New Perspectives on Property and Land in the Middle East, edited by Roger Owen. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. 341 pages. $19.95, paperback.
The history and development of political communities in the Middle East is the subject of these two recent books: Samir Khalaf’s Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon and the collection of essays published by the center for Middle Eastern Studies of Harvard University about land property. Both give a different perspective on the past and future of the Arabs and the various environments they live in. Adopting different definitions of the settings and situations surrounding political communities in the Arab world, each is a serious attempt to understand the relationship between state and society in the Arab Middle East.
Samir Khalaf is a professor of sociology and the chair of the Center for Behavioral Research at the American University in Beirut. He discusses the progress of Lebanon as a nation-state through the evolution of its different ethnic and religious communities. The author believes that Lebanon’s existence is precarious due to the interplay and influence of both internal and external factors. However, he puts more emphasis on the dilemma of “protracted and displaced hostility” and “reawakened communal solidarities.”
Dr. Khalaf looks at the phenomenon of “collective strife” as an ingredient of the foundation of the various communities in Lebanon. The defining characteristic of each sectarian group has been the struggle by different political communities to maintain a space, to preserve their heritage, and to form internal and external alliances. He dwells on the meaning of civil strife further to denote the economic disparities, socioeconomic inequalities and demographic dislocations each one of Lebanon’s ethnic and religious groups has experienced. He claims that Lebanon has embodied that type of civil strife as it has affirmed its sovereignty against many unfavorable trends. He asserts that civil strife in Lebanon – if not tempered by the mechanisms of social reconciliation and political settlement – can degenerate into civil war. Hence, Khalaf devotes a major part of his book to the study of violence in the Lebanese context and how it has shaped the country’s identity. He warns against the transformation of violence perpetrated by different groups in the body politic into randomness and radical forms.
But he sees in the physical, cultural and political pluralism of Lebanon a fragile equilibrium ensuring its physical existence and allowing its denominations to thrive. So, Khalaf, unlike many Arab intellectuals, is more open to the idea of globalization and assesses its impact on Lebanese society in positive terms. He pleads for the nurturing of the tradition of civil society in Lebanon and displays a great sense of religious tolerance, citing many examples of different faiths and denominations enhancing their status by engaging in different types of political and non-governmental activities.
Khalaf welcomes globalization as a favorable trend that should be embraced by Lebanon’s ethnic and religious minorities. He envisions the expansion of the domain of each group. The Maronites, the Druze, the Shiite Muslims, the Sunni Muslims, the Orthodox Christians and others should form strong bonds with their coreligionists everywhere. Ultimately, this will augment Lebanon’s status as a sovereign nation and enrich the different traditions of its varied communities. Thus, Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon makes a major contribution to the study of democratic theory and the methodologies employed by social scientists on the transition and consolidation of democracy.
The book includes discussions of the varied episodes in Lebanese history. The author believes that feudalism in Lebanon originated early but lacked the strong military component that was a feature of many feudal systems. Yet Khalaf fails to analyze other phases in Lebanese history, especially the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and developments since the Taif accords.
On the other hand, New Perspectives on Property and Land in the Middle East grapples with the question of how modern Arab communities and societies were formed as land ownership was debated and land distributed. The book begins with the attempt by the Ottoman Empire to devolve authority through the empowerment of the ruling classes of the Arab world. Many chapters involve discussions of communities organized geographically around spaces allotted to them as a result of ordinances from central authorities, immigration and population movement, and settlements.
The authors caution against adopting concepts borrowed from Western sociology to describe land and communities in the Middle East, especially on the question of the existence of a landed gentry. Most of the writers focus their research on Egypt, Syria and parts of Turkey. A number of areas like the lower delta of the Nile, Mount Lebanon and parts of Anatolia are examples of traditions of ownership of agricultural and arable land with hereditary principles. A novel tool of analysis is the idea of economic surplus. It departs from a Marxist definition of the surplus as the added value to a process of economic exploitation by the capitalist. The book spells out the logic of land surplus as a distributive policy of cultivable land either acquired or well-managed to new land claimants and status seekers who provided their employment to the state.
The authors assign a dominant role to the state where land ownership is concerned. Under Ottoman decrees, most of the land was property of the state, designated as miri. The inability of the Ottoman Empire to expand further, the need to raise revenue, and the changing structure of the tax system necessitated the creation of a system of land grants that permitted land transfer and gradual recognition of landowners. Professor Huri Islamoglu from Sabanci University in Istanbul sees the genesis of land distribution not as a result of the influence of ideas of natural law and universal beliefs in equality, but rather as a result of power factors and rivalry in the Ottoman-Arab state apparatus. Accordingly, land distribution in the Arab world under the Ottomans was more controversial. The culmination of Ottoman land policy was evident in the year 1858 with the issuance of the Ottoman Land Code. That law initiated a long process of negotiations between collectivities such as village assemblies and district councils in many regions for the collective ownership of land. The treatment of land as a grant created a large number of grantees. In addition, the Egyptian Land Code of 1858 under Khedive Said tried to establish a balance between government bureaucracies and land ownership.
Other sections of the book deal with the advent of the British mandate over Palestine and the conflict between European laws and Islamic Sharia laws. The Land Transfer Ordinance of 1920 dealt with many aspects of land ownership such as the property transfer of the former estates of Sultan Abd al-Hamid II, known as ciftliks. Cases demonstrating the ownership of land by Islamic institutions (Waqf) and lands owned by non-Muslim outsiders are mentioned in later chapters
There are a number of shortcomings to the book. It begins its history of land ownership and management with the later decades of the Ottoman Empire. A better starting point would have been the Mameluke era of Arab and Islamic history. The Mameluke dynasty in the Arab world in general and in Egypt and Syria in particular was based on a military feudal system that fragmented political authority and land ownership into the hands of dominion administrators, reflecting the rivalry among the Mamelukes and their penchant for political decentralization. Hence, the genesis of Ottoman land policy is found in the Mamelukes’ land configuration. The Ottoman system of land ownership that governed the modern Middle East and evolved into modern Arab feudalism and aristocracy was based to a large extent on the Mameluke jurisdictions. Even under Ottoman sovereignty, the Mamelukes were able to penetrate the administrative echelon and become the de facto elite in Egypt and Syria. In this vein, a better organization of the book should have included the contributions of a medievalist.
Moreover, the choice of Said in the study of land ownership was less than fortunate. A better figure in modern Egyptian history would have been Khedive Ismail, Said’s son. The Egyptian state under Ismail had embarked on the biggest process of land transfer, land acquisition and confiscation, and land reclamation in the Arab world. Many classics of modern Egyptian history such as Abdel-Rahman Al-Rafii’s The Age of Ismail and Amin Samy’s The Nile Calendar are excellent treatises on an Arab state’s land policy and how it affects the population. None of these major historical works is referred to in the book.
Also, the Middle East geographical scope of the book is narrow. It ignores the Maghreb area. A study of land ownership and distribution and its relationship to political communities finds prime examples in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. They were sovereign nation states with ruling dynasties. Ottoman rule was nominal. The royal families were large landowners supported by a class of landed gentry. Foreign intervention and European imperialism and its search for space were governing factors in determining the history of land ownership and the struggle against foreign ownership.
Finally, the two books succeed in establishing a strong synthesis between political communities in the Middle East and the physical space they occupy. Both uphold the values of the common good of political societies and consider both the indigenous and external factors essential for the survival of a community. In addition, they reach conclusions that reinforce each other. One book studies how political communities seek recourse in violence to protect their land; the other explains how the state and its sanctioned use of violence dispenses land to ensure the survival of political communities.