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Thursday, 24 November 2016 01:00

Klaus Wivel, The Last Supper: The Plight of Christians in Arab Lands, New Vessel Press, 2016

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Klaus Wivel's book is one of those books that, as per Franz Kafka, resemble the axe hitting the frozen sea. In the post-9/11 world there has been no shortage of bibliography regarding the Mediterranean/ Middle East. By contrast, one could make the case that there has often been an abundance of bibliography, focusing excessively on issues such as terrorism, Western attempts at a normative reconstruction of the region and the intricacies of political Islam.

In recent years however, few are the books that have addressed the situation, politics and concerns of Christians (and other minorities) in the Middle Eastern world in a clear and articulate manner. Western policies vis-à-vis those Christians have also lacked in nuance, something which Klaus Wivel doesn't fail to mention very early into his book. Indeed, "The Last Supper" might be one of the first incisive, eloquent and detailed narrations on Middle Eastern Christians in some time.

Since the publication of Edward Said's monumental "Orientalism" in 1978, the nature of Mediterranean/Middle Eastern scholarship has undergone tectonic shifts. Irrespective of one's ideological orientation, it is obvious that one of Orientalism's main effects has been an injection of guilt into the Western mind. This guilt is twofold: first, it is a product of a guilty conscience over Western imperialism throughout history and second, it is a result of the essentializing and stereotyping common in the coverage of the region (often stemming from the former). The result of all this is a new Orientalism in reverse: more often than not, too little emphasis is placed on understanding the home-grown dynamics of regional politics. When this effort is indeed made, too little energy is spent on understanding issues that don't have much to do with the West or its hefty influence and headstrong regional politics. Surprisingly, this tendency is equally strong within both the left and the right of the political spectrum.

It is this gap yearning for attention that Klaus Wivel's book does a great job of filling. For Wivel, the lack of empathy, often bordering on indifference, towards the "astonishing breadth to the outrages Christians are being subjected to" today, is inexplicable.

The book is more of a travelogue than an academic diatribe, and this provides a good alibi for its –limited – weaknesses. For example, Wivel leaves Syria out of his analysis, which is rather surprising given the country's large number of Christians as well as its regional influence. This is certainly understandable given the state the country has been in since 2011 (the book was written between the fall 2012 and the summer of 2013). The author could, however, have delved into documents, papers and analyses and then written an extra chapter by connecting them to interviews and research he could have carried out outside Syria (among, for example, Syrian academics, activists and analysts living outside Syria or with Syrians via the Internet). Regarding Lebanon, another salient country in terms of its demographic synthesis, the author does well to inquire into the vicissitudes and insecurities of Christians, but he fails to even briefly mention the country's consociational model, based on a unique – by regional standards – constitution which has to some extent been a success. Also, the author didn't have to confine his research to the Arab Lands, given their proximity and interconnectedness with non-Arab states, such as Iran and Turkey. Indeed, he could have looked into the latter, where Christians (mainly Greeks and Armenians) enjoy relative freedom but also have existential anxieties and insecurities, due to a number of reasons.

In addition, while admittedly shedding a bright new light on the plight of the Christians, Wivel's book doesn't sufficiently explain why such rage has been unleashed against them. Is it because they're often seen as inherently aligned to the West? Is it because they make easy scapegoats? Is it due to religious/textual exhortations? Or is it due to a combination of all of the above? Indicatively, when the author travels to Bethlehem he is astonished to learn that according to a report provided to him by a local clergyman, only 0.3% of Christians leave due to fear of religious extremism and persecution. This is hardly the case in Egypt, however. Also, in light of the radicalization prevalent in the region, the author could well have made some predictions/assumptions on the Christians' future status and even propose policies to mitigate their anxieties.

Overall, however, the book is a terrific, page-turning read, both for the layman and the academic, an endeavour of which we need more.

Charalampos Tsitsopoulos