The Modern Middle East
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The Modern Middle East

A Social and Cultural History

Ilan Pappé

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eBook - ePub

The Modern Middle East

A Social and Cultural History

Ilan Pappé

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About This Book

This hugely successful, ground-breaking book is the first introductory textbook on the Modern Middle East to foreground the urban, rural, cultural and gender histories of the region over its political and economic history. Distancing himself from more traditional modernising approaches, Ilan Pappé is concerned with the ideological question of whom we investigate in the past rather than how we investigate the past. Pappé begins his narrative at the end of the First World War with the Ottoman heritage, and concludes at the present day with the political discourse of Islam. Providing full geographical coverage of the region, The Modern Middle East:

  • opens with a carefully argued introduction which outlines the methodology used in the textbook
  • provides a thematic and comparative approach to the region, helping students to see the peoples of the Middle East and the developments that affect their lives as part of a larger world
  • includes insights gained from new historiographical trends and a critical approach to conventional state- and nation-centred historiographies
  • includes case studies, debates, maps, photos, an up-to-date bibliography and a glossarial index.

This third edition has been brought right up to date with recent events, and includes the developments through the Arab Spring, more economic history, much more focus on gender history and discussion of religion in the region from a broad perspective.

Accessible and original, The Modern Middle East continues to energise discussion and stimulate debate on the region's history, and provides new insights and perspectives on its story.

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1 The political and economic background

Political developments

The Ottoman heritage

The Ottoman Empire dominated the Middle East in the name of Islam for four hundred years, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century. Ottoman rule had started in the Arab world as early as the fourteenth century and was officially recognized in 1517, when, according to tradition, the ruler of the Abbasid Empire of Baghdad, then in exile in Cairo, handed over the custody of the Muslim holy places of Mecca and Medina to the Ottoman Sultan Selim I of Istanbul. Whether or not this is true – there were quite a few ruling dynasties in between the end of the Abbasid Empire and the beginning of Ottoman rule – what is true is that from that moment millions of Arabs and Muslims recognized the Ottoman Sultan as caliph, the prophet’s temporal and spiritual successor. The Ottomans were of non-Arab origin, and did not claim sovereignty on the basis of ethnicity, as future rulers of the Middle East were to. It is their disregard of ethnicity that provides the best explanation of their success in holding on to power for such a long period (until 1922): Ottoman rule was tolerant of the ‘Other’s’ ethnicity and religion – tolerance became both a religious precept and part of political practice.1 Istanbul’s cosmopolitan human make-up testified to the pluralist nature of the Empire as a whole. By 1893 only half of its population was Muslim, an indication of how welcoming the city was to other groups, including a large Jewish community made up of refugees from the Spanish Inquisition who had been welcomed to Istanbul at the beginning of the sixteenth century by Sultan Bayezid II. Such government without a strong ethnic ideology – something hard to find in the contemporary Middle East – is today attractive to Middle Eastern intellectuals, tired of the mixture of nationalism and religion that burdens their countries. They therefore regard the Ottoman state as a possible model for the future – without the despotism and tyranny, of course.
This attachment to a more multicultural past tells us how much the image of the Middle East has changed in the last hundred years. The current perception of the Middle East, common in the West, is far removed from the historical reality we have just outlined. Judging by the images on Western television screens, the dominant image is of men being publicly flogged for drinking alcohol, women forced to veil every inch of their bodies and children subjected to the most severe application of Islamic law (the Shari’a). This violent representation was reinforced in the late twentieth century by images of terrorism. Readers of this book will know that these images represent a simplified and generalized picture of Islam and the Middle East that distorts a much more varied and complex reality. And yet the image survives because these violent phenomena exist and are propagated by some Islamists as the ‘true’ picture of Islam. This process of misrepresentation is rooted in the image of the Ottoman Empire in Orientalist scholarship.
Such a misrepresentation is characteristic of the main body of work on the Ottoman Empire written in the 1950s, when the Empire was depicted as a homogeneous cultural unit based on a dogmatic code of Islam and tradition. Furthermore, any attempt by its rulers to reform their Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was described as a local response to Western influences, and later pressure, to modernize and hence Westernize, the Empire. The inevitable conclusion readers of such works reached was that progress and development were achieved as long as the Islamic culture and civilization in general, and that of the Ottoman Empire in particular, declined, paving the way to a more modern, advanced and Europeanized way of life, inspired by the French Revolution, the rise of secularism in Europe and the Enlightenment.2
The periodization for this narrative of decline was also made quite clear. It began in the sixteenth century and was accelerated in the eighteenth century by the Empire’s ‘economic stagnation’, before its almost total collapse in the wake of Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt in 1798. The reasons for the decline were analysed in both economic and cultural terms. The updated, and by now accepted view on the Empire’s history since the eighteenth century however is that of a heterogeneous society coping with pressures from within to develop and change and challenged by a new economic reality that forced the Empire to integrate into the world economy. The reforms were mainly motivated by these new realities and this is why they were limited in scope. The rulers in Istanbul wished to modernize their army, centralize their state and increase their revenues from agricultural production. In the first half of the nineteenth century these efforts were intensified and are known as the Tanzimat. These were reforms that did not democratize the Empire nor Westernize it; in fact, in some respects coercion was more apparent and efficient. The Tanzimat were meant to put the Empire in a better economic and strategic position to compete in the world.3
European technology was thus adopted and the discourse of ‘reform’ was borrowed, but it was not an Empire in decline, rather a transformed actor in the international arena. Adaptations to changes in global and regional realities had previously been attempted by the Ottoman elite and were hence a continuation with, rather than a break from, the past.
The difference between the old and new views on the final centuries of the Ottoman Empire was between one that assumed that internal decay of a non-modern political outfit was leading to its almost inevitable demise, and another which asserted that active European economic and strategic policies were toppling a regime that was in the process of transforming into something else. In the former case, the superiority of the West was deemed to be cultural, as well as political and economic; in the latter, it was mainly military might and economic wealth that transformed the reality.
That its rise and fall were not connected to ‘Westernization’ and ‘modernization’ is an important recognition, when we come to assess the Ottoman Empire, its heritage and its impact in the twentieth century. This is probably why Albert Hourani, one of the leading historians of the modern Arab world, remarked that research into Ottoman history through its own archives is ‘perhaps the most important task of the next generation’.
Not attributing dynamics of change to external Western impact alone suggests we challenge the essentialist Orientalist view of the Ottoman Empire as a rigid entity rather than a living organism. Moreover, as a recent book has shown us, the fall of empire was not connected to ‘the drumbeat of the march of progress’. It was a complex process in which Western influence, positive and negative, did not always play a direct, or significant role.4 This approach may help us avoid similar pitfalls when looking at the modern Middle East.
The ‘narrative of decline’ has also been challenged by a number of urban and local microhistories such as those by André Raymond on Cairo, Kenneth Cuno on Mansura, Abraham Marcus on Aleppo, James Reilly on Hama, Leila Fawaz on Beirut, Michael Reimer on Alexandria, Dina Khoury and Sara Shields on Mosul, Hala Fattah on Basra, and many more.5 Each history highlights the continuity of localized social, political and economic realities, giving a very different picture from the general assumption made by Orientalists in the 1950s about a protracted period of sharp decline and disintegration.
A similar pattern of continuity with the past, comparable to attempts in other parts of the world including Europe at the time, is evident in the Ottoman and Arab intellectual experiments with religion and philosophy. Islam was reinterpreted, practised and reformed in a remarkable variety of ways. When Arab societies were subjected to direct European rule, religion became an ideology of resistance and hence ‘fanatic’ and threatening to Western eyes. The drive for reform came from the state and the people themselves: rulers and peoples alike felt that a reconsideration of Islam was the best way of coping with the challenge of an ever expanding and colonizing West. This reinterpretation of Islam covered a range of issues, from the very essence of religion to the mundane practices of everyday life as laid down by the religious law.
But while the elite was adopting a discourse of reform, as a means of coping with the new realities of Western rule and expansion, the people themselves resisted this ‘reform’ as part of their bid for survival in a changing world.
This was true not only of the Ottoman Empire. Similar processes took place at the beginning of the twentieth century in Iran. Scholars displayed the same urge to reappraise the epistemology of religion and ruler, the same pretence to play with the believers’ daily life in the name of ‘reform’. So the state was ostensibly secularized from above, while large sections of the society felt threatened and disadvantaged by the reformist zeal. In 1906, reformers in Iran produced a new constitution that was considered at its time a masterpiece of compromise between old traditions and new concepts of religion, statehood and politics and which can be looked at from our vantage point as a text that was detached from many of the realities on the ground.6
Even an adoption of a discourse had a positive impact on the lives of some people. Openness in Iran was such that even post- Islamic religions such as the Baha’i sect – which developed as a new world religion in the 1860s – were accepted for a while.
In both the Ottoman Empire and the Iranian state the re- conception of Islam also produced movements in the opposite direction. The disadvantaged groups – such as the Ulama – the religious dignitaries – and the old ‘aristocracy’ adopted their counter discourse on tradition and religion. They produced a kind of a counter-modernization movement because they feared losing the dominant role they had held for centuries as priests or clerks in their societies; others genuinely believed that, without a strict and devout Muslim existence, the Otto-man Empire, or Iran would be devoured by the West and Europe. For a time, opportunistic rulers such as the last effective Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Abdulhamid II, became protagonists of such views – undermining the powers of those upholding the reforming strategies and discourse.
In other cases, these discourses were translated into political activity in the form of a contest between radical secularizing rulers and their opponents who formed protest movements declaring a wish to ‘Islamize’ their societies, to subject them to the strictest possible interpretation of the Islamic law. In many ways, the clash between these two conflicting views is still with us today and affects the Middle East we know. But only the more introverted, inflexible and traditional ways of practising Islam have caught the attention of most outside observers.
One clearly negative side of the Ottoman heritage was the legacy of administrative inefficiency, economic mismanagement and corruption. These features of Ottoman rule were already apparent in the seventeenth century in the wake of European mercantile expansion and technological progress. Interaction with political systems that offered more efficiency and transparency did not always benefit Ottoman citizens. It did improve enormously the status of Christians and Jews in the Empire, as it brought with it a fair measure of secularization and the call to satisfy genuine or cynical concerns shown by European powers for the well- being of the non-Muslim citizens of the Empire. But such concerns were also used as a pretext for European colonial intervention and invasion. Moreover, the emulation of Western models led to the making of a more centralized Empire that the whimsical and dictatorial Abdulhamid II transformed into a harsh police state.
The way in which empires collapse also has an impact. Between 1908 and 1918 the Ottomans who had ruled the Middle East for about four hundred years disappeared from the scene. They had not been an effective or sovereign force in North Africa since the mid-nineteenth century, but still held to the Mashriq, the eastern Middle East. In their retreat from the invading British and French troops, they either withdrew after fierce fighting, leaving behind havoc and destruction in places such as southern Iraq, or they withdrew quietly, without a shot, as in Jerusalem.
In most places, the departure was swift and abrupt because the majority of the population had already lost faith in the Empire in 1909, when the old Ottoman dynasty – always regarded as providing both religious and political leadership – was overthrown and replaced by the Young Turks. This was a group of army officers who secularized the Empire, alienating many Muslims in the process. Their wish to reform the Empire as a Turkish Empire – on the basis of modern notions of nationalism – divorced the ruling group from the Arab peoples who were a majority in the Empire. Furthermore, the few Arabs who supported the secularization of Turkey lost interest when they discovered that the Young Turks were as dictatorial and repressive as the Ottoman dynasty before them.

The colonial heritage

It is a theme of this book that there is no unity in the historical picture or experience of the twentieth-century Middle East, although there are similarities and common patterns. The history of colonialism is a good example since it is a phenomenon that had common features and yet was unique in each locality. Two countries, Algeria and Palestine, stand out as case studies of the individual, localized nature of colonialism and its heritage in the Middle East. But because of the general identification of many people in the Middle East with a regional, rather than national, past (something we will discuss later in the book), the Algerian and Palestinian experience can be regarded also as an overall Middle Eastern experience.
It is impossible to analyse or understand the present Algerian predicament without appreciating the impact of French colonialism (1830–1962): a long period of foreign presence that has left its mark on the country’s history ever since.7 Simiarly, in Palestine, colonialism was also a long and protracted phenomenon from which, in the words of the late Edward Said, ‘The Arab world has not recovered’ even at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Palestine and Algeria also resemble each other by the swiftness of the foreign invasion, which left a traumatic effect on both communities. In both countries a foothold rapidly turned into a total takeover. In 1832 there were only 5,000 French settlers in Algeria; by 1847 they had already become 100,000 and in 1954, when the Algerian war of liberation began, they had reached one million. Zionist settlement in Palestine between 1882 and 1948 increased at a similar pace. Algeria and Palestine were classic examples of colonialism also because the land issue was so central. In Algeria the power of the French Empire was utilized for confiscating land for the new settlers; in Palestine it was Jewish capital that encouraged local landlords, most of whom were absentees, to sell their land with the tenants and peasants on it.
Algeria and Palestine also stand out because they experienced such a comprehensive and ambitious form of colonialism. In Algeria the French aspired to transform every known mode of life and existence, from the laws of the land to the identity of the people. This invasion ruined the local economy and destroyed the tribal structures so essential for social and political balance.8
In Palestine, an outside national movement employed colonialism with the aspiration of renaming and re-identifying the country as a Jewish homeland, whatever the price (which turned out to be the uprooting of the indigenous population).
Colonialism elsewhere in the Arab world did not take the form of long-term foreign settlement nor was it marked by land purchase by foreigners. The more appro...

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