- The Routledge Handbook of the History of the Middle East Mandates ed. by Cyrus Schayegh and Andrew Arsan
The violence tearing apart the Middle East is typically presented as a consequence of the savagery of colonialism and the imposition of a map at the end of World War I promising the region’s men and women a new kind of freedom but delivering to them, instead, another form of subjugation. Western colonial rule not only planted sufficient grievances to render its governance unstable and illegitimate; it also instilled in significant sectors of the region’s population an outrage that continues its mortal hold. It comes as no surprise, then, that scholars have been disposed to cataloging the damage done to the Middle East by Western imperialism however late its stages or different its 20th-century manifestations. Nor is it shocking that the map drawn by Great Britain and France has been translated as both a symbol of the injustices meted out to the region and as an engine of continued oppression. After all, its lines presumably divided what is remembered (or misremembered) as a society living in harmony only to be coerced by military defeat into exchanging unity for totally ill-fitting geographic boundaries. For most Arabs, the Ottoman Empire was not so much destroyed as dismembered solely in order to gratify European imperial ambitions.
To be sure, a record of the cruelties of colonialism can be found in this new important and deeply researched book: The Routledge Handbook of the History of Middle East Mandates. Assembling essays from scholars who have published some of the best books on this period and also from students currently recovering new material, the editors, Cyrus Schayegh and Andrew Arsan, have done prodigious work in their introductory essays to explain why mandatory rule was no simple story of divide and conquer. Thus while the book tells a familiar tale, it also uncovers many of the less well-known elements that helped Great Britain and France stitch together their regimes, juxtaposing essays that focus on the major upheavals with those concentrating on the often ignored ordeals plaguing the peripheries. How various communities interacted with newly founded states and with ancient traditions is a reminder of the diversity of a region where people’s ties and practices could not be stopped simply because there were lines now drawn demarcating the beginning of one state and the end of another.
But what sets this book apart as a work of compelling significance are the stories it tells of how the men and women in this region tried to awaken their own dignity and power to claim the freedoms their colonial rulers denied them, but also deemed essential to independence and — adding insult to injury — to civilized society. For the men and women in the Middle East whose cities and villages became battlefields in a world war whose causes were believed by them to have been imported from another continent, the victorious powers now expanding their terrain as a humanitarian mission seemed at best deceptive and at worst dangerous. Still, the mandate system was intended to be more than a division of war spoils. It was supposed to reset the global balance of power to blunt imperial rivalries and seemingly nullify the reasons for marching to war. There would presumably be no more wars over imperial possessions: stability in Europe would be achieved at the expense of every other place on earth.
By replacing the Ottoman Empire, the mandate system attempted to turn “the nation state into the normative political formation across the Middle East” (p. 7), and — without recognizing or acknowledging the irony — begin a new era of freedom for the region. The utter disregard of past Ottoman efforts to build democratic institutions and strengthen civil society, even as mandatory institutions were often built on what the editors call the empire’s “razed remains” (p. 5), indicated the difference between words supportive of popular sovereignty and actual deeds dismissive of what the public wanted or needed...