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Although there are vast differences between and within the histories, cultures, traditions, and politics of each of these regions within the Middle East, equally important and compelling shared characteristics unify the region. By far the most important of theseare language, ethnicity, and religion. Much of Middle Eastern identity is wrapped around the Arabic language. Poetry and storytelling have historically been viewed as elevated art forms. As the gifted Fouad Ajami has observed, "[P]oetry, it has been said, was (and is) to the Arabs what philosophy was to the Greeks, law to the Romans, and art to the Persians: the repository and purest expression of their distinctive spirit." Even in places where it is not the national language and is not widely spoken, as in Iran and in Turkey, Arabic, the language of the Quran, permeates life with its many expressions and phrases.
Another common bond in the Middle East is Arab ethnic identity. From Iraq in the north down to the Arabian peninsula and west all the way to Morocco, ethnic Arabs predominate. There are, of course, significant clusters of other ethnic groups. A majority of Iranians are Persians, and Turks are predominant in Turkey. Apart from the so-called "Arab-Israelis"-Palestinians who found themselves in Israel's borders when the country was born in 1948-Jews are the dominant group in Israel. As Chapter 7 will discuss, however, there is a debate as to whether Jews are members of an ethnic group or believers in a religious faith. Additionally, there are several "stateless" ethnic groups, by far the largest being the Kurds, who are mostly in southeastern Turkey, western Iran, northern Iraq, and northeastern Syria. There are also sizable Berber communities throughout the Maghreb. But despite these diverse ethnic communities, much of the Arab world remains ethnically homogenous and strongly identifies with its ethnicity.
An even stronger bond uniting the region is religion, with some 97 percent of Middle Easterners identifying themselves as Muslim. That Islam is a whole way of life and not just a religion is a cliche. But regardless of their ethnicity, where they live, and what language they speak, the faithful share a compelling set of beliefs and rituals that transcend national boundaries with remarkable ease. At its strictest, Islam is austere and exacting. But even in its most liberal settings and interpretations, it permeates the life of the Middle East in ways few other phenomena do. Its relentless emphasis on community, its injunctions on the one billion faithful to all face Mecca in prayer and to fast together in the same month, its deep penetration of languages far removed from Arabic, its reverence for the Prophet Muhammad, who called for submission (Islam) to God (Allah)-all of these reinforce the sense of belonging to a whole far bigger than its individual, national components. Since the early decades of the twentieth century, Islam as a source of cross-national unity has steadily lost ground to state-specific nationalism, but it remains a powerful source of common identification among fellow Muslims around the world, especially in the Middle East.
In addition to the important, uniting phenomena of ethnicity, language, and religion are the curse and the blessings of a common historical heritage. Much of the Middle East, with the exceptions of Iran and Morocco, experienced centuries of Ottoman rule, generally from the mid-sixteenth century up until the waning years of the nineteenth century. The Ottomans' hold on the Middle East was often tenuous and frequently interrupted. Over the centuries, however, for better or for worse, from their capital in Istanbul they managed to leave their mark on such far-off places as Cairo, Tripoli, and Tunis. Once the Ottomans were gone, the British and the French took their place, leaving on their colonial possessions their own distinctive marks. Perhaps the biggest relic of British rule, aside from the drawing of artificial national borders, was the institution of monarchy, which they secured in almost all the lands they ruled, from Egypt to Jordan, Iraq, and the Arabian peninsula. The French colonial inheritance was less political and more cultural, although in the Levant they left behind republican systems that mimicked their own. For the French what mattered most was the superiority of their civilization, and they ensured its posterity by making French the lingua franca of the Maghreb. Today, urban Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians speak and study in French with as much ease as they converse in Arabic. This, of course, is the case with the millions of others in Francophone Africa as well.
Nevertheless, the powerful forces uniting the Middle East-religion, ethnicity, and language-have at times also been sources of division and conflict. In many historical episodes subtle differences in dialect or ethnic identity have served as powerful catalysts for the articulation of national or subnational loyalties and even political mobilization. The Middle East, it must be remembered, is far from monolithic and homogenous. Its differences have been a source of both strength and inspiration and, at times, violent bloodletting; witness the tragedy of Lebanon or the torment meted out to the Kurds.
In studying the Middle East, it is often tempting to overlook the region's rich diversity in geography, politics, and culture. Any book purporting to examine the political history of the modern Middle East is bound to remain at a certain level of generalization and not pay the necessary attention to the many, multifaceted differences within the various Middle Eastern countries and communities. This book, I am afraid, is no exception. I have taken care throughout to highlight the existence of differences, both between and within the countries and the peoples discussed, and I hope that the reader remains mindful of them as well. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to apologize to those groups whose identities or destinies may not be as thoroughly covered here as they should have been.
When the "modern" era of the Middle East begins is a matter of some debate. For our purposes here, I have taken it to be in the 1920s, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, when state systems as we have come to know them today began to be established throughout the region. But the political and historic phenomena that the Ottomans represented had roots far deeper in Middle Eastern and Islamic history than the early decades of the twentieth century. I decided, therefore, to go further back, much further back, and briefly retell the story of the Middle East since the appearance of Islam and how it shaped subsequent historical events in the region. Islam dramatically altered the life and historic evolution of the Middle East, but its appearance by no means marks the beginning of Middle Eastern history. As Chapter 1 makes clear, this was an arbitrary starting date, for I had to draw the line somewhere, and I chose to do so with Islam's beginning. Had this been a work on the complete political history of the Middle East, it would have had to start with the earliest days of human civilization, along the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates in modern-day Iraq.
In addition to simple convenience and an arbitrary starting date, a deeper logic guides the choice of the chapters that follow and the topics they discuss. Politics and history are both dynamic and changeable processes. Thus the examination of either one in a snapshot is incomplete without attention to successive past developments. Contemporary political issues in the Middle East are deeply rooted in past historic and political events: consider, for example, three of the most central issues, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, economic development, and the nature of prevailing state-society relations within each country. The present manifestation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict resulted from the outcome of the Arab-Israeli wars, which were a product of competing varieties of nationalism, shaped by the machinations of Western colonial powers, who had gone to the Middle East once the Ottomans collapsed, and so on. The same line of inquiry could be applied to current state-society relations in the Middle East or to each country's level of economic development.
On the basis of this logic, the book is divided into two parts, one focusing on political history and the other on some key issues that resonate throughout the region. Part I lays out the historical context for the Middle East. It begins with a sweeping chapter on the history of the Middle East from the earliest days, when geographic considerations and military conquests led to the establishment first of cities and then of civilizations around them, up until the demise of the region's last major imperial power, the Ottomans. Chapter 2 continues the historical narrative, concentrating on the period between the two World Wars and looking at the nature and trials of independence and state building. The emergence and rapid spread of nationalism throughout the Middle East is discussed in Chapter 3, and the two resulting Arab-Israeli wars in 1967 and 1973, each spectacular in its own way, are examined in Chapter 4. Nationalism, state building, and political consolidation (or lack thereof) led to one of the most dramatic developments in contemporary Middle East, the Iranian revolution of 1978-79, which is discussed in Chapter 5. Revolutions and wars are seldom far apart, and both the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War and the so-called Second Gulf War in 1990-91 and its aftermath are covered in Chapter 6. This chapter ends with a discussion of the causes and consequences of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Iraq in April 2003.
The historical processes discussed in Chapters 1 through 6 have had profound consequences for the contemporary politics of the Middle East, especially with regard to the overall nature of state-society relations in each country and the relationships between states. Part II discusses four of the most important current political manifestations of longer-term historical processes: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; the challenges of economic development; the nature and makeup of states and their opponents in the Middle East; and the question of democracy. This is by no means an exhaustive list of the defining features of the region's contemporary politics. But it represents some of the most salient phenomena whose scope and consequences go beyond mere diplomacy, economics, or politics. These are the core issues that have shaped and defined contemporary Middle Eastern politics. They have had ramifications not only for the countries involved but for the region and internationally as well.
Chapter 7 looks at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It begins with a discussion of how the two competing national identities have given resonance and force to the conflict through a mutual negation of "the Other." The chapter then looks at the situation on the ground, examining how the two sides' denial of each other's rights affects their daily lives and circumstances. There has been, especially of late, a glimmer of hope in this long and bloody conflict as figures from both sides have embarked on the difficult task of reconciliation and peace. The chapter ends with a discussion of some of the maneuvers and the progress made so far in the elusive "peace process."
Chapter 8, on economic development, examines three features of the political economy of the Middle East: the pervasive role of the state; its pursuit of economic policies designed to minimize its extractive role in relation to social actors; and its limited abilities to control or even regulate many economic activities. Chapter 9 shifts the focus of attention to domestic politics. It looks at the current typology of Middle East states as they have been constituted and shaped through the historical processes discussed in the previous chapters. Also, the chapter examines the reasons for and manifestations of the different types of opposition that these states are likely to elicit, including groups like Al-Qaeda and the larger phenomenon of Islamic fundamentalism. This brings up the question of the autonomy and power of social groups in relation to the state and thus the prospects for democratization. These topics are explored in Chapter 10, which examines the varieties of democratic transitions, the prevailing patterns of state-society relations in the Middle East, and the possibilities and prospects for democratization.
The book ends with a brief discussion of some of the more important challenges the Middle East is currently facing or is likely to face in the coming decades. The last century has brought to the Middle East progress and change on multiple fronts, from the creation of impressive edifices of the state to the transformation of arid desert lands to massive urban areas and even agricultural lands (in Saudi Arabia). But problems also abound-from economically unsustainable rates of population growth to hazardous levels of pollution of environmental resources, to name only two-and their magnitude is amplified by official neglect or mismanagement. Sooner or later, state or private agencies need to substantively address the many challenges facing the Middle East, or the future will be more troublesome than the past.
Excerpted from The Modern Middle East by Mehran Kamrava Copyright © 2004 by Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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