- The Arab World: History, Diplomacy, and Politics
The five books under review present an extensive historical, diplomatic, and political survey of Arabs from the Ottoman conquest in the early 16th century to the contemporary problems of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Eugene Rogan’s The Arabs: A History, while covering the last 500 years, sets the stage for his overall theme that the West must pay serious attention to history, especially its questionable role in the Middle East, in order to understand and come to grips with the challenges facing the contemporary Arab world. In Britain and Arab Unity, Younan Labib Rizk pursues the dubious role of the West in the Middle East by concentrating specifically on Britain’s manipulative practice of undermining efforts toward Arab unity between the First and Second World Wars.
The following three books narrow the focus further by emphasizing the pervasive and persistent condition of authoritarian rule in the region since the Second World War and/or independence. What seems striking here is that the focus is on domestic factors and groups. This may interact with broader global trends, but the policies and practices are often local and in conflict with Western preferences. Whereas the theme of Rogan’s and Rizk’s is cynical meddling of the West in Arab affairs, these three additional books emphasize internal interests rather than external forces.
In The Arabs: A History, Eugene Rogan, University Lecturer in the Modern History of the Middle East and Director of the Middle East Centre at St. Antony’s College, Oxford, [End Page 477] juxtaposes the view of many in the United States and Europe that the major threat to their own security and lifestyle comes from the Arab world and Islam with the similarly prevalent view by the latter that the West is the greatest source of potential harm to them. Thus Rogan stresses the need for the objective study of history to demonstrate the relationship between “Arab stagnation and frustration on the one hand and the terror threat that so preoccupies Western democracies on the other” (p. 4).
Underscoring that these opposing perspectives are not new, Rogan wryly reminds us that the West favors the term liberation, whether referring to Napoleon’s advance into Egypt in 1798 or America’s intervention in Iraq in 2003. Egyptians and Iraqis quickly came to see these external invasions as occupations. Likewise, during the Ottoman-European naval contest for control of the Western Mediterranean in the 15th century and afterward, North African Arabs praised the Ottoman captains and sailors as heroes and holy warriors against Spanish and later European expansion. The West labeled them as pirates and brigands — although in fact each side seized the other’s ships, sold sailors as slaves, and held officers for ransom!
While Rogan correctly reports the sense of Arab pride in its world leadership role and its significant accomplishments during the initial five centuries of Islam, he proceeds directly to his overarching theme of the agonizing question of Arab anger, frustration, and stagnation in the 21st century. Why is this, he asks? The author...