Reorienting Global History: The Middle East and the World in the 20th Century

AHA Session 239
Sunday, January 5, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Mercury Ballroom (New York Hilton, Third Floor)
Paul Chamberlin, Columbia University

Session Abstract

In recent years, developments in the Middle East have played a crucial role in a vast array of global issues, from international migration and refugee policy, to paramilitary recruitment, sanctions regimes, the global arms trade, and foreign military intervention. This is not new: that the Middle East exercises enormous political, economic, and cultural influence beyond its borders and indeed shapes political discourse in many other parts of the world is both a contemporary and a historical reality. Yet much of the historical literature on the Middle East in the twentieth century continues to focus on the impact of external forces as they have acted on the region, whether in colonial or post-colonial contexts. As many have noted, the term "Middle East" itself privileges an external Eurocentric perspective and naturalizes the region's supposedly passive and receptive status. Concomitantly, much of the literature produced on ‘global’ history continues to center the experiences of Europe and Europeans, whether within the framework of Empire, or cosmopolitan peregrination. This literature has frequently failed to account, whether empirically or conceptually, for the Middle East as a significant and specific protagonist in world history.

This panel reverses the telescope, to consider the multitude of ways in which the Middle East has in fact shaped international history in the twentieth century. It brings together historians from diverse backgrounds and specializations in order to trace the trajectories of people, ideas, technologies, systems, and norms originating in the Mashreq and Maghreb, as they radiated outward to Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

The first paper highlights the connected histories of the British Raj and Mandate Palestine between the end of the First World War and the resort to partition in 1947-8. It traces interactions between Indians, Arabs, Zionists, and British administrators, and the rapid ascent of 'partition thinking' among both nationalists and imperial administrators beginning in the late 1930s. The second paper examines how al-Azhar, an ancient center of Islamic learning in Cairo, catalyzed new Islamic modernist conceptions of regional solidarity among its East Asian students in the immediate pre- and post-World War II contexts. The “Far Eastern Islamic Federation” they envisioned represents a lost history of Asian Muslims’ attempts to balance national, regional, and global Islamic identities in an emergent era of decolonization and Cold War. The third paper considers the Arab ‘Nakbah’, or disaster, of 1948 as both a global event and a concept in Arab historiography. It traces the ways in which armed conflict in the interwar Middle East transformed the meaning of disaster, from a framework for understanding time and causality, towards a call for action, resistance, and social reform. The fourth paper interrogates how the Algerian Revolution operated and resonated with Third World radicals across the 1960s and '70s. It traces the regional and international political arrangements made possible through Algiers’ transformation into a revolutionary city, which played host to radical movements, from the Palestine Liberation Organization and South Vietnamese National Liberation Front, to the Black Panthers.

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