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Contesting Narratives, Locating Power (Lund Conference)

Rethinking the Big Picture: Narrating Middle Eastern History in the Wake of the Arab Uprisings, 1944-Present

[image from unknown archive] [image from unknown archive]

The history of the Middle East after World War II has always been difficult to teach in a general survey course, in part because of our closeness to events, in part because the events and phenomena we incorporate—the emergence of strong, authoritarian states; the effects of the oil revolution of the 1970s; the Israel-Palestine conflict; the role of the United States in the region; the rise of Islamic movements; the Iranian Revolution; the neo-liberal moment—appear disparate.  The pedagogic difficulties are reflected in my book, The Modern Middle East: A History, which was drawn from my lecture notes.  

The book is divided into four thematic/chronological sections, each of which contributes to and advances chronologically the overall theme of the book (how the diffusion of the state system and world economy affected social, cultural, economic, and political life in the region).  Each section is introduced by an essay that outlines the major theme(s) of that section.  For the first three sections, the fit between the introductory essay and the chapters that follow is tight.  Unfortunately, over the course of three editions the essay that has introduced the final section of the book is connected to the chapters that follow in only the broadest sense.

In the first two editions of the book, I took a purely political economy approach in the essay, dividing the post-World War II period into two parts, 1944-71 and 1971-present.  The first period is defined by the Bretton Woods system and the political-economic order it institutionalized, the developmentalist assumptions of American foreign policy, and a set of economic norms and structures that gave pride of place to development and social welfare.  The twin shocks of the early 1970s—the collapse of the Bretton Woods system and the oil revolution—initiated the second period, which was defined by neo-liberalism and the mantra of globalization.  This transformation, I argue, affected the Middle Eastern state and thus the political, social, and economic lives of those who lived in the region.  In the third edition of the book, I introduce the concept of “civic order”—“the norms and institutions that govern relations among citizens and between citizens and the state” (I also situate the political-economy of the region within a broader dialectic involving the developed and developing world, thus restoring agency to the latter).  The idea of a civic order provides a link that had only been assumed between the political-economic realm and the social order in the region and addresses the problem of reductionism that had been present in the introductory essay of the first two editions.  Still, the problem remained of the fit between the introductory essay and the disparate subjects covered in the chapters that followed.

Unfortunately, the third edition went to press the day Ben Ali left Tunisia.  Since then, however, I have reconceptualized the final section of the book for the next edition based on events in the region.  As a result, in the next edition I shall subdivide the chapters of the final section of the book into three subsections.  This will allow me to present the material in a manner that more closely conforms to the section’s introductory essay, while reducing six subject chapters to three conceptual units.  The first subsection would discuss the emergence of the authoritarian state (and the civic order it institutionalized) and the oil revolution that, to a large extent, financed it; the second subsection would examine the external factors (American foreign policy, the Israel-Palestine and Arab-Israeli conflict) that affected the evolution of the civic order and politics in the region; the third subsection would explore varieties of resistance—the Iranian Revolution, Islamic movements, the current uprisings—to indigenous and external forces described in the first two subsections, thus rendering the three phenomena facets of a broader pattern of resistance to provocation from the outside and attempts by the state to redefine unilaterally the civic order.
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