th century, however, and especially today, the number of Christians in the Middle East has been dwindling at an alarming rate – pushed out by sectarian persecution and violence. The situation has become so dire, in fact, that many commentators are pointing to the potential elimination of Christianity from the land of its inception.
Nothing more fully embodies the current plight of Christians in the Middle East than the horrific practices of Daesh (ISIS), who since taking the Iraqi city of Mosul in June last year has deliberately targeted the Christian populations of Northern Iraq, driving them out of their homes, raping, killing, and destroying property and belongings. Never has it been so necessary – and so important – to understand the history and role of Christians in the region, and their historical relations with their fellow Arab brethren.
This is the task that Dr Emil Saleem Shehadeh, an Evangelical Christian and Israeli Palestinian currently living in the UK, has set himself in his recently published book The other anti-Semitism: The plight of the Christians in the Middle East, a personal and historical perspective. Declaring himself to be “the voice of a silent minority in the Christian Arab Church,” Shehadeh puts forward the argument that “the Arabs of Israel, and more specifically Arabic-speaking Christians in Israel and the wider Middle East, have suffered a sort of anti-Semitism at the hands of Jews, Muslims and Western Christians… This anti-Semitism has consisted of: Denial of the existence of Arabic-speaking Christians, disrespect for their standing, total ignorance of their plight, and turning a deaf ear to their cries for help.”
It is a forceful thesis, and one that is doggedly argued by Shehadeh throughout the book, often to the detriment of a more balanced or historically comprehensive view. While the overall premise of the book may be sound – that discrimination against Arab Christians is a form of anti-Semitism (since the definition of a Semite is actually a linguistic category designating their speaking of the Semitic languages of Arabic and Hebrew; though Shehadeh prefers to rely on the somewhat questionable genetic lineage to the biblical “people of Shem”) – the execution falls somewhat flat of its intended effect. This is evidently a deeply personal work, and as such clear historical sources and factual evidence is often eschewed in favour of personal anecdotes or biblical quotes, while the overall tone is less of an academic work than of an evangelising rant (a fact to which Shehadeh readily admits in the preface).
As he himself addresses “those unflinching hardened Evangelical Zionists”: “Put yourself through the hardship of reading the unpalatable [in this book], as an athlete would run a few miles, or a sick man take his medicine. The hardship of the next two hours may be character-building and the medicine may cure you if your bigotry. Read this rebuke now from a fellow Evangelical or else face your creator in the day of judgement.” A sentiment that sets the tone for the somewhat preachy and moralising nature of the book as a whole.
The problem with The other anti-Semitism is not the subject matter itself, which as previously mentioned is never more pressingly important that today, but the manner in which it is handled. Even the cover of the book belies its somewhat uni-dimensional and embittered worldview, depicting an image of a keffiyeh-clad cross (evidently symbolising Arab Christians) cut deeply and bleeding from two wounds inflicted by the blue point of the Star of David and the green crescent of Islam. The insinuation of the cover, as in the rest of the book, is that “Jews” and “Muslims” (because both of these heterogeneous social and political communities can be reduced to a single attribute) engage in religiously-sanctioned racism and persecution towards Arabic-speaking Christians.
While the terrible plight currently being suffered by many thousands of Christians across the Middle desperately calls out for attention and scrutiny, simply labelling all Muslims and Jews as “Christophobic” is surely counterproductive. What is needed, now more than ever, is a balanced account of the history of Christian persecution (and accommodation) in the region, not a personal vendetta against Zionists and Islamist extremists in all their forms. Furthermore, Shehahdeh’s concluding remarks regarding the overstatement of Islamophobia “when the main problem is Islamic terror”, and his support for the ongoing demonisation of the British Muslim community by the current Conservative government render hollow his previous statements about “Christophobia” – surely recognition of one form of religious persecution should lead to denouncing all such attempts to tar an entire community with a single sweeping brush stroke.
Nevertheless, this remains an interesting and forceful book, full of personal anecdotes and odd religious sources. However, for those seeking a comprehensive picture of Christians in the Middle East and the various threats they face today, look elsewhere.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.