After the traumas of the 2003 Iraq War, it seemed America had lost its taste for foreign intervention, but today the Obama administration is bombing Syria and Iraq. The mood this time may be more sober, but still the majority of Americans—watching the violent propaganda of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL—support air strikes on the jihadists.
The Islamic State, like the Middle East, is something we struggle to understand. Beheadings, a grotesque but effective way of stirring fear in the West, make even-handed, rational analysis difficult. One way to decipher some of the confusion is to turn back to history, to restore Arab voices, to do as so many Western scholars and commentators fail to do: take the Middle East on its own terms.
The challenge of successfully pursuing this approach is apparent in Leila Tarazi Fawaz’s A Land of Aching Hearts, a detailed account of the political and cultural events that occurred in the Middle East just before and during World War I. It concerns the way in which Arabs were caught up in Europe’s first major war of the twentieth century, and how this proved to be a turning point in Middle Eastern history, but one not of the Arab peoples’ own making.
A century before the recent wave of popular unrest that has unseated dictators across the Middle East, a similar fervor had swept the region. In 1910 and 1911, rebellions broke out across the Middle East, then largely part of the Ottoman Empire, a multiethnic Islamic dynasty that ruled from Istanbul. Arabs in Greater Syria and on the Arabian Peninsula rose up against their Ottoman rulers, some with a new sense of national awareness, others angered by leaders who concentrated power and bowed to the influence of foreigners. The tumult was short-lived, and amid military crackdowns the state and other supporters of the status quo prevailed.
In the 100 years that separate the unrest of 1911 and the recent Arab uprisings in 2011, the Middle East has been transformed by civil wars and military coups, the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the rise of new ideologies (pan-Arabism and political Islam) and the discovery of oil (Saudi Arabia in 1938), as well as by decades of Western intervention, a revolution in Iran, and the Cold War. But the greatest rupture, the one that closed an era and heralded the dawn of another, was World War I.
The Great War, as it was known, was twentieth-century Europe’s founding experience, a grueling and bloody encounter that drew in the world’s chief economic powers. Trench warfare in continental Europe introduced slaughter on an industrial scale, wiping out a generation of young men and dismembering centuries-old empires. As shown by the spate of recent histories reflecting on the centennial of the war’s beginning, its importance in Europe is rarely understated. But little has been said of the millions outside Europe who were also caught up in the fighting, and whose lives and histories were irrevocably changed as well.