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Introductory book review of The Arabs: A history by Eugene Rogan (Second Edition: Penguin Books Ltd, 2012)

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The Arabs: A history was written by Mr Eugene Rogan, who taught history of the Middle East at the University of Oxford. The book has 714 pages, incl. notes and illustrations, of history, which relied on broad and original sources. It begins with Lebanon and the Rafique Hariri assassination on Valentine Day, 14th February, 2005. The former Prime Minister was greeted on this symbolic day of love with a one-ton bomb that killed him, along with twenty-one (21) others. But it also gave rise, a month later, to a one-million strong citizens’ march in Beirut, the capital city, that ultimately forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country – the Cedar revolution.

That revolution was the outcome of the balance of forces mobilized around the March 14 movement, which asserted Lebanon’s independence once more. But the killings continued, which included the Journalist and Author Samir Kassir on 2nd June, 2005.  Before his death, he wrote of the ‘Arab malaise’, the Twenty-first Century “disenchantment of Arab citizens with their corrupt and authoritarian governments.” (p.3)

According to Mr. Kassir, this was not always the case. The Arabs knew of a better period of greatness and optimism before, that is, the great Islamic empires from the 7th to 12th Centuries. They had “an international presence stretching from Iraq and Arabia to Spain and Sicily.” Islamists of today believe this was due to close adherence to the Muslim faith. For him, however, another source, especially in the 19th-20th Centuries, was the cultural renaissance or “Nahda” in Arab society. Through the works of film producers, “painters, poets, musicians, playwrights and novelists”, it “began to change, education began to spread, and women emerged from behind the veil.” (p.4) That society was “distinctly” secular and modern.

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In politics, Pan-Arabism also inspired the struggle for independence from colonialism and other forms of foreign domination. Mr. Kassir cited “Nasser’s Egypt, for instance, one of the pillars of Afro-Asianism and the Non-Aligned movement; independent Algeria … the Palestinian resistance which was called on to further the cause of democratic rights….” (p.4)                                                

The point about history is to learn from it, in order not to repeat the same mistakes in forging ahead, hopefully, for the better. For the “malaise” Mr. Kassir observed, he asked why the stagnation and pessimism? Why the unity in “a cult of misery and death?” Besides, whose security or way of life is being threatened, the West or East, the Author Mr. Rogan also wonders?

Are Western invasions of Arab society acts of violent plunder or liberation?  France’s Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, while claiming to respect “God, his Prophet, and the Qur’an.”  (p.5) The British invaded Iraq in 1917, while also claiming to be “liberators” just as the Americans did later in 2003. When the Iraqi Journalist, Mr. Muntadhar al-Zaidi, threw shoes at President Bush in December, 2008, he meant that “the Iraqis knew the difference between liberation and occupation.” (p.6)

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This frustration over being used as “pawns in the games of nations” is as old as foreign domination. By Mr. Rogan’s account, it begins in modern Arab society “with the Ottoman conquest of the Arab world in the sixteenth century…. (p.7) It lasted for about 400 years, followed by another century-and-a-half of European imperialism; the Cold War came thereafter, ending with present-day American domination.

“The rules of the unipolar age of American dominance proved the most disadvantageous to the Arab world in modern times … from the 9/11 attacks of 2001 to the Arab revolutions of 2011 ….” (p.13) To Mr. Rogan, this was “the worst in modern Arab history.”  It marks at the same time optimism to transform diverse Arab society for the better, from North Africa, through the fertile crescent, to the Arabian Peninsula. This, according to Mr. Rogan, is doing justice to Arab history, as seen “through the eyes of Arab men and women who described the times through which they lived.” (p.14)

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