How did the world’s most tolerant region become the least harmonious place on the planet?
The headlines from the Middle East these days are bad, characterized by violence, terror, and autocracy. Whatever hopes people may have for the region are being dashed over and over, in country after country. Nicolas Pelham, the veteran Middle East correspondent for The Economist, has witnessed much of the tragedy, but in Holy Lands he presents a strikingly original and startlingly optimistic argument.
The Middle East was notably more tolerant than Western Europe during the nineteenth century because the Ottoman Empire permitted a high degree of religious pluralism and self-determination within its vast borders. European powers broke up the empire and tried to turn it into a collection of secular nation-states—a spectacular failure. Rulers turned religion into a force for nationalism, and the result has been ever increasing sectarian violence. The only solution, Pelham argues, is to accept the Middle East for the deeply religious region it is, and try to revive its venerable tradition of pluralism.
Holy Lands is a work of vivid reportage—from Turkey and Iraq, Israel and Palestine, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain, Dubai and Jordan—that is animated by a big idea. It makes a region that is all too familiar from news reports feel fresh.
“It is rare to come across a book on the region that charts a positive path for the future; rarer still to find one that advocates religious leadership and pragmatic communalism as the means for reaching peace.... [Pelham] makes a powerful case that a regional alliance of overlapping millets, not connected with territorial boundaries, offers a better vision for restoring stability to the Middle East than the current agendas for conflict management.” —Jonathan Steele, The Guardian
“A fine collection of essays—a rare combination of on-the-ground reportage and profound historical knowledge—that takes as its starting point the millet (religious sect) system of the Ottomans, who were more ethnically diverse and tolerant than their European contemporaries.... How [power] is used, and shared, is an urgent political challenge that needs to be met in this world, not deferred until the next one.” —Ian Black,The Guardian
“Pelham offers impressively nuanced interpretations of entangled political rivalries and the hazy religious boundaries that crisscross the Middle East. Readers will find his investigation of the region's intolerance and aspirations for peace refreshing, particularly in the context of increasingly pessimistic headlines and political rhetoric.” —Publishers Weekly
“A sound, accessible argument for why returning to the mixed-faith communities living among each other in the Ottoman model might just save the Middle East.... Pelham does not see only doom but rather a resurgence of pluralism as a natural, human response given the chance for peaceable community. A lively, succinct, nonpolemical study that will offer much thought for discussion.” — Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Can religion serve once again in the modern Middle East as the foundation for a meaningful pluralism as it did in the premodern Middle East? That is the question raised by this important book.” —Jonathan P. Berkey, The American Interest
“This is a thoughtful response to the claim that the problems are insolvable or that the blame lies firmly on the doorstep of religious and ethnic strife.” —Library Journal
Interview with Author Nicolas Pelham on "Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East" — World Religion News
Pluralism is necessary for peaceful & thriving societies in the Middle East — Qatar Tribune
Al Jazeera | Inside Story - Does the Muslim world have the leaders it needs?
Brookings Institution | Holy Lands: Reviving Pluralism in the Middle East
In Conversation with Safwan Masri and Nicholas Lemann
About the author
Nicolas Pelham has written about the Middle East since 1992. He began as the editor of Middle East Times from Cairo before joining the BBC Arabic Service. He covered the Algerian civil war and the caprice of Colonel Qaddafi as the BBC’s correspondent in Rabat. In 2002 he joined Financial Times reporting on the downfall of first Saddam Hussein and then the America protectorate in Baghdad. For five years, he worked as International Crisis Group’s senior analyst producing briefings on the rise of Shiite rulers in Iraq and Lebanon, Sunni Islamists in Palestine, Bedouin in Sinai, and the Jewish religious right in Israel. Since 2010, he has reported on the region’s collapse for The Economist and New York Review of Books. He is the author of two previous books, A New Muslim Order (2008) on Arab Shiite rule and A History of the Middle East (2010) with Peter Mansfield. He lives in London. @NicolasPelham
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