The murder of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife in 1914 and the suicide of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in 2011 have each had a prodigious impact on the world. These events both contributed to the Arab Spring, out of which has unfolded political unrest, ethnic hatred and sectarian violence. However, in spite of the continued presence of the Middle East in the headlines, the tangled nature of its sociopolitical and religious history has been in need of an inclusive study. M. E. McMillan has done a splendid job of providing this through From The First World War to the Arab Spring: What's Really Going On in the Middle East?
This engaging book offers cogent analysis of the tangled web of conflicts and proxy wars, uprisings and counterrevolts in the Middle East in order to seek answers to salient questions. For example, why are there so many hereditary rulers in the Middle East, which the Islamic faith does not allow for? What did the Allies want in the Middle East? How did the straight lines get drawn on the map of the region? What were the consequences of the controversial Congress of Berlin, Conference of Algeciras, Sykes-Picot agreement, Treaty of Sèvres, etc.? Western democratic champions claim to want democracy in the Middle East. Why do they support dictators? McMillan provides clear answers to these difficult questions.
Firmly grounded in historical research and insightful analysis of current events, McMillan gives readers a new understanding of what is really happening in the Middle East through a series of thought-provoking essays. In each, she analyzes the relevant conflicting values and incompatible interests that mark the region's political culture up to the modern period, putting the Arab Spring into context by explaining the poisoned legacies of World War I.
McMillan relates how the victorious Western Allies tore the defeated Ottoman Empire into pieces by a series of malign treaties, drawing the defective borders that created many of the modern-day Arab states, and carving up historic heartlands, sacred cities and family farms without a thought for the long-term implications. These frontiers stretched from the shores of the Bosphorus to the Red Sea and from the Caucasus Mountains to the Gulf, arbitrarily drawn straight lines demarcating areas, often without ethnic or tribal considerations.
Today's sociopolitical unrest and terrorism are the direct or indirect result of controversial agreements and faulty borders. Equally, the unelected monarchs, military coups, political violence and religious confrontations are the other causes of long-lasting instability and undemocratic practices in the Middle East.
Apart from illuminating a long history, the author subtly draws our attention to the inadequate effort by regional and international actors to resolve the current chaos. In particular, these actors have underestimated the hidden historical facts and root causes of contemporary sociopolitical unrest, but history cannot be undone to resolve a historical mess. Conflict resolution and peace building require us to comprehend the present state of affairs; however, they also oblige us to dig out the historical facts and examine political and cultural contexts in the interest of sustainable peace, not just quick fixes for historical blunders.
For instance, McMillan tries to explain in an unbiased manner the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, presenting both sides' narratives and leaving it to the reader to decide what can be done to resolve the issue. She also exposes the massive gap between the power wielders and the people in the Middle East, now being filled by violent jihadi groups as well as the usual kings, generals and sheikhs. Indeed, she succeeds in offering readers a thorough yet concise briefing on years of sociopolitical history. However, a number of sections of the book lack some important facts of Islamic history. For instance, upon succession, Yazid bin Muawiya declared himself the righteous khalifa and asked governors of all provinces to swear an oath of allegiance to him. However, Husayn ibn Ali refused to take the oath, preferring instead to lay down his life and become a martyr. How and why did Husayn's martyrdom become the spark that opened a long-lasting divide between Sunni and Shii in the Muslim world?
Moreover, the author mentions Pew (2006) and Gallup (2009) public-opinion surveys of German and British Muslims on the nature of their self-identification and religious faith. According to those surveys, Muslims see themselves first as Muslim — and Islam as vital to them — rather than as British or German. However, the author ignored the sensitivity of the surveys' timing (after 9/11) and locations. The events of 9/11 changed the sociopolitical fabric and Muslims' perceptions of it, not just in the Western world but also in Muslim countries. If the author had mentioned comparative surveys before and after 9/11, it might have been more meaningful.
The book's wealth of historical and contextual background allows for an empirically rich analysis of the major historical events. McMillan has produced a work of exceptional lucidity that scholars, students and policy makers alike will consult for years to come. It is a valuable contribution to academia as well as highly recommended reading for the generalist, who will find it compelling and informative. McMillan provides crucial insights into what went wrong over the last century in the Middle East, and what can be learned from the betrayals, broken promises and double standards of the West.