Monday, August 28, 2006

# Posted 9:50 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

THE ORIGINS OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST: I recently finished reading Empires of the Sand: The Struggle For Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 by Efraim and Inari Karsh.

"Empires" is an extraordinarily ambitious book devoted to a surprising proposition: that from the era of the French Revolution through the end of the First World War, the diplomacy of the Middle East was defined not by a clash of civilizations but rather by battles in which both sides were comprised of various Europeans, Arabs and Turks.

In this struggle for mastery, ethnicity and religion were readily compromised in the name of wealth and power.

From a political perspective, the Karshes' hypothesis cuts both ways. It reminds Western hardliners that cooperation between the West and the Middle East has an established record of success. On the other hand, it reminds Arab hardliners that they cannot blame imperial Europe for the poverty and violence of today's Middle East, because Muslims were not the victims of European imperialism, but rather its partners.

Although intellectually compelling, the Karshes' book is often hard to digest because it attempts to accomplish so much in just 350 pages. Strangely, the authors devote just one-third of the book to the 125 years that separate the French Revolution from the outbreak of the First World War. In contrast, they devote two-thirds of the book to the decade of the Great War and its aftermath.
As a result, some of the early chapters of the book read more like a Cliffs Notes of Middle Eastern diplomatic history than they do like a story. Yet even within the first third of the book, this focus on uneven. For example, the Karshes lavish attention on the charismatic Egyptian conqueror Muhammad Ali, who sought to bring down the Ottoman Empire from within with the aid of European allies.
Muhammad Ali's conquests demonstrate quite well how religion and ethnicity were often subordinated to a thirst for power. And the story of his conquests provides the kind of excitment that will keep readers interested. The price, however, is that the Karshes must cover the latter half of the 19th century so rapidly that it may strike the non-expert readers as little more than a jumble of names and places.

I read "Empires" as part of small book club, and a good number of the participants were positively angry at the Karshes for forcing them into this morass of detail. Mind you, my fellow participants were not Philistines, but rather Ph.D.s in disciplines other than history.

Fortunately, the book recovers much of its momentum with the onset of the First World War. For those of accustomed to the travails of the Western front or occasionally the Eastern front, it is very refreshing to see the story told from the perspective of Ottoman strategy and politics.

At times, it seems as if the authors have an axe to grind against the Ottoman Empire. They insist again and again in the most strident of tones that the Ottomans alone bore responsibility for the hostility of the Allied powers and the outbreak of war on the southern front.

This assignation of responsibility is integral to the Karshes' broad hypothesis that Arabs and Turks bore no less responsibility than Europeans for the violent state system that was carved out of the Ottoman Empire's unburied carcass. If the Ottomans started the war, then one cannot argue that it was a war of imperialist aggression designed to impose Western European hegemony on the Middle East.

As a non-expert in Ottoman affairs, I found it hard to muster the same sort of animus as the Karshes. Yet the Karshes remind us in one of their most riveting and emotionally unsettling chapters of how the Ottoman dictatorship committed genocide against their Armenian subjects. For the Ottomans, starting a war was only a minor crime compared to the slaughter of 1 or 2 million Armenians.

In the final analysis, I strongly recommend reading this book, but only after developing a basic knowledge of Middle Eastern diplomatic history. This book is often more of an argument than a story. In order to engage it, one must come well-prepared.
(7) opinions -- Add your opinion

Have you read The Peace to End All Peace (1989) by David Fromkin?
It is a great book. Glad you enjoyed it. The "Turkish" issue in Central Asia and the Middle East has yielded some other fine books in the past decade or so (since the break-up of the Soviet Union, especially)
Barry, our club is about to start Fromkin's book, but I may have to bow out because of too many other commitments.

Jon, I'm glad you liked the book. I hope you caught the parts in there about how the British knew Iraq would be too hard to occupy.
well, umm, duhhh David. I may have missed that in my run-up enthusiasm for the present Iraq war.
Well, even if you limit yourself to the first 100-odd pages, it's a real eye-opener.
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