A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East
By Heather J. Sharkey
Middle East Quarterly Summer 2018 Volume 25: Number 3
Editor’s note: The following is a longer version of a review by Raymond Ibrahim that first appeared in the Middle East Quarterly.
Despite its broad and ambitious title, the book deals primarily with Muslims, Christians, and Jews of the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Within this limited vista, the author does a relatively fair job of noting the oppression Jews and Christians experienced under and in the name of Islam; less straightforward is her approach as to why: “To understand what happened, one must look to the intersection of economic factors (resentments over wealth), social factors (resentments over health, education, and lifestyle), sexual factors (demographic anxiety).” [p.315]
While these are all fair considerations, left unstated is that they are also byproducts of a chief factor: The dhimmi status Islam imposed on Christians and Jews—which supposedly “once worked well as a means of managing religious diversity” —had economic, social, and sexual disparities that naturally led to “resentments” between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Such an obvious answer seems unsatisfactory for Sharkey: “To what extent is it accurate and fair to describe the Armenian massacres … as ‘religious’ conflicts, given that the Armenians happened to be Christians while their attackers, who spoke Turkish, Kurdish, and other languages, happened to be Muslims”? 
The author’s convoluted approach is exacerbated by an ahistorical attitude. On four separate occasions she quotes Salman Rushdie’s assertion that “redescribing the world is the first step towards changing it,” once elaborating: “Certainly redescribing a lapsed world may offer a way of living with the past, in the sense of putting up with it, recovering from it, and coming to terms through a modus vivendi. This redescribing involves choice and selection… In sifting through the past, this book offers an alternative to the ‘banal violence’ interpretation of the Middle East.” 
Accordingly, rather than take history at face value, Sharkey often turns to “memoirs, cookbooks, novels, anthologies, ethnographies, films, musical recordings,” for “insights.”  The book’s concluding chapter, where the author gives her final analysis, has a section titled “The Smell of the Past”—which literally looks to a variety of pungent aromas for answers: “The history of something as apparently banal as a cooking fat—in its economic, social, and olfactory dimensions—may carry a multiplicity of eye-opening meanings.”  And that her closing sentence consists of a series of “image if’s”—or as Sharkey calls them, “counter factual scenario-making” about how the Ottoman Empire might have been—is more reminiscent of a John Lennon song than a work of history.