Elie Kedourie, Politics in the Middle East (New York: Oxford, 1992).

Roger Owen, State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (London: Routledge, 1992).

Until the 1970s, Orientalism was the single powerful paradigm within which the history, culture and politics of the Middle East were represented in Europe and North America. Orientalist scholarship operates on the presupposition that the essence of the entity termed “Islam,” or Islamic civilization, was determined in the first few hundred years after Islam’s emergence in the seventh century. This Islamic essence is constructed through a narrow textual reading of medieval Islamic literature, and culminates in the depiction of an unchanging ideal-type of a despotic society that is the antithesis of the Western, democratic ideal-type. In a circular way, a variety of phenomena that should have been examined historically — ruler-subject relations, for instance — are deemed “Islamic” and thereby explanatory of social and political phenomena of all kinds.

The late Elie Kedourie, whether or not one agrees with his views, was an original thinker, and his is a particular brand of Orientalism. Whereas the “optimist” Orientalists (the majority) assume that desired change in the Middle East can be achieved through “the West’s impact,” the “pessimist” Orientalists regard this as sheer naivete; the essence is too essential, so to speak. Politics in the Middle East is a textbook version of Kedourie’s pessimistic essentialism. Chapter One (“The Legacy”) sets the rather vulgar tone and narrow content:

[Arab Muslim] rulers very speedily transformed an unsophisticated tribal polity into one of the most sophisticated and most durable kinds of rule, that of oriental despotism, the methods and traditions of which have survived in the Muslim world to the present day. What the Muslim jurists did was to articulate and theorize the conditions of political life in oriental despotism, and to teach that it was compatible with a Muslim way of life.

The main part of the book fulfills the anticipation created by the “Legacy”: with the qualified exception of Kemalist Turkey, the failure of constitutionalism and constitutional politics in the Middle East was inevitable because the good old Islamic essence was bound to make them fail. Kedourie never asks why it is that in other parts of the world which are not Islamic, constitutionalism also failed.

In the last chapter, “The Triumph of Ideological Politics,” Kedourie argues revealingly that whereas the attempt to implement constitutionalism proved to be abortive, the regrettable European phenomenon of “ideological politics” did strike roots in the region, the two notable examples being millenarianism and revolutionary nationalism. Here Kedourie illustrates his deep suspicion of ideas in general, and those generated in post-French Revolution Europe in particular.

For Kedourie, the context within which ideas occur matters not. Constitutionalism is ideology-free, a politics for sensible people, appropriate to “what the government of an actual society requires.” In explaining why “ideological” rather than constitutional politics successfully permeated the Middle East, Kedourie observes that the European ideas which contested constitutionalism “were in the end to prove much more attractive, more consonant with certain strands of the native political tradition, and thus more significant in their impact.”

State, Power and Politics is the antithesis to Kedourie’s Politics in the Middle East. Roger Owen has never been content with merely articulating methodological criticism of the Orientalist paradigm; rather, his varied writings constitute a clear and actualized alternative. Where Kedourie is essentialist, Owen is historical; where Kedourie is reductively textual, Owen is contextual; where Kedourie sees static contrasts, Owen sees complex, interactional dynamism.

These two texts depict two different Middle Easts. Owen understands and explains the Middle East in terms of the modern nation-state, modern ideologies and organizations, and modern bureaucracies.

Owen grapples with current theoretical debates over the nature of the modern state and its elusive relations with society, and explains his understanding of these complex issues. In Chapter One, assisted by Sami Zubaida’s original and stimulating Islam, the People and the State, he elaborates the thesis which is the backbone of the whole book: that under British and French colonial rule structures emerged in the Middle East which, for analytical purposes, Owen terms “the colonial state.” Since then, the territorial state has become the most basic and significant unit in Middle Eastern politics and in shaping collective identities. Imposing new rules by which politics had to be played, the state undermined other structures both “larger” (Islam and Arab nationalism) and “smaller” (the tribe, family and province) than itself.

One problem of presentation in Owen’s book ought to be pointed out: Parts of the text, particularly where the theoretical issues and the thrust of the thesis are set forth (i.e., the Introduction and Chapter One) are presented in a way that is too condensed. As Owen notes, the intended audience is “the non-specialist, or ‘first-time’ Western reader.” The discussion of the modern state, in order to fulfill its stimulating potential, must be based on some familiarity with the ongoing debate on this issue among social scientists. The intriguing elaboration of the colonial state as an analytical tool is suffused with the eternal historical questions of continuity (e.g., the prominence of absentee land owners in politics until the 1950s) and change (e.g., new boundaries). Without some deeper acquaintance with early modern Middle Eastern history it may be difficult for the “first-timer” to fully benefit from Owen’s arguments in this discussion. The quality of this book renders further editions likely and the author might consider developing the heart of his interpretive framework in a more expanded version.

How to cite this article:

GABRIEL YOUNG "Politics in the Middle East," Middle East Report 191 (November/December 1994).

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