Thursday, April 21, 2016
A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield (Book Review #19 of 2016)
A History of the Middle East by Peter Mansfield (1991)
One critic has suggested the book "be re-named as A Western History of the Middle East" but I would suggest perhaps "A Political History of the Middle East." It is definitely the view from 10,000 feet, focusing mostly on political maneuvering and power struggles. This makes sense given that Mansfield wrote for papers like The Economist and the Financial Times in the mid-20th century; the majority of the book is devoted to the 20th century. Mansfield largely sets aside theology, almost ignoring any role it may play in dividing relations between Iran and the Saudis, for example. Why are Shia largely repressed and marginalized in Saudi Arabia while Sunnis and Kurds face difficulties in Iran? He devotes a few paragraphs on major Shia-Sunni differences, but only after he reaches the end of the 19th century. What are Alawites, Druze, Coptics? What is the interplay of Lebanese Christians alongside Palestinian Arab refugees and Shia militia? This level of detail is not really found. Given his financial journalistic background you would think he would have included more details on demographics, economic growth, and other such aspects of the Middle East but these are also largely left out.
Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted is a world history through the eyes of Islam, which is a decent book to read in contrast to this work, and is much more detailed in terms of religion and culture. Other books that I read prior to this include Albert Hourani's History of the Arab Peoples, The Cambridge History of Turkey vol. 1 and 2, Paul Johnson's History of the Jews, Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia, Kissinger's World Order, Kinzer's Reset (on relations between Turkey, Iran, and the US), and Salim Yuqub's Great Courses lecture series on The United States and the Middle East from 1914-2001. Yaroslav Trofimov's The Seige of Mecca is also an important work on events in 1979 that have much to do with 2016. All of these provide details that Mansfield book does not, but I find Mansfield largely hits the high points and gives a good overview of life until 1991.
One major weakness of this book is that Mansfield dismisses the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (1960s) and events such as the attack on The Grand Mosque in 1979 by a multiethnic group of Wahabbists as simply dead-enders showing they have nothing large to offer the larger populace and being henceforth rejected and never of any real significance. He writes in the closing chapter that Saddam Hussein proved "Arab nationalism and Islam cannot be mutually exclusive," citing Saddam's ability to muster Arab support for his "jihad" against Iran. His view from 1991 was that oil prices would again rise and the Middle East would again "be important" as its dictators again had oil riches and complaints. As a result, the reader might imagine that the US would end up returning to Iraq to face off against Saddam one day, and that Saudi Arabia and Iran would fight proxy wars someplace like Yemen, but you would not imagine that Saudi-inspired terrorists were already plotting attacks against the US even as this book went to publication or that by 2016 there would be an international war in several countries battling violent Islamists that showed a remarkable ability to recruit internationally by the tens of thousands. (It is similar to the mistake US policymakers and diplomats made in not properly seeing the undercurrents before the Iranian Revolution and being surprised as it unfolded. Even that episode is treated rather politically, Mansfield doesn't bother explaining that Iranians were outraged that the Shah went to America for treatment--an act they saw as an intentional harboring of the puppet.) That is the danger of pulling religion/theology and the underlying values and culture out of a book that aims to be a sweeping history.
The author begins with a rapid run from about 0 BCE to the founding of the Ottoman caliphate. On one hand, it is nice that he does not look at the region in previous times but focuses on the period when the Arabs developed. There is little information available from around the time of Muhammed and rather than speculate, he just speeds forward. On the other hand, many events around the time of Mohammed are important and provide context both to the formation and spread of Islam as well as modern-day struggles (see Tom Holland's The Shadow of the Sword). Mansfield then gives a decent overview of Ottoman life and policy, highlighting various aspects of the long decline. In 1497, the Portugese bypass the Cape of Good Hope and the New World takes away the monopoly the Ottomans had on trade and the Western economy. Rather than innovate in the face of competition, the structures of the empire impeded progress and as it declined economically the idea of the Caliphate was revived in order to push its influence over Islam in its territories.
There was an ongoing struggle between the Sultan and Mohammed Ali of Egypt which the British and French were able to exploit, as well as the rise of Mohammed Ali's son, Ibrahim Pasha, who invaded and occupied Syria in 1831. In the midst of this came various Western missionaries who built schools, hospitals, and brought Western ideas (I recommend American missionary Roger Goodell's work on his stay in Beirut during this period) as well as mass-printed books. (It was not until the late 1800s that the Ottomans allowed the Koran to be printed and the printing press was not used widely in the Ottoman Empire.) The 1838 Anglo-Turko treaty and an increasing amount of Russian meddling in the "Holy Land" eventually led to the Crimean War. During this period, young Turks were finally allowed to travel abroad and study in Western schools; they returned with bold ideas for reform and democracy. The Young Turks pushed constitutional reform on Abdul Hamid II in 1876 only to later see counter-reforms and a strengthening of the autocracy two years later.
According to Mansfield, Armenian revolutionary movements aiming for independence grew during the late 1800s. The slaughter of many in Eastern Anatolia was reciprocated by an Armenian terrorist attack in Istanbul, followed by a further pogrom of Armenians from that city. In Egypt there were likewise nationalist movements aiming at self-determination. There was an open Britain-France-Nationalist-Ottoman struggle for Egypt which eventually led to British occupation because the Suez was too important to fall into enemy hands. Mansfield also mentions the ongoing struggle between Sudan and Egypt, a point of contention between Egypt and Britain.
In the 1890s, the Ottoman Empire could not stand long against the Young Turks in Istanbul or the growing Arab nationalism in its territories. Places like Lebanon, inhabited by both Western Christian missionaries, Druze, and others with more ideas of democratic capitalism, the Sultan's stifling grip on either ideas or commerce began to chafe. Hamid brought Hussein and the Hashemites to Istanbul as part of the court in an effort to keep his friends close but his enemies closer. After he pivoted toward Germany for aid and the construction of railroads, the Young Turks managed to overthrow Abdul Hamid in 1908, only to see the further slaughter of Armenians in a conservative counter-coup. Nonetheless, the Young Turks restored the constitution and its reforms, particularly for women's rights and education.
After Mansfield briefly describes the major differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, he explores the history of the Safavid Dynasty of Persia and the development of unique Persian/Iranian nationalism. One of the founders of the Pan-Islamist movement of the late 1800s was Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani was invited to Iran by Shah Nasser ad-Din where his popular preaching calling for reforms, resistance to Western influence and a return to Islamic principles, caused the Shah to eventually deport him in 1891. As elsewhere across the Middle East there was a growing movement against Western colonialism, and al-Afghani's disciples would eventually oppose British exploitation of Iran's oil resources.
Once the time line goes to World War I, the British outrage many in the Middle East with the Balfour Declaration and the eventual resettlement of Jews into Palestine under a British Mandate. There is a good explanation of how the mandate worked along with the chronicling of the Arab rejection of various offers for a divided state and the fraught immigration of Jews into an increasingly dangerous Palestine. The rivalry for power and independence in the Levant is well-documented in Anderson's Lawrence in Arabia and other works. The Hashemites versus the French, Ibn Saud, and others. Early on in the 1900s there was not a notion of an Arab nation-state or states in the Middle East, but there was clearly a strong pan-Arab, pan-Islamic tide through which various tribal powers appealed to a common base against Western influences.
Ibn Saud forges his still-so-consequential alliance with ibn Al-Wahhab and Reza Shah taks the throne in Iran and both Saudi Arabia and Iran enjoy selling oil to Western markets and rivalry with one another. In Egypt there is the education of Abdul Nasser and an increase in nationalism. Kemal Atatürk remakes Turkey into a secular democracy while the author really misses Reza Shah's envy of the secular aspect of Atatürk's country as he pays a visit (see Kinzer's work for this subject). WWII simply delays the inevitible as eventually Nasser and Sadat succeed in overthrowing their British yoke in 1952. The British and Americans made sure not to allow Iran slip out of their influence by overthrowing Mohammed Mosaddegh in 1953. Iraq's nationalist generals cooperated with Germany to move toward independence, but Allied victory in WWII maintained it in the British camp until a 1958 coup installed a monarch who dissolved the Baghdad Pact. Eventually Egypt tries a pan-Arab union with Syria, but Mansfield writes that the bourgeois opposed Nasser's strong socialism and the alliance collapses into Nasser-Baathist rivalry, a Syrian-Iraqi union at Nasser's expense. Meanwhile, Faizal creates a conservative Islamic front in Saudi Arabia against Nasser. The French and British basically withdraw from the Middle East and Northern Africa.
Eventually, America stops viewing anyone who is not in the pro-America camp as a communist; Kennedy embraces Nasser and Johnson continues the support. The incredible defeat of allied Arab forces against Israel in 1967 have wide repercussions, along with ending Nasser's rule and creating more political squabbling among the Arab states. Anwar Sadat tries to get the US to take Egypt more seriously and starts the Yom Kippur war, leading to greater Israeli insecurity and a more hawkish attitude toward the Arabs, particularly in the form of making ties with US politicians. In the 1960s-1970s, everything seems to center around oil. The Saudis have five-year plans for infrastructure and use oil funds to eventually mount a joint effort to build Dubai. OPEC becomes the household word in the West. Jimmy Carter's foreign policy is humiliated by the overthrow of the Shah, which eventually leads to US engagement in the Iran-Iraq war as the Saudis increasingly have to balance the domestic pressures of a growing Salafist movement opposed to the House of Saud with proxy struggles with Iran. Mansfield essentially dismisses the conservative Islamist seige of Mecca in 1979 as the last gasp of the conservative religious movement on the road to greater secularization.
Mansfield cruises through the 1980s, ultimately building up to the 1991 Gulf War, the results of which were not complete by the time the book was published. Saddam had both gathered Arab sympathies in his war with Iran and tried to boost his credibility as a force to be reckoned with by "retaking" Kuwait, perhaps this is similar in Mansfield's eyes as Sadat's attempt to get Western attention via the Yom Kippur War. He speculates on what would happen if the USSR breaks up-- the Middle East and central Asia would likely grow closer due to its pan-Islamic ties, and Turkey would also be involved due to the pan-Turkic relationship. But Turkey looks to be moving more westward than eastward in 1991.
"The Middle East will not be ignored," concludes the author as he forecasts a return of oil prices closer to pre-1980s levels and a return to power of the monarchs and dictators that rule the region in a great rivalry. In all, I give it 3.5 stars out of 5. There is no ancient history, little treatment of the ethnic histories and religious undertones that clearly mean so much today, no understanding of the demands of jihadi fighters returning from Afghanistan, and no imagination that the pan-Islamism we would see just two decades later was one united in a violent struggle not just among Sunnis and Shias but also between Sunni powers.