My students are generally 19 or 20 or 21. They have never known the Middle East without American boots on the ground. They have never turned on the news and seen a story about the region featuring a young couple in love, or a technological innovation or a sports star. Instead they see images of guns or bodies or burning buildings or all three.
Laura Robson, in her new book The Politics of Mass Violence in the Middle East (Oxford UP, 2020), tries to explain why this is so. The book is concise, but powerful and convincing. Robson reminds us that the violence in the Middle East is not deeply rooted in its culture or religion. Rather it is a relatively new development, propelled by responses to modernization and by individual choices by both regional leaders and especially by leaders of western imperialist countries. Nevertheless, over the past century ethnic violence has become virtually the only way to express and ensure sovereignty. The result is a region mired in conflict and oppression.
Robson's argument is nuanced and deeply rooted in a broad reading in the history of the Middle East and of mass violence. It is, needless to say, grimly pessimistic about the future. It's hard to imagine a way out of the spiral of violence that the twentieth century produced. As Hannah Arendt writes, in a quote Robson uses as an epigraph, "The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world."
Kelly McFall is Professor of History and Director of the Honors Program at Newman University.