In The Politics of Persecution, Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran Palestinian pastor from Bethlehem, makes clear the aim of his thought-provoking book: “Evangelical Christians and Western political forces want to frame the story of Middle Eastern Christians as one simply of persecution. This study clearly demonstrates that the story is one of struggle, resistance, social involvement and resilience.” This is the writing of a supposed victim—according to the categories too often imposed by outside observers—who rejects the category of victimhood, insisting that he and his community are resilient actors in the events that unfold in the Middle East today. Raheb is not only a pastor but also the founder of the Diyar Consortium, a group of ecumenically oriented educational and social institutions serving the Bethlehem area. He was elected in 2018 to the Palestinian National Council, which serves as a kind of parliament that represents all Palestinians inside and outside Palestine.
Raheb gives an insider’s perspective on Middle Eastern Christians that provides historical context, contemporary analysis, and critical reflection standing in sharp contrast to much of the discourse on Middle Eastern Christians heard in the West. Raheb uncovers the genealogy of much of that discourse, which describes Christians as victims and Muslims as persecutors. As Raheb shows, this way of speaking developed in the wake of the European intervention in the countries of the Ottoman Empire and is intimately tied to European involvement in the region. Raheb convincingly demonstrates how European powers used discourse about Christian persecution to further their own interests, a prefiguring of the discourse and practice of right-wing politicians in the United States in our own time.
At the outset, Raheb points out that “Middle Eastern Christians have often been orientalized, victimized and minoritized.” He seeks to move the focus from persecution to the resilience, resistance, and creativity of Christian communities, which are committed both to their heritage and their homeland. European powers, and later the United States, have presented themselves as protectors of the minorities in the Middle East, which justified their interference in the affairs of the region. Raheb admits that at least some Middle Eastern Christians, including ecclesiastical leaders, welcomed this interference and the privileges it brought them. But his narrative reveals that their enthusiastic embrace of Western involvement was shortsighted.
Raheb shows that the Europeans brought not only modernization, education, and a renaissance of Arabic culture—indeed a blessing for the region—but also Zionism, European-style nationalism, and colonialism, planting the seeds of the ongoing conflicts that have torn the region apart in recent decades. Christian mission schools, set up by various Western Christian denominations throughout the Middle East, educated but also alienated as they instilled an allegiance to the culture and patria of the missionaries, further igniting sectarianism and thus weakening social cohesion. Until the nineteenth century, Islam had “provided the backbone, the glue” that kept the multicultural, pluri-religious Ottoman Empire together. Although non-Muslims did not have equality, they functioned within a flexible and pragmatic administrative structure which provided a large degree of stability and continuity as well as opportunities for prosperity. With the arrival of the European diplomats, merchants, and missionaries, this system was increasingly strained. The European powers imposed themselves as spokespeople for the various minorities, promoting their rights and offering them protection. The prosperity and privileges of these protégés provoked fears among Muslims and their traditional leaders that their lands were being transformed without their control or consent.
The resulting fragmentation weakened Middle Eastern society. The new order emphasized denominational distinctions between Christian communities in the region (Latins and Protestants), which furthered Christian disunity. But, even more important, it further separated Muslims, Christians, Jews, and other religious sects. Raheb attributes great significance to the 1860 massacres of Christians by Druze in Mount Lebanon, a watershed in the history of intercommunal relations. In the reports diffused in the West by a British diplomat, the Orient was depicted as barbaric: “Islamic, irrational, anti-Christian, and stuck in a primitive mindset.” These massacres seemed to prove that Christians in the region needed special protection, and proffering that protection became a way for the European powers to impose their influence on the region.
The author valiantly attempts to summarize the complex history of how European involvement in the Middle East affected Christians there. He covers the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, the carving up of the region by the French and the British, the promotion of the Zionist movement by the British, and the mass migrations of European Jews to Palestine. In this period, Christians and Muslims underlined their shared Arab identity to promote identification with developing Arab nationalism. In the aftermath of World War II, the establishment of the state of Israel led to further destabilization, and the Arab regimes fell one after another; the question of Palestine’s status has festered ever since. Arab nationalism produced regimes that were overwhelmingly totalitarian, and many chose to make their homes elsewhere, leading to the mass emigration of Jews and Christians. These regimes often presented themselves as protectors of “minorities,” a position they used to legitimize their rule and to excuse brutality toward opposition, especially from Islamic movements that challenged them.