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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Peace Be Upon You’ Reminds Us That Muslims, Christians, Jews Have Gotten Along in the Past…and Even Today – Despite Attempts by Radicals to Derail Coexistence; Is Dubai the Future?

While I was finishing Zachary Karabell’s “Peace Be Upon You: The Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence” (Knopf, $26.95, 352 pages, maps, bibliography, notes, index), I came across a story in the Wednesday, April 11, 2007 Wall Street Journal about a startling new design for a 68-story mixed-use skyscraper planned for that Las Vegas of the Persian Gulf, Dubai.
Like Chicago’s John Hancock Center and New York’s Time Warner Center, the building combines residential and commercial uses in one building. Unlike either of these complexes, the structure will consist of floors that rotate individually, yielding constantly changing views. What struck me about the project is the project’s brilliant designer, David Fisher, born in Tel Aviv, Israel and now an Italian citizen. An Israeli Jew designing a building for the Arabs? What gives?
Karabell, whose “The Last Campaign” is one of the best books I’ve read about the Truman-Dewey presidential race in 1948, devotes the final chapter of his book about religious coexistence in the city-state of Dubai – in the face of the down-through-the-centuries “clash of cultures.”
In the chapter entitled “Is Dubai the Future?” Karabell points out that the Jewish Kerzner family of South Africa is involved – in cooperation with the royal family of tiny Dubai -- in building an island casino, the first in the Persian Gulf.
Not only the Kerzners, but the prominent American Jewish supporter of Israel, Mortimer B. Zuckerman, are mentioned in the chapter. Zuckerman, who owns U.S. News & World Report, made his fortune in real estate; he sold several of his surplus luxury New York buildings to an arm of the Dubai government, the same government that was involved in the disastrous – and aborted -- U.S. ports sale that brought so much attention to Dubai last year.
In the Dubai chapter, Karabell describes how an entrepreneurial Coptic (Christian) Egyptian family is involved in the telecom business in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The point the author – educated at Columbia, Oxford and Harvard, where he received his Ph.D in 1996 – is trying to make, as I read it, is that religious and ethnic conflict is only part of the story of the three religions in the region: The rest of the story – as Paul Harvey would put it – is that moderate, often secular Islamic regimes can and do get along with Christians and Jews.
A current example examined by Karabell is the relationship between Jordan and Israel. They’ve had diplomatic relations since 1994 and cooperate on water projects on the Jordan River valley. This relationship goes back to the current ruler’s great-grandfather, who tried to moderate the conflict between his Jordan – originally called Transjordan and a part of the Palestinian mandate – and the newly declared State of Israel. He definitely was a pragmatic leader who unfortunately was assassinated in 1951.
If you’re not a history buff – as I definitely am – “Peace Be Upon You” may be hard slogging. The author crams a lot of history into a relatively short book, but I find Karabell’s writing elegant, reasoned and balanced.
For instance, he deals with (Page 266-267) with the hundreds of thousand of Jewish refugees who were forced to leave their homes in Muslim countries after the creation of Israel in 1948. This is a subject often missing or mentioned in passing in books about the Arab-Israeli conflict, including Jimmy Carter’s tome that I recently reviewed.
Most historians deal with Arab refugees from the former Palestine mandate, but they fail to address Jews from countries as diverse as Iran and Algeria who were pressured to leave their ancestral homes to emigrate to Israel and elsewhere. Iraq alone had 150,000 Jews in the late 1940s – almost all of whom were forced to leave, Karabell notes. Instead of being crammed into squalid refugee camps by the Egyptians or Lebanese or Jordanians, these Sephardic Jews were integrated into Israel and other countries to which they went.
A prime example is the Saatchi advertising empire, based in London. It was founded by Charles and Maurice Saatchi, Iraqi Jews who settled in England and contributed to the commerce and culture of the U.K. There is only a tiny remnant of the once flourishing Jewish community in today’s Iraq. The same holds true of Egypt, which had a large and prosperous Jewish community in both Cairo and Alexandria before 1948.
Dubai may be onto something in its moderation of Islam; it’s one of the few Muslim countries where people can consume alcohol in a public setting. The business of Dubai -- part of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) -- is business, to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge. It has few oil resources, unlike gigantic fundamentalist Islamic neighbor Saudi Arabia.
Instead, Dubai is unconsciously (or maybe even consciously) emulating Israel by developing sustained growth through entrepreneurial efforts. Israel, about the size of Massachusetts or New Jersey and a third the size in area of West Virginia, has one of the largest generic pharmaceutical industries in the world, to cite just one example. It’s a net exporter of food, thanks to state-of-the-art agribusiness. Its natural resources are its people gathered in from all points of the compass.
A critic of Karabell’s book might say he cherry-picks examples of inter-religion cooperation, such as Cordoba in Islamic Spain, Cairo and Damascus during the time of the Crusades and the present-day examples. He could have included Salonica, when it was part of the Ottoman Empire; in his excellent bibliography, Karabell cites Mark Mazower’s outstanding “Salonica: City of Ghosts, Christians, Muslims, and Jews” published by Knopf in 2005, a book I read and reviewed. Around the turn of the 20th Century, before it became part of today’s Greece, Salonica was about evenly divided between Muslims, Christians and Jews.
Mazower tells how the Ottoman Empire – also praised by Karabell – practiced a live-and-let-live policy toward Christians and Jews. Basically, they were given limited self-government, as long as they were loyal to Istanbul and paid the poll tax required of non-Muslims. Both historians – Karabell and Mazower – agree that a multi-cultural empire is much better for religious minorities than a nationalistic country like Nazi Germany or today’s Vietnam or Iran.
One way of looking at the U.S. – my way – is to consider this nation a de facto multicultural empire, dominated by Christians, but tolerating and accepting other faiths. In that respect, we’re like the golden age of Moorish Spain or the mostly tolerant – on its own terms – Ottoman Empire, which actually lasted longer than the Roman one.
Karabell deals with Orientalism and colonization by Europeans, which the Europeans thought was only fair since the Muslims had colonized and occupied much of southern Europe, including Spain, southern France, Greece and the Balkans. Muslims of course didn’t look at it this way and have resented the West, even as they’ve admired aspects of it.
In his discussion of T.E. Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – and the Arab Revolt of 1916, Karabell provides an answer (Page 248) to a question that I’ve wondered about: The source of the wonderful book title “Dream Palace of the Arabs” by Fouad Ajami, published almost a decade ago. In his 1935 book “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” – published the year Lawrence died in a motorcycle crash – he wrote:
“All men dream…but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did. I meant to make a new nation, to restore lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream palace of the national thoughts…”
Summing up, read “Peace Be Upon You” and pray to whatever higher power you believe in that peaceful coexistence of the three great monotheistic faiths is the “dream palace” of our future world.
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