Roundtable Disentangling and Uniting: Interwar Middle Eastern Populations and the Problem of Territory

AHA Session 266
Sunday, January 6, 2013: 11:00 AM-1:00 PM
Bayside Ballroom C (Sheraton New Orleans)
Lloyd S. Kramer, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Orit Bashkin, University of Chicago
Michelle Campos, University of Florida
Will Hanley, Florida State University
Sarah Shields, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Session Abstract

The interwar period was dominated on the international scene by disputes over identity.  In the aftermath of World War I, the Europeans who established the League of Nations assumed the existence of nations, the predominance of nationalist sentiments, and the advisability of dividing populations based on self-reported collective affiliations. 

The new assumptions unsettled long patterns in the Middle East, whose Ottoman centuries had enforced entangled communities living together.  These four papers analyze the process of dis-entanglement during the decades between the two world wars, when the politics of identity and the allocation of territory became overlapping issues.

This panel engages the ongoing discussion that problematizes the importance of nationalism as it overlay the new post-war borders. Campos' work analyzes the causes and consequences of Jewish leaders' efforts to remove Jews from non-Jewish-majority neighborhoods in Jerusalem, consolidating Jewish-majority areas.  Shields describes the League of Nations' efforts to define ethnicity in order to assign territory in disputed areas of the Iraq and Syrian mandates.  Bashkin's work interrogates Iraqi and Kurdish identities by focusing on "Kurdish Jews."  Hanley takes the issue of territory and identity outside the region itself, asking how Muslims resident in Britain presented a unified face in the imperial metropole, despite very real divisions in their national and sectarian identity projects in the Middle East.  Thus, Hanley's work tackles a question structured similarly to Bashkin's, but by substituting London/Woking for Baghdad and the "Middle East" for "Kurdistan," he offers the possibility of reintegrating these questions of identity and territory back into debates about European boundaries and affiliations.

All of these papers seek to understand the connection between identity and territory as both of those concepts were redefined after the cataclysm of World War I.   In the process, the panelists hope to open a conversation with historians specializing in other geographic areas, for whom interwar reformulations of nationalism, territory, and sovereignty offer similarly complex tangles and unities (e.g. Zahra, Cowan, Fischer). The Middle East was an especially vivid testing ground for identity projects during this period, and its particular patterns seem to offer a fruitful basis for trans-regional comparison.  We hope the audience for this panel will include historians interested not only in the Middle East, but also in the interwar period and the problems of identity politics in other world regions.

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