Minorities and the Modern Arab World: New Perspectives ed. by Laura Robson (review)
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Reviewed by
Laura Robson, ed. Minorities and the Modern Arab World: New Perspectives. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2016. Pp. vii+318.

The Arab World continues to be too often gazed upon as though it were a monolith, despite decades of knowledge production aiming for the subversion of such reductive yet tenacious views. The very phrase "The Arab World," which remains the proper expression used to refer to the region, suggests a singular world of its own, separate and insular, but also consistent in its peculiar features. The implication is not only that it is distinct from other "Worlds" (including, presumably, the "Western World"), but also that its inhabitants are the same wherever they are found across a remarkably vast geography, and of whatever walk of life they may be, while attributes such as complexity, diversity, and heterogeneity are the monopoly of The West.

This is the sort of outlook that this book of essays edited by Laura Robson challenges by contributing new perspectives on the various manners in which "minority," as an identity, functions in an Arab context. Explicitly building on Albert Hourani's seven-decades-old book Minorities in the Arab World, Robson updates the understanding of Arab minorities from one that essentially means "either non-Sunni Muslim or non-Arabic-speaking or both" (1), to one that accounts for the processes through which these minorities have been formed and constructed since the late nineteenth century. Therein lies the second constructive contribution of the book, in that it not only shuns reductive characterizations of this so-called Arab World as an essentially uniform place (basically inhabited by Arabic-speaking Sunni Muslims, with a few exceptions here and there), but it also claims for Arab societies a place in [End Page 351] modernity. If Orientalist outlooks frequently reduce Arab societies to single attributes (Islam, more often than not, or the Arabic language for instance), they are also problematic when they paint these societies as relics of the past. Robson's volume challenges such standpoints as well by examining the concept of Arab minority within a dynamic contemporary social context.

Ultimately, Robson and the contributors to this book show how the notion of minority in the region took its current meaning in a historical context marked by nationalism and the rise of Arab nation-states, yet also became defined beyond these nation-states with contributions from diaspora communities. Rooted in the discipline of history but also including multidisciplinary approaches, the book consists of an introduction and three parts, each containing four chapters. The chapters in the first part, "Conceptualizing Minorities," collectively provide a useful theoretical framework by building a nuanced definition of "minority," as a concept, in the wake of the Ottoman Empire. The second part of the book examines various instances of ways in which minorities have defined themselves in a context of rising nationalism. The chapters in this section address cases in Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen, and include religious (Jewish, Coptic Christian), ethnic (Assyrian), and linguistic (Mahri) minorities. Finally, the third part shows the role of transnationalism in the processes that create minority identities.

"Conceptualizing Minorities" focuses on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, namely the decline of the Ottoman Empire, in order to show how the concept of "minority," as defined by States in the Levant and Egypt in that historical context, served political purposes but did not necessarily reflect actual experiences and senses of identity. The communities studied in this part are religiously-defined, and illustrate how the popular view of non-Muslims in Arab societies as minorities came to be constructed. The second part, "Minorities, Nationalism, and Cultural 'Authenticity,'" builds on the preceding part by analyzing ways in which given communities responded to their new minority statuses in the twentieth century. The cases addressed in the four chapters in this section suggest that minorities in Egypt, Iraq, and Tunisia have tended to resist the imposition of this label, and championed alternative nationalist discourses. The final part, "Minorities in the Transnational Sphere," takes a more global approach, and brings diaspora communities into the analysis. The chapters in this section suggest that the identities of minority communities have not been shaped by local factors...