Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Peter Mansfield's A History of the Middle East

What is best book on the contemporary Middle Eastern (or West Asian) history I have read? This is a question put to me from several emailers. First of all, allow me to make a disclaimer that I am no expert in this area.

Given that, I think Peter Mansfield's 426-page A History of the Middle East (London, Penguin, 2003; first published in 1991) is an impressive one in my personal library.

It outlines the secular history of the region in chronological as well as analytical manner that is very helpful to laymen. Unlike Bernard Lewis' big sweep in The Middle East - 2000 Years of History from the Rise of Christianity to the Present Day (London, Phoenix, 2004; first published in 1995), Mansfield's magnum opus effectively begins with the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century which also coincided with the heydays of European, especially British and French imperialism. But the book, whose original author had passed away in 1996, is updated by Nicolas Pelham to cover the 2003 Iraq War.

A History of the Middle East, although written by a former British diplomat-turned-scholar (in the tradition of E.H. Carr), is also more critical of Western powers including British and French imperialisms as well as American involvements in the region than the many Middle Eastern narratives and discourses presented by the West-centric scholars such as Bernard Lewis.

While not denying the conflicts in the Middle East carry a dimension of civilisational clashes and contests for ideational supremacy among Judaism, Chritianity and Islam, A History of the Middle East also factors in geopolitics, military strategies of world powers and regional states as well as modern ideologies like nationalism, liberalism, fascism and socialism. The First (1914-1918) and Second (1931-1945) World Wars, Cold War (1947-1991) as well as creation of the State of Israel in 1948, for example, have left indelible impacts on the political landscape of the region.

What A History of the Middle East has outlined is certainly a more realistic overall picture than that which is coloured by the black-and-white and ultra-simplistic clash-of-civilisation hypothesis of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington.

I think it is a good introduction to Middle East politics for both Muslims and non-Muslims. It should serves as a reference for further discussion and debate.