A region marked by borders

State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East. Third Edition - The Modern Middle East. First Edition - International Relations of the Middle East. First Edition
February 24, 2006

The organisation of knowledge in Western universities and in foreign ministries has long taken for granted the existence of distinct geopolitical regions. In this context, the job of an area studies specialist was to develop knowledge of a particular region by a process of immersion in its dominant languages, institutions and social mores.

Edward Said showed that such knowledge is compromised at the outset by inequalities of power between those writing regional histories and those living them. Said's Orientalism marks a rupture from previous work in that it recognises that the process of knowledge construction is not neutral. Early histories of the Middle East were framed by an imperial context that shaped our diplomatic culture and generated a particular - and often pernicious - understanding of Arab and Islamic states and societies.

As if the vexed problem of the relationship between culture and power were not enough, there exist many other hazards for the area studies specialist to negotiate. Take the problem of events. The extent to which a particular region matters in world politics is vulnerable to seismic shifts in the geopolitical order, as any former Sovietologist will attest. There is also a sense in which all regions are diminishing in importance relative to the processes of globalisation. Global patterns of consumption and production, and the recognition of moral universals such as those embodied in human rights principles, all conspire to subvert nationalist and regional claims to difference.

At a third and deeper level, area studies is being challenged by postmodern theory. Defining a particular region as being "the Middle East" risks engaging in reification and reductionism. The first term refers to the danger of reading across from geopolitical boundaries to social characteristics. The problem of reductionism describes the process by which authors essentialise political identity; an example here is the phrase "the Arab Street", which is used regularly by politicians and journalists in the US. Such cultural myths do not in themselves trigger conflicts, but they go a long way towards making them possible.

While the three books under review do not speak to all of the challenges noted above, the challenges speak to them. Roger Owen's third edition of State Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East and Ilan Pappés The Modern Middle East illustrate two markedly different approaches to writing about the region. Owen adopts a political science perspective that privileges the state as the dominant unit of analysis. But the representation of the state is multidimensional: Owen shows how it has been sustained by bureaucratic and commercial interest groups. The book is remarkable for its breadth. It provides chapters on state formation across the region and it engages with key themes such as economic restructuring, non-state actors, the military and democratisation. The book ends with a new chapter on America's effort to remake the Middle East.

The Modern Middle East illustrates that diversity is alive and well in area studies. Pappé argues that the conventional literature allows politics and economics to dominate the analysis. Non-elite groups have been present but have not been accorded "a central part" in the story. Pappé directly challenges the negative stereotype of the Middle East as an undemocratic and pre-modern zone. He does this in an engaging manner, weaving his accessible narrative through chapters on political and economic history, rural history, urban history, popular music, the print and visual media, histories of Middle Eastern women, Islam and the region in the globalised 21st century.

Both books are aimed at the undergraduate and MA market, and they complement each other well. Despite their differences, Owen and Pappé agree on the relatively stability of the modern Middle East as a referent object. Given Pappé's implied critique of orthodox approaches, it is surprising that he, too, accepts the conventional assumption that geography generates the parameters of historical and social reality. As he notes in the preface, he sees no need to challenge a definition of the region that is derived from geographical terms. Owen does not dissent from this. He states in his conclusion that "the Middle East remains a single unit from an international security point of view, just as it was a century ago".

International Relations of the Middle East , edited by Louise Fawcett, is a textbook that offers a different dimension. Whereas Pappe provides an interdisciplinary approach to Middle East studies, Fawcett's book is multidisciplinary. It is not simply that the Fawcett collection draws attention to exogenous factors, but rather the presence of core theories and concepts from the field of international relations that frames most of the 14 chapters. This synthetic approach is remarkably successful.

Fawcett's collection is divided into an opening historical section (chapters by Eugene Rogan, Peter Sluglett and Bahgat Korany), followed by key themes in international relations and international political economy (by Giacomo Luciani, Clement Henry, Richard Norton, Ray Hinnebusch, Louise Fawcett and Janice Gross Stein) ending with key issues (Charles Smith, Avi Shlaim, F. Gregory Gause, Michael Hudson and Rosemary Hollis). What is striking about the book is not simply the quality and integrated nature of the individual chapters but also the excellence of Oxford University Press's production. In common with its other textbooks in politics and international relations, each chapter begins with a short overview, and there are helpful annotated reading guides at the end.

Stein's contribution on "war and security in the Middle East" is a good example of the volume's multidisciplinary logic. Explanations based on the variable of military capabilities (often referred to as realism) have often assumed prominence in international relations thinking on the Middle East.

Stein brilliantly reveals the inadequacy of this account. Superior military capability has rarely prevented an attack, as deterrence theory would suggest. Rather, the occurrence of war is better explained by the struggle over ideas such as legitimacy and basic rights.

In his chapter on "The politics of identity in Middle East international relations", Hinnebusch adds weight to this constructivist critique of realism. He points to the persistence of supra-state identities (Arabism and Islam) as a fundamental challenge to the state-centrism that underpins realist theory. Inter-Arab struggle has not chiefly been about military power but ideological appeal. In Hinnebusch's words: "It was legitimacy, derived from being perceived to observe the norms and play roles grounded in Arabism, which gave the power to affect outcomes."

All three books begin their account with the legacy of the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. All three books end in different places. Pappe closes by discussing aspects of globalisation, albeit with barely a mention of the new American empire. More conventionally, Owen returns to the theme of empire, albeit ending with the Bush Administration's imperialist interventions in the region. The Fawcett volume departs from this logic: it ends with a chapter on Europe and the Middle East. At first sight, this might seem curious in light of the fact that the Iraq War showed that there was no singular European answer to the problem of what to do about Saddam Hussein.

At a deeper level, perhaps Europe is the right place to begin and to end.

If Turkey's accession to the European Union goes ahead, Europe will have reached the borders of Iran, Iraq and Syria. Enlargement is likely to encroach further into what used to be described as the Near East. At this point, we ought to remember Said's injunction that the Orient "is not an inert fact of nature". Neither is the modern Middle East as singular as area studies specialists like to believe.

Tim Dunne is head of politics, Exeter University.

State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East. Third Edition

Author - Roger Owen
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 9
Price - £70.00 and £18.99
ISBN - 0 415 29713 3 and 29714 1

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