Understanding Middle Eastern History: An Interview with William Cleveland

Understanding Middle Eastern History: An Interview with William Cleveland

An interview with William Cleveland, Professor of History at Simon Fraser University and author of the widely used textbook A History of the Modern Middle East, on the importance of understanding the historical context of the Middle East. A Teacher’s Guide to the interview is included at the end.

Interview conducted by Michael A. Toler. This interview was originally published as part of NITLE’s Arab Culture and Civilization website. Edits have been made to reflect the transformation from oral interview to written document.

For a student who wants to understand the Arab World today, how important is it that they study the history of the region? How far back should they go?

I think it is absolutely crucial that they study the history of the region. The present can only be understood in terms of the past; the present makes sense only in terms of the past. It is kind of an open-ended question about how far back they should go. Personally I think it helps to start with the rise of Islam and the revelation of God’s final message to humankind in the Arabic language, at least as far as Muslims are concerned. However, I think the absolute crucial piece of the historical puzzle begins with the end of the Ottoman Empire and the end of 400 years of Ottoman rule over the Arab countries and the creation of separate Arab states at the end of World War I. These Arab states were created by Britain and France to serve their imperial interests and not to reflect any of the aspirations of the populations of these new states.

So is this a problem of borders? How were the borders drawn?

The borders are based entirely on imperial considerations, the needs of Britain and France. They didn’t follow any geographic frontiers; they didn’t pay attention to particular ethnic or religious groupings. Within these new states, and Iraq in particular, are a problematic mix of peoples who, in Ottoman times, might not have directly dealt with one another, but now they are within the borders of something called a state. A state has to establish its institutions, its administrative apparatus, its national anthems, its flags, and try to rule equally over all people who are within its borders.

In teaching about the Middle East in a North American context, do you find there are any problematic misconceptions professors have to deal with and if so, what are they?

The main problem, rather than misconceptions, is lack of knowledge. Students are interested in knowing more about Islam in particular, given September 11th, and also, as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict reaches us every day in one form of media or another, students are interested in knowing more about that situation. There, again, we go back to your first question: The Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be understood without a sense of the historical past. What we have is a search for knowledge rather than [a need to address] total misconceptions about the region.

For a student interested in Middle Eastern history whose primary language is English, are there any issues they should be aware of?

The main one is potential bias in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict: dealing with its origins, with the interaction of the Arab states with Israel and dealing in particular with Israel’s policy toward the Arabs. There is, in some sense of historiography, a notion that Israel can do no wrong, but in fact Israel has done a great disservice toward the Palestinians. For students whose reading language is English there is a new school of historiography among Israeli historians who do write in English, reexamining the origins of the state of Israel and the Palestinian exodus of 1948. It is a corrective; and the simple fact that it is a corrective would suggest that there had previously been some sort of bias. Benny Morris is probably the best known in North America. His book on the birth of the Palestinian refugee problem was a kind of ground-breaking study showing the Israeli activity in generating Palestinian refugees, if you will. Another is Gershon Shafir, who has studied the interaction of early Zionist settlers with the Arabs, and his conclusion that Zionism was a colonial settler project caused certain controversies in Israeli political and academic circles. These are Israeli scholars based in Israel, writing in Israel, researching in Israel, using the Israeli access to archives to kind of turn conventional historiography on its head.

Is there a similar kind of corrective historiography being written in other parts of the Arab world or is this unique to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

I think it is unique to the Arab-Israeli conflict. I think that deep soul searching on the part of Arab scholars and academics, while it may exist in salons and private conversation, is not encouraged by the state itself, so that revisionist history published in Arabic by Arab intellectuals in Arab countries is really not a part of the publishing scene, as yet.

Another question relating to study of the Arab world: We are talking about a region of 22 countries from Morocco to Iraq. Can we really talk about this region as a unit? What are some of the dangers of that? And on the other hand, is there a danger in insisting too much on regional and national specificity?

One of the problems historically that we have had is the arbitrary division of the Arab world into the Maghreb and the Mashreq-North Africa and the Middle East. They were seen as culturally distinct regions of the world that didn’t have direct and ongoing contact with one another. On the other hand, it is very difficult to study 22 states as a single unit. I think as a cultural unit there is some validity in thinking of the Arab world. As an Islamic unit there is some validity in thinking of the Arab-Islamic world, though even there I would add a cautionary note, because I think the specific form of Islam, the particular kinds of Islamic political activity that are taking place so frequently in Islamic countries is driven by specific nation-state grievances and problems. The activity in Egypt by Islamic groups trying to seize political power is driven by a particularly Egyptian set of circumstances, while whatever might be going on in Morocco would be driven by different set of Morocco-specific circumstances. I think that it is important to see certain individual states and the problems of individual states as being unique and not shared by all the nations of the Arab world.

Could you define for us the terms Maghreb and the Mashreq and talk about the difference between them?

The Maghreb, which means the place where the sun sets, has traditionally been defined as Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, all territories that came under French colonial rule from Algeria in the 1830s onward. I think the historiography of North Africa, of the Maghreb, has been predominantly a French enterprise. Even some of the major North African historians have written in French, studied in French universities and carved out careers for themselves in France, so the historiography takes a particularly French direction. On the other hand, the Mashreq, the Arab East, which starts in Egypt and includes the rest of the Arabic-speaking world, has a more direct shared Ottoman imperial past and a British as well as French imperial past. Egypt, for example: the Egyptian and British confrontation was one of the great imperial contests of the modern era. The historiography of this region is much more mixed. The United States, for example, has taken a more direct role in trying to manage the affairs of the Arab East then it has for North Africa, again, in part because of the existence of Israel. Then there is a country in-between that I haven’t mentioned, Libya, which forms a kind of uneasy bridge between the two. Libya was, of course, during the interwar period an Italian colony and was somehow isolated from both the Maghreb and the Mashreq.

Based on what you said, are we talking about a unified Islamist movement?

No, as far as I am concerned, we are absolutely not, and I am glad you raised that. No, I don’t see the “Islamic Threat” as a threat at all, and particularly as any kind of unified, concerted, joint effort by the Islamic nations. They have so many differences among them and between them.

To go back, briefly to the issue of who is writing the history, are there differences between the way scholars from within the Arab world approach history and the way outsiders would approach it?

I think so. Scholars from within the region have a tendency to take more of a patriotic approach to history, and given the censorship that does exist in practically all the Arab states with perhaps the exception of Lebanon, it’s very difficult for scholars to write fully revealing historical accounts. However, with regard to the 18th and 19th centuries, in those time periods we do see very important contributions by local scholars who have had access to archival materials and who understand how to use the archival materials and who have had, perhaps equally important, longstanding contact with those materials, rather than simply being over there for six months on a sabbatical. We are seeing major historical contributions in that area.

Is the pan-Arab perspective still an important force in the historiography of the region? Has it been replaced by a pan-Islamic perspective?

The pan-Arab dream, though it had a lingering twilight, really died with Nasser in 1970. I don’t think it has been replaced with a pan-Islamic perspective. States are jealously guarding their own sovereignty; this is what Nasser found, eventually. No king or authoritarian president wishes to give up his control of his domain in order to be second fiddle in some larger political entity. Again I think that the urgency of Islamist activity is different in virtually every state. I think, too, that though I argued earlier that the Arab states are relatively young, it has been 80 years and states have developed their own characteristics. The populations have come to accept their identity with a Kuwait, a Syria or an Iraq and they feel more loyalty toward those identities than they do to a larger pan-Islamic entity. On the other hand, I think there has been a resurgence of Islam, but I don’t think it makes itself felt in any sort of strong, population-wide desire for some sort of pan-Islamic entity.

You spoke about the creation of the post-Ottoman Arab state. I wonder if you could elaborate on that, somewhat?

I think that what students need to be aware of is that the regional state system that we take for granted, the existence of a group of Arab states in the region stretching from Egypt to Iraq, is a very recent phenomenon. The British and the French carved these states out of former Ottoman territory. The first major change is a regional state system with all the necessity of state relationships where before there was only one state. That is a significant feature and obviously one that has colored the modern Middle East since the creation of these states in the early 1920s.

What was the impact of WWII on the Arab world?

Wow! The impact of World War II had a number of major repercussions. First of all the weakening of Britain and France led, finally, to the ultimate independence of all of Arab states. Some of them had a nominal independence before the war, Egypt for example, but World War II led to the full independence of the Arab states. And that led to what we were talking about earlier, a regional state policy. It led to their ability, for better or worse, to carry out their own regional policy.

The other impact of World War II, ultimately, was the creation of the state of Israel. The successful forging of the Israeli state led to a major restructuring of the Arab political elite. The interwar, landowning, wealthy elites who had almost traditionally dominated society in various Arab states, or at least the core Arab states, were tarnished, their incompetence revealed by the easy creation of the state of Israel and Israel’s easy victory over the five Arab armies that were supposed to crush the new Israeli state in 1948. As a result, young, nationalist, reformist army officers overthrew the existing elite in almost all the core Arab states.

What is Arab nationalism? How powerful a force was this ideology and why has it declined?

In the period between the two World Wars most Arab political leaders and intellectuals were kind of torn between two conflicting ideologies: the need to build loyalty to the new particular state of which they were now citizens, Iraq or Syria, for example, and at the same time by the lingering belief that because of a shared language, a shared history and a shared cultural background, the Arabs were actually a single nation accidentally divided into different states by Britain and France. The example that was often used was Germany, where in the early 19th century Germany was divided into many principalities and tiny kingdoms, but German thinkers would argue that there was still a German nation there among all those little states. Of course German unification brought such power to Germany, presumably based on this cultural unity, that pan-Arab nationalist thinkers also used the same kind of argument, again, we have been divided artificially into states, but we are, in fact, one nation.

The reason, I think, that this didn’t work was that, ironically, perhaps the most enduring European contribution to the Arab Middle East is the colonial state. These artificial, awkward critters actually survived and loyalty to specific states ended up taking precedence over any potential willingness to give up power and to merge into some sort of pan-Arab Entity.

That loyalty seems pretty strong in the region today. Is nationalism a strong force today?

I think individual state loyalty, whether we actually call it nationalism or just a sense of belonging to a specific state, is fairly strong.

What was the effect of the oil boom (or crisis, depending on perspective) of the 1970s on the Arab world?

Oil exploration and production began in Iran before World War I and then spread into Iraq after WWI. The area that we now think of as the oil giants, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the principalities along the Persian Gulf, didn’t really come into major production until after WWII. Oil production and marketing was controlled, up until 1973, by European and American multinational corporate giants, and particularly pricing was controlled by these giants, the so-called “seven sisters.” States that had oil, like Saudi Arabia, would only get a certain amount of money as a royalty for their oil resource. As late as 1970, oil was selling for as little as two or three dollars a barrel because these international consortiums controlled prices. The real “oil crisis,” as you put it, occurred in 1973 when for the first time the Arab oil-producing states used the so-called “oil weapon.” In October 1973 Egypt and Syria went to war against Israel. The oil-producing states, at that point, agreed to a boycott on the sale of oil to the West. Although it was never a total boycott, oil production declined dramatically. The price of oil also rose dramatically. In that brief period, 1973-75, oil-producing states themselves acquired control over their own resources. They then determined production and pricing, and the price of oil went from $3 a barrel to $12, and eventually before the ‘70s were over, up to $40. There were rumors of potential ruin for the Japanese and American economies and all that, but what the crisis really showed was that we’re willing to pay anything for oil, price doesn’t matter. What matters is access, and so we need to have friendly rulers on the thrones of oil-producing countries who will provide us with access to oil.

So that got the U.S. much more involved in the region, correct?

The U.S. was already pretty involved by the post-1967 period, but what it did for the U.S. and European countries was that they realized they had taken for granted the availability of Middle Eastern oil. And, of course, for a decade or so after 1973 smaller cars were built, cars with less horsepower, and there was a 55 mph speed limit in the U.S. There was a conservation movement afoot because it was recognized that oil is a non-replenishable resource and also that the North American continent was using up its oil and would therefore become dependent on the Middle East. Because of this dependency, sure, there was a greater involvement, but a greater concern that friendly rulers dominate the oil-producing states.

Finally, could you give us some background on the Middle East peace process and the Intifada? What would someone who is trying to take a historical approach to that want to pay attention to?

The first thing to look at is the driving force behind Palestinian militant opposition to Israel, in whatever form it takes. The basic issue is in 1967 with the Israeli victory, Israel ended up occupying the West Bank (which is essentially the West Bank of the Jordan River, which had been under Jordanian sovereignty), the Golan Heights from Syria (which is less controversial right now), and the Gaza Strip (which had been under Egyptian sovereignty). It is the Israeli occupation of these two areas in particular, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, that have generated a Palestinian response. What happened within the Israeli body politic was that these occupied territories were seen as potential bargaining chips to be used to extract treaties of peace. But among certain factions of the Israeli public with all its Old Testament, Biblical resonance, settlement of the West Bank became a kind of a religious imperative. This spread, not just within religious circles, but became a part of Israeli politics, particularly with the election of Menachem Begin and his right-wing Likud group. Begin favored settlement and annexation of the West Bank. This in turn, as Israeli settlement activity increased, produced a militant reaction among Palestinians who regarded this other land as being taken away from them and who had formulated a kind of Palestinian nationalism which called the West Bank and Gaza Strip a Palestinian state, and they sought independence for that state. The ongoing occupation and the settlement policies are the root cause of Palestinian responses to oppose these two processes.

What has been the effect of the rise of political Islam in the region?

Well, it is a new phenomenon; it is not a reproduction of anything that existed in the past. I think it’s driven by dissatisfaction with existing regimes; it is driven by poverty and the terribly unequal distribution of wealth in the Middle East at large. When did this start? Scholars generally accept, though you can’t say it started at a particular date, that the results of the 1967 war marked the beginning of this great disillusionment with the socialist experiment of Nasser and his imitators. It hadn’t worked. In the 1967 war Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan, and occupied vast amounts of territory that had formerly belonged to each of the three states. 1967 is a major watershed and turning point in the history of the modern Middle East. Among other things, a result of this was the rise of political Islam: a belief that imported systems, whether it was the parliamentary or pseudo-parliamentary systems of the interwar years, or the socialism and state capitalism of the post-1950s years, none of those had worked, and that it was time to return to some sort of culturally authentic political practices. To many people, it seemed that one of the key components of Islam, which is social justice, was being ignored, and if only they could recapture the essential institutions of the Islamic faith, including Islamic law, social justice and equal opportunity would be restored.

You indicated that this was a new phenomenon, which certainly seems accurate, but don’t these groups claim to be restoring some pristine form of Islam that existed in the seventh century?

Yes, some of them do, but they’re mistaken. Like the Taliban, they are creating a past that never existed as far as I am concerned, but that is not unusual in ideological movements. I think there are two elements of this political Islam that are quite significant. The first is, of course, the militant activities of those groups that would actually overthrow the state and install some very vaguely defined form of Islamic government, whatever that means. Often the leaders of the groups are not terribly specific as to what that means. But the other phenomenon, while less obvious, may be even more significant, and that is the popular acceptance and adoption of, for want of a better term, more Islamic behavior. There are Qur’an reading groups, there are prayer groups. Non-political Islam, has recaptured the hearts and minds of the populations in many Arab and Islamic countries.

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