(Originallly written for History 106C, May 12th, 2002)
The current mode in which we see the Middle East today has no doubt been reflective of very long processes that have been set in motion long ago. However, one might mistakenly look to the region and come to false conclusions that do not encompass earlier events. When studying the modern Middle East, we need to look at the processes, institutions, and groups that lead to not only how its landscape is today, but also the history behind the processes and institutions. Narratives of the modern Middle East must include piecing together the very notion of ‘modernity’ and it’s precursors in the region; all of which began or occurred in the 16th century. Three such precursors exist that are worth illuminating. At face value they seem to be only three isolated events in the collective narrative of world history, but when applying them to the Middle East, we can see trends that emerge from the events themselves- trends that ultimately define the nature and the composition of the modern Middle East. The three events that tie into composing the face of the modern Middle East are the rise of large-scale empires (also known as ‘gunpowder empires’), the conquest of Mexico by Spanish forces, and the protestant reformation.
The rise of large-scale empires in the region would come to leave a lasting mark on the Mid-East region, as the rise of the Ottoman and Safavid empires would leave a lasting mark on the region’s development. Prior to the foundation of such empires, and in the absence of an existing empire, the peoples of the region were organized into dynastic tribes of varying size that spread across the region that would frequently engage in warfare to protect their always-changing borders. The pastoralist nature of these tribes always had kept them in transit, arguably an unstable way of life. The tide turned, however, when a Turkic tribe headed by Osman was the first to acquire firearms to use against their enemies. With the introduction of guns to the tribe that would later found the Ottoman Empire (and later to the Safavids of the Persian Empire), warlords of these tribes would be able to better defend their borders against raids. With the added security, the pastoral lifestyle would give way to a sedentary one among the new elites of the empire and give way to an agricultural mode of production. Where as soon as the expansionist tendencies of the Ottomans and the Safavids were forced to a halt, they would then begin to consolidate their holdings into what would later become the first bureaucratic ‘state’ entities of the Middle East, complete with standing militaries and a taxable population. The borders that came of the conquests of the Ottomans and Safavids shaped the states that would eventually fall out from under the influence of the empires and become the independent states of the region.
The second factor that came into play, and would play into a huge portion of the history of the region, was the Spanish conquests of the ‘new world;’ believed by some to be the start of modern colonialism. Beginning with the conquest of Mexico and Peru by Pizarro in 1524, the European powers embarked into previously unknown territory in search of riches and perhaps also a kind of proto-‘national pride.’ This precedent was later followed by other European powers of the day, in hopes of constructing a vast empire that would stretch across the world, and would bring the colonizers raw materials and wealth for their militaries and an emerging middle class of merchant too. The Middle East does not fall early to the colonial aspirations of the ‘West,’ as the Ottoman Empire was a force to be reckoned with during the 16th and early 17th centuries. Later, however, the tide began to turn as European power grew in the face of Ottoman (and also Safavid) apathy. The British had first made an entry into the Ottoman sphere, territorially, in the 18th century with economic inroads to Egypt- an incursion that would later become full-fledged occupation in the 1800s. The process of which Egypt, and later other Ottoman domains, fell to the European powers was with the blessing of the Ottoman sultan to give favorable trade relations to the powers in exchange for keeping a failing empire afloat- the capitulations, pioneered by France for the area of what would become Lebanon. When the end of WW1 effectively marked the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations had dispersed mandates for administering the new ‘states’ that had come out of the Ottoman Empire to the powers that had major influence in their regions; wherever French (or British) economic penetration had been earlier, they would receive that area’s mandate. This ‘new colonialism’ had been an evolution the colonial practices pioneered by European powers, starting in the 16th century.
The third aspect is one of significant importance to the region, which was the protestant reformation. In 1571, Martin Luther had posted his 95 theses upon a church wall in Germany- a document that advocated some semblance of reform by the clergy and their secular practices. The idea that arose from this challenge to clerical authority was the notion of the nation-state; a geo-political entity that shared a common identity through some shared narrative of the peoples within it. The notion of the nation state swept through the Western world with the idea finding it’s way to the Middle East, with attempts to adapt to it’s structure made by the Ottoman and Persian empires alike. These attempts at modern state-building had mixed results, especially within the Ottoman Empire, as non-elite portions of the population had also been privy to the idea as well. The assertion of a distinct identity by the Ottoman government on her peoples had proved to be only marginally effective, as the sultan selectively implemented only individual facets of reform in order to resuscitate the empire. As Ottoman influence declined, local populations and ethnicities asserted their own identities and demands for autonomous, if not completely independent existences from Greece to the Balkans. As the face of the conqueror changed from the Ottoman sultan to the European mandate, the ideas of the nation-state fostered a nationalist force amongst the conquered that drove some states to violent revolt against mandate powers, in the name of nationalism. This force is still rampant today, as seen in the efforts of the Palestinian people to proclaim their own state.
Factors leading to the formation of the modern Middle East have undoubtedly been at work for some time. The rise of large-scale empires (also known as ‘gunpowder empires’), the conquest of Mexico by Spanish forces, and the protestant reformation are three precedents in world history that have made a continuing resonance in the region, as the vestiges of all of them still function today.
I’ll save you all the ‘food for thought’ paragraph aside from one solitary idea: if something is permissible the first time around and gets no flack from the people, it’ll be much harder to do it in the future. For this fortnight, that’s whats Under the Tarboush.