Still Awaited: A Truly Objective History of the Making of the Modern Middle East

Insight Turkey Volume 19 No 1, 2017

The Fall of the Ottomans, The Great War in the Middle East
By Eugene Rogan
Basic Books, 2015, 512 pages, $20.75, ISBN: 9780465023073

The Ottoman Endgame, War, Revolution and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923
By Sean McMeekin
Penguin Books, 2016, 570 pages. $35.00, ISBN: 9781594205323

Lawrence in Arabia, War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East
By Scott Anderson
Signal, 2014, 577 pages, $22.00, ISBN: 9781782392026

The Poisoned Well, Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East
By Roger Hardy
Oxford University Press, 2017, 380 pages, $27.95, ISBN: 9780190623203

The Enemy at the Gate, Habsburgs, Ottomans and the Battle for Europe
By Andrew Wheatcroft
Basic Books, 2008, 337 pages, $24.00, ISBN: 9780465020812

We are now witnessing a harvest of new history books on the making of the modern Middle East. Five are chosen for a critical review below. They are works by experts, well-researched and highly readable and infinitely more objective than the over-supply of Eurocentric or Orientalist books of the past. Yet, all four have limitations, lacking due Ottoman/Turkish/Arab/Muslim sentiment and “flavor.” The fifth on the Ottoman siege of Vienna is illuminating and relevant to the on-going debate on Turkey-EU relations. It, too, has its  limitations.

When, finally, the Ottoman world came to a bitter end [Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Arabs and others paying heavily in blood and tears], were the Turks and Ottomans irrational, wholly responsible for what happened? What really explains the numerous Western invasions from the British take-over of Egypt in 1882 (or still earlier the French in North Africa) to the Bush-Blair intervention in Iraq in 2002 and its shameful aftermath to this day? Can the people of the Middle East ever taste freedom and independence so long as the Israel-
Palestine problem remains unresolved?

The trauma and vacuum created by the Western imperialist destruction of the Ottoman Empire haunt us still. Imperialism has spawned Neo-imperialism. Kipling’s Great Game is now a globalized market-place in which capital and technology move freely, but not labor.  Sadly, we are still a long way away from a truly objective history of the Death and Heritage of the Sick Man of Europe. [By “objective” we mean history that is unbiased, evenhanded account, in which local people’s welfare is uppermost, outsiders’ interest secondary.]  Aksakal’s superb, but short, book, The Ottoman Road to War in 1914 is but an opening chapter in yet an unfinished History of the Modern Middle East. The standard-bearer in objective history-writing remains Toynbee’s The Western Question in Greece and Turkey,
A Study in the Contact of Civilizations, first published in 1922. We shall return to this theme presently. It is instructive to begin this review with some questions that remain unanswered.

Why was the Ottoman Empire, long in decline, suddenly condemned to death in St. Petersburg, London and Paris at exactly the onset of the Automobile Age? Yes, old men and empires all, Roman and Ottoman and others, die mortals’ death. But why was the Sick Man of Europe put to rest at the onset of the new oil wealth? Who got that wealth?

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