The First World War ended over four centuries of Middle East rule by the expansive, multiethnic, multireligious, and multilingual Ottoman Empire. In its wake, Britain, France, and some groups within the region and its diaspora aspired to create ethnically, religiously, and nationally homogenous nation-states that would be kept separate from Arab Muslims majorities. In States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East
(University of California Press, 2017), Laura Robson
traces the origins and nature of such campaigns, which sought to demographically engineer the Middle East through ethnic removal, population transfers, and partition. Drawing on a broad range of communities and newly-formed states in the Middle East, Robson shows that such schemes were often designed to bolster colonial control of the region and impose neo-imperial modes of governance on its people. In addition to shedding new light on the transformation of identity and communal subjectivity in the post-war Middle East, Robson also provides crucial historical context to several issues facing the region today, including the refugee crisis, increased migration, and intercommunal conflict. In doing so, Robson’s account serves as an important reminder that the kinds of demographic engineering frequently presented as contemporary solutions often create more problems than they solve.
Joshua Donovan is a PhD candidate at Columbia University’s Department of History. His dissertation examines national and sectarian identity formation within the Greek Orthodox Christian community in Syria, Lebanon, and the diaspora.