Ghazal, Amal, and Jens Hanssen. Editors. The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Middle Eastern and North African History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021). 768 pp. Hardback $145.00
When the wave of the Arab Spring broke out across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) beginning in 2010-2011, the whole world was shocked. Scholars, experts, politicians, policy makers, the media, and ordinary people were at a loss on how to explain those unpredictable events.
The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Middle Eastern and North African History provides a remarkable compendium of interdisciplinary essays that update the modern history of the region from below. From the late nineteenth through the early decades of the twenty-first centuries, a commissioned team of diverse international scholars and experts narrate and analyze the multiple revolutions and cultural and geopolitical changes that have played out in shaping the modern history of the region. Thirty-three essays illuminate the genealogy of Arab (de)development from the inception of nationalism in the late Ottoman period through the imperialist interventions between the two world wars and the establishments of political and economic international bodies to the Cold War. The study continues with discussions of the petro-dollarization of world economies to the rise of Islamism and other radical movements to the contemporary period of globalization and neoliberalism and the present wave of foreign interventions after the 9/11/2001 attacks on the United States. The intersectionality of the disciplines of history and politics, anthropology and sociology, law and political science, gender and religion, and media and environmental studies are explored with fresh eyes that interrogate the conventional historiography of the MENA. Scholars flesh out the intellectual debates within the region and address the popular dissatisfaction of the populace, providing new insights into the past. These original perspectives aid in explaining the present by specifically ascribing agency to the people of the MENA, despite the precariousness of the future. This is modern history of the MENA at its best, beyond the conventional Oxbridge scholarship that has dominated the writing of history from above, history of the victors. Editors Gazal and Hanssen concede that, while Western imperialism of the region has been powerful, it is time to consider the other factors that have been part of the region’s complex modern history. They state: “Our decolonial perspective takes seriously the location of history and the scales of socioeconomic change from the local to the global dimensions. In other words, critical area studies particularize universals and universalize particulars” (p. xxv).
The Oxford Handbook comprises seven parts, with each part ranging from three essays to six essays. Part I, “Foundations,” initiates the discussion with a new look at the tectonic shifts in the environment of the MENA during the Ottoman legacy of 400 years of rule, with institution building and intellectual and cultural debates shaping the first stage of globalization. The last chapter in this part marks the entry of the two constitutional revolutions and the ensuing nation-states of Turkey and Iran, integrating these two important Middle Eastern powers in the select roster of the Arab Middle East. Part II, “Formations,” tackles the new mode of Western colonialism of the MENA from WWI and WWII through the rise of nationalism, as people and leaders demanded self-determination, and which resulted in the formation of what we now know as the modern states in the MENA. The challenges to nationalism and the accompanying phenomena of sectarianisms, state nationalism, militarism, and other radical ideologies make their way into the analysis, having shaped the collective identities and geopolitics of the region since independence. Part III, “Legacies of War and Revolution,” traces the alternatives to Western colonialism regional people chose to resist, paths that fueled revolutions, during which time the region fell to the manipulations of Cold War politics—what scholars termed the “Arab cold War.” Although the Egyptian Free Officers of 1952, Nasserism and Pan-Arabism, the Algerian Revolution, and the Islamic Revolution in Iran ended Western formal dominance and direct interventions in the region, they brought about authoritarian regimes and one-party systems that de-developed the region further. Although Avi Raz’s essay narrates the history of the Arab-Zionist conflict from a decolonial perspective, it falls short of perspective when it claims that Israel had had no intention of capturing more territory in the 1967 war, the cause of which, he says, was the intense fear the Israelis felt regarding an attack by Nasser. Israeli appetite to expand its 1948 territory has been documented by extensive scholarship. Avi Shlaim, among other historians, contends that, because violence was part of the Zionist project since its inception, “the Arab-Israeli conflict was an inescapable consequence of the Zionist program.” 1 He adds that, since the 1920s, the views of revisionist Vladimir Jabotinsky regarding the need for the “iron wall,” a metaphor for the use of force against the Arabs, has been a clear Israeli strategy, regardless of the camp to which the government belonged. Although David Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky had their differences, Shlaim goes on, “Jabotinsky’s views were much more widely shared than is commonly acknowledged.” The two Zionist leaders were in agreement regarding the use of force against the Indigenous. While Jabotinsky advocated for Eretz Israel (Greater Israel), Ben-Gurion sanctioned the expulsion of 700,000 Palestinians from their homes. True, he had earlier acquiesced to the partition of Palestine, but after the Arab Revolt (1936-1939), he moved toward Jabotinsky’s idea of Eretz Israel. This “national strategy” dominated Israeli policy from 1936. In a letter to the Jewish Agency Executive on June 9, 1936, Ben-Gurion specifies that peace is not an end in itself, but peace is only a means to achieve the goal of Zionism. He opts for a long-term agreement when the Arabs are in “total despair.” Only then would they possibly “acquiesce in a Jewish Eretz Israel,” Ben-Gurion wrote. 2 The Arab defeat in the 1967 June War diffused Palestinian and Arab hopes, destabilizing the region until the present. Israel’s power increased exponentially since then, having proved its imperial power, as Moshe Dayan declared in 1967: “We are now an empire” (p. 271).
“Neoliberal Authoritarianisms” is the focus of part IV. The essays in this section first examine the juncture of post-independence political economy of the welfare state and globalization, which called for free trade and open markets. The economic shift from the East Mediterranean to the Gulf from the 1970s onward—including Iran and Iraq—is explored next. We learn of the effects of the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, heralding the solo hegemony of the US. This also ushered in a geopolitical shift and other changes, such as military insurgency and the creation of media structures. The price of oil and the emergence of powerful petrodollar economies and surplus wealth are major changes that are impacting local countries, the Arab region, and the global economy in various ways. Other interrelated domains examined are: state-class formations and the binding of state and citizenry; migrants and their working conditions; international investments and mega-projects; and social exclusion, unemployment, and poverty in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. To get an in-depth understanding of all these issues, which have also given rise to strikes, protests, and migrant solidarity movements, their effects must be considered for both the specific country and the globe. Part V explores the intersectionality of state, law, and gender. Chapter 24 contests the conventional binaries of secularism vs. Islamism to examine the wider social power structures. The chapter takes the case studies of women Islamists by looking at the ethnographic data from the perspective of Muslim women’s reform movement in Cairo, Egypt. We find out that the binary of secular/Muslim with regard to women’s subjectivities is untenable. Muslim women are not victims to this mainstream binary, which has not been analyzed critically. Such perspectives are anachronistic, dehistoricized, and decontextualized. The gender positions are ambivalent, contradictory, and heterogeneous (pp. 508-509). There is instead a fluidity of influences between modernist development and Islamic notions of development.
Parts VI and VII deal with the Arab Uprisings, their crisis, and collapse. While part VI explores the latent causes of the uprisings from the 1980s onward, part VII examines the counter-revolutionary movements that quelled the “moments of great upheaval” (p. 46). Contextualizing the protest movements across the MENA within the wider historical past demonstrates that the uprisings did not erupt in a vacuum, but had looked back and learnt from past rebellions within the region, as far back as before WWI. Unexpectedly, Islamism was not a driving force in the uprisings. Scholars in the Handbook contend the presumed docility of the Arab world and connect the uprisings across the region together to find commonalities, such as democratic genealogies that united large crowds in different sites. Of interest to this reviewer is the discussion about “people-power uprisings” that link sub-altern solidarity movements, global mass movements that have creatively constructed new forms of democratic activism (p. 215). The chapters in part VII discuss the crisis the Uprisings have faced in the Arab world and Turkey in particular. They detail the Turkish transformation from being a military secularist state to a post-Islamist democratic government, the Syrian and Kurdish quests for democracy, and the post-Qaddafi turmoil in Libya.
Overall, the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Middle Eastern and North African History is a much-needed rehabilitation of the historiography of the MENA that makes ordinary peoples’ voices heard, one that narrates the history of the last hundred years with new insights that ascribe agency to makers and narrators of history. This groundbreaking work is destined to become a reference book in libraries across the globe and a standard text in the study of the modern history of the MENA. It will benefit students and scholars of history and culture of the MENA at the undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as high school students in AP history classes. A welcome feat, indeed!