Contemporary Politics in the Middle East
by Beverley Milton-Edwards
Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2007. 311 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
This second edition of a textbook incorporates changes that have occurred in the Middle East since Milton-Edwards, a reader at Queens University in Belfast, wrote its first edition in 1999. Alas, a mediocre work updated remains mediocre.
Beginning with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Milton-Edwards arranges her study according to a set of themes. Her first chapter examines colonial rule, which "disrupted, fractured, and shattered" a way of life that had developed over four centuries of Ottoman rule. Certainly, the establishment of the British and French mandates changed the region, but did stability really mark 400 years of Ottoman rule in the Middle East? She dates the "capitalist adventure" in the region to the arrival of European merchants in the nineteenth century—but their trade with Egypt and the Levant predates that by centuries, as any cotton merchant in Alexandria could attest.
Her antipathy to the colonial era leads to scapegoating. It is one thing to criticize the French and the British for not supporting Arab or Kurdish independence, but it is quite another to blame them for abortive Armenian statehood. In this, the Soviet Union was far more culpable.
Perhaps some of this laziness is the result of her obsession with Edward Said's Orientalism, which prizes opinion over fact and the amplification of external grievance over internal accountability. While she addresses the debate over Orientalism, she only paraphrases Princeton historian Bernard Lewis's counterarguments, and even then, inaccurately.
Sloppiness is pervasive in the textbook, whether in describing the length of Ottoman rule (far more than 400 years), showing ignorance of the concept of "Iraq," which predates establishment of that nation-state's borders, or ignorance of the fact that Mandatory Palestine initially included the territory that became Jordan.
Other inaccuracies undercut her analysis. She assumes—falsely—that Palestinian Arab identity was consistent over time when it is very much a product of the 1920s and 1930s. She treats too uncritically Israeli historian Benny Morris's revisionism, which is currently in fashion among post-modern historians more concerned with politics than historical fact.
Subsequent chapters address nationalism, political economy, war, politics, women, democratization, and "Pax Americana." Here, too, her bias is pervasive. Milton-Edwards condemns forced economic liberalization as a failure but does not address the crippling effect of corruption. Is Egypt's economy really the fault of outside powers, or might President Hosni Mubarak have had something to do with it? Arab-centrism undercuts other analyses. Has the Arab-Israeli conflict really dominated the political life of the entire Middle East for decades?
Students assigned Contemporary Politics in the Middle East may become conversant in the latest academic theories, but they will not gain insight into the history or politics of the region. Perhaps if Milton-Edwards spent more time fact-checking than explaining the Orientalist villainy of Walt Disney's Aladdin, her textbook would be improved.
Related Topics: Middle East politics | Michael Rubin | Summer 2008 MEQ
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