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Radical History Review 86 (2003) 1-5

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Editors' Introduction


This special issue of Radical History Review is devoted to "national myths in the Middle East." The essays appearing in this issue examine some of the ways in which certain myths and cultural "traditions" have been constructed and deployed by various groups in different parts of the region in defining the "nation" along particular lines (e.g., religious, secular, cultural, linguistic, ethnic/racial, gendered, etc.), as well as in building nation-states, and/or challenging existing definitions of the nation or existing nation-state foundations. As numerous studies have demonstrated, all nations and nationalisms invoke legitimizing myths and metahistorical grand narratives. Such myths and their narrative emplotments frequently exclude certain
groups within the physical or conceptual national boundaries or accord them a lesser status and fewer rights. Moreover, these myths are generally contested from within or outside the designated national parameters, and often clash with a host of other matrices circumscribing particular conceptions of the self, the common group, and others.

These myths may stress a real and/or imagined shared cultural heritage, religion, and language of the nation, or the supposed longevity and continuity of the nation (even despite periodic interruptions or the very recent emergence of the nation), as well as some form of "manifest destiny." Regardless of their function, national myths offer critical insights into the very processes of nation building and national belonging, as well as the particular contours of a given nation, exposing what is at stake in those processes and delineations. Of course, it is patently clear that to say nations and nationalisms are mythic, ideological, and narrative constructs in no way suggests that they do not have concrete consequences, as a number of essays in this issue demonstrate.

Mapping the development of nation-states in the Middle East has been one of the central preoccupations of many historians in the field who in various ways [End Page 1] have addressed the themes of nationalism and national identity. Typically, these accounts chronicle the evolution of nationalist movements, particularly in the struggles against European/Western imperialism, most often by documenting the lives and thoughts of leading nationalist intellectuals or party ideologues. The essays in this issue transcend the more traditional accounts by offering new readings of political movements and leaders and by emphasizing the historical agency of those previously underrepresented in the master narratives of the nation, underlining the heterogeneity of historical forces and actors shaping the multifaceted and multilayered history of various nations in the Middle East.

The term Middle East appears to have been coined in 1900 by the British general Sir Thomas Edward Gordon. 1 It gained currency after its use in 1902 by the American naval geographer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, and was subsequently popularized by the Times of London. The term was clearly conceived in the framework of European/Western geopolitical and strategic considerations, delineating the region as a realm of actual or potential political, military, and economic rivalry and spheres of influence among European/Western imperial powers. Since then, this geographic designation has assumed more fluid boundaries and has come to represent different sets of interests and considerations for the outside major powers. Nowadays, the "Middle East" encompasses a larger region and many more countries, particularly after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the redrawing of the map of the former Arab territories by Britain and France, which established their "mandate" rule over these territories. [End Page 2]

We should keep in mind that most of the countries in the region gained their national independence only after World War I or World War II: Egypt (from Britain, 1922), Iraq (from Britain, 1930), Lebanon (from France, 1946), Syria (from France, 1946), Jordan (from Britain, 1946), Libya (from Italy, 1951), Tunisia (from France, 1956), Sudan (from Britain, 1956), Morocco (from France and Spain, 1956 and 1958), Mauritania (from France, 1960), Kuwait (from Britain, 1961), Algeria (from France, 1962), South Yemen (from Britain, 1967), Oman (from Britain, 1970), Bahrain (from Britain, 1971), Qatar (from Britain, 1971), and the United Arab Emirates (from Britain, 1971). Turkey was...


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pp. 1-5
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2004
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