ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 140

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Interview

How did we get here? A new book chronicles Middle East politics, modern and ancient

Former French diplomat Jean-Pierre Filiu covers the region’s unlikely stories, many rulers and missed opportunities in ‘The Middle East: A Political History From 395 to the Present’

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • King of Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud on February 2, 1930. (AP Photo)
    King of Saudi Arabia Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud on February 2, 1930. (AP Photo)
  • Bedouins pitch their tent on the sands under palm trees in southern Tunis, Tunisia on November 12, 1942. (AP Photo)
    Bedouins pitch their tent on the sands under palm trees in southern Tunis, Tunisia on November 12, 1942. (AP Photo)
  • Syria's former president Hafez Assad, right, is pictured beside Yasser Arafat near Damascus, Syria, in December, 1974. (AP Photo)
    Syria's former president Hafez Assad, right, is pictured beside Yasser Arafat near Damascus, Syria, in December, 1974. (AP Photo)
  • Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini in Tehran after 14 years in exile, February 1, 1979. (AP Photo/FY)
    Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini in Tehran after 14 years in exile, February 1, 1979. (AP Photo/FY)
  • Hamas terror group supporters wearing fake explosives and black headbands reading 'Death for the sake of God,' march during a demonstration in the southern port city of Tyre, Lebanon, April 13, 2001. (AP Photo/Mohamed Zatari, File)
    Hamas terror group supporters wearing fake explosives and black headbands reading 'Death for the sake of God,' march during a demonstration in the southern port city of Tyre, Lebanon, April 13, 2001. (AP Photo/Mohamed Zatari, File)
  • Construction of a house in the Syrian countryside, October 10, 1938. (AP Photo)
    Construction of a house in the Syrian countryside, October 10, 1938. (AP Photo)
  • Iraqi troops patrol mountainous area during the Iran-Iraq war, January 24, 1981. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)
    Iraqi troops patrol mountainous area during the Iran-Iraq war, January 24, 1981. (AP Photo/Bill Foley)
  • Thousands crowd the streets during demonstrations against the shah in Tehran, December 10, 1978. (AP Photo)
    Thousands crowd the streets during demonstrations against the shah in Tehran, December 10, 1978. (AP Photo)
  • People walk towards the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount on January 3, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
    People walk towards the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount on January 3, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Before Hamas, before Hezbollah, there was a time when the Islamic Republic of Iran and the State of Israel made a deal: Israeli weapons for Iranian oil.

Yes, the new regime had called the Jewish state the “little Satan,” and yes, two-thirds of Iranian Jews fled their homeland after the fall of the shah. Yet the ayatollah’s army needed firepower after Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded in 1980, triggering the Iran-Iraq War. The resulting Israeli weapons complemented the American arms previously sent to the shah, a stash now in the hands of the mullahs.

That’s one of many unlikely anecdotes from a new book about how political realities have often contravened popular assumptions about the Middle East throughout the region’s long and bloody history. French diplomat-turned-scholar Jean-Pierre Filiu adds nuance to the narrative in “The Middle East: A Political History From 395 to the Present,” which was published in the United Kingdom on September 29.

Tragically, about a week following publication, a violent new development erupted into the headlines when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists swarmed into the Jewish state from the Gaza Strip under the cover of a barrage of rockets on October 7. The onslaught from land, air and sea was perpetrated with particular brutality — entire families were murdered together, many burned alive in their homes, and evidence of torture, mutilation, and sexual assault was rampant. The elderly, women and children — including babies — were not spared; in all, over 1,200 people were murdered, most of them civilians, and roughly 240 more were abducted to the Gaza Strip.

Israel launched a massive campaign that included extensive air raids and a ground offensive, with the Hamas-run health ministry claiming over 21,000 Palestinian deaths as a result — though it does not differentiate between civilians and terrorists. Israel has since declared full-on war on Hamas, and subsequent clashes between Israel and the Iran-backed Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror group raise fears of another front opening in the north.

The book “would not be pre-based on a religious priority or concepts,” Filiu told The Times of Israel, “but really focus on the political piece — power structures, power building, power intrigues, power struggles — which is at the very core of the history of the Middle East. In order to find that history, I had to be as political as possible.”

Jean-Pierre Filiu, French diplomat-turned-scholar and author of ‘The Middle East: A Political History From 395 to the Present.’ (Courtesy of Polity Books)

Filiu declined to comment on the current situation in a follow-up email.

His book discusses the Middle East across 10 chapters, each accompanied by a chronology of relevant events within the particular period, plus suggestions for further reading. The conclusion has a title that proved all too apt post-publication: “The cradle of crises.”

The narrative opens in unexpected territory — not the Christian year zero of Jesus’s birth, nor the Muslim year zero of Muhammad’s flight or hijra to Mecca in 622 CE, but rather 395 CE. What happened that year, you may ask? The Roman Empire divided itself in two, with a Western branch based in Ravenna, Italy, and an Eastern version established in Constantinople.

Filiu called the year 395 “a defining date of the Middle East,” when “it’s defined as a political entity.” However, the world had to wait much longer for the first appearance of the term “Middle East” — it was coined by an American admiral in 1902.

This book, written to educate the layperson, was an ambitious project, but Filiu has the chops for it, having written numerous previous volumes on the region, even some graphic novels and song lyrics, including about Gaza — not to mention the many courses he’s taught at Sciences-Po in France.

Turkish soldiers at the military review at Damascus, Syria in an undated photo. (AP Photo)

“I tried, in not so many pages, to cover as much distance as possible,” he said. “Certainly, I left some important things in the shadows. I did not have the possibility to deal with everything. It’s a little humbling — very humbling. At the same time, as a historian, I had my choices. These are my choices.”

Politics above all

Those following current headlines can learn about their centuries-old roots from his book. And while its focus is politics-first, religion often enters the narrative, especially given that so many ruling powers of the region have fused or wish to fuse church and state — or mosque and state, or synagogue and state.

Consider the Jerusalem location that Jews call the Temple Mount, known in Islam as the Dome of the Rock. One of Hamas’s claims against Israel is alleged Jewish trespassing on a landmark of this site, the Al-Aqsa Mosque. As the book explains, this area holds importance to both Jews and Muslims: It was the location of the First and Second Temples, and after Jerusalem was captured by the Arabs following the seventh-century advent of Islam, the Al-Aqsa Mosque was built in the eighth century by the caliph Walid and became the third-holiest site for Muslims.

People walk towards the Dome of the Rock at the Temple Mount on January 3, 2023. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

The book mentions the many religious dimensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from messianic Zionist dreams infusing the settlement movement in the West Bank to Christian Zionists influencing the Trump administration’s Israel policy. Filiu notes that the acronym “Hamas” stands for “Islamic Resistance Movement,” and that the Islamists who founded it did so paradoxically with Israeli encouragement. Why? In the 1980s, Israel “wagered on the Islamists to divide the Palestinian camp,” he writes. The author also observes that Mideast political alliances can transcend religious differences, such as Shiite Iran allying with Sunni Hamas.

Although Israel, Palestine and the many Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts are part of the narrative, they do not dominate the overall story.

“I don’t focus on the issue as being the one defining fate of the Middle East,” Filiu said. “Of course, it’s crucial for the Jewish people, the establishment of the State of Israel. Of course, it’s crucial for the Palestinian people, the losers in 1948 and 1949. I’m conscious of the fact of the Israeli-Arab dispute. But it’s only part of the more global picture.”

Egyptians prepare for their pilgrimage to Mecca, in Cairo, January 27, 1938. (AP Photo)

Strangers in their own land

The narrative opens at a time when the Roman Empire still held sway, and the list of political powers over the next millennium-plus includes but is not limited to Romans, Sassanids, Byzantines, Arabs, Fatimids, Crusaders, Mongols, Mamluks, Khwarezmians, Ottomans and Safavids. Their subjects included members of monotheistic faiths — Jews, Christians, Muslims and Zoroastrians.

We see Jews represented throughout this period, including in two of their historic population centers, Gaza and Hebron. They are persecuted in Justinian’s Byzantine Empire, rise to power in the Himyarite kingdom in Yemen — when they were generally tolerated along with Christians as People of the Book under Islam in exchange for paying a jizya tax — massacred during the Crusades and become beneficiaries of a Jerusalem wall project built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman, whose massive undertaking involved three architects.

Bedouins pitch their tent on the sands under palm trees in southern Tunis, Tunisia, on November 12, 1942. (AP Photo)

Zionism only surfaces among the first of the book’s two chapters dealing with the 19th century, as Europeans in general became interested in the Middle East to a significant degree. Great powers such as England, France and Russia ostensibly sought to protect religious minorities in Jerusalem, with Protestant visions of the end times animating British interest in the Jews.

Ironically, when the Ottomans subsequently granted increased rights to Jews, European states were often unwilling to extend such freedoms to their own Jewish populations. It was members of these latter Jewish populations in Europe who began to consider leaving antisemitic living conditions for a new home in biblical Israel following the rise of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist movement.

Theodor Herzl addressing the First or Second Zionist Congress in Basel, in 1897-8. (courtesy GPO)

The book follows the growth of Zionism following World War I, the Balfour Declaration, the British capture of Jerusalem and the establishment of a mandate over Palestine. Facing Arab riots over Zionist immigration, Britain responded with restrictions, which shut off Jewish escape routes during the Holocaust. Filiu chronicles the ensuing Israeli War of Independence and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, as well as decades of war that followed between Israel, neighboring states and Palestinians.

‘Modern Mamluks’

Filiu criticizes what he calls “modern Mamluks,” or strongmen who used external conflict with Israel to maintain internal domestic suppression. The original Mamluks were slave warriors used by Muslim leaders who were instrumental in defeating both Crusaders and Mongols in the 13th century. Eventually, the slaves overthrew their masters, founded their own ruling dynasties and completed the defeat of the Crusaders.

“The modern Mamluks are dictators who declared and fought the war against Israel,” Filiu said, “and waged a war against their whole society — and in the process, in fact, killed the Nahda, the Arab renaissance, that had been developing since the 19th century.”

Hezbollah terror leader Hassan Nasrallah (left) chats with former Hamas head Khaled Mashaal, in Beirut, Lebanon, March 27, 2004. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)

He laments what he sees as the sidelining of relatively democratic post-independence Middle Eastern governments at the expense of such strongmen. As the book focuses on Egypt, Syria and Iraq, Filiu doesn’t have far to look for examples of modern Mamluks, whether it’s the Assad dynasty or Saddam Hussein. He does not stint on describing their excesses, including Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and Iraqi civilians, including Kurds, during the war with Iran.

Filiu also cites regression in terms of global diplomacy. As the Soviet Union collapsed, American president George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state James Baker shaped a new world order in the Middle East, crafting a coalition to liberate Kuwait from Iraq and encourage an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Such American initiatives have been replaced, he says, by less multilateralism and more mistakes from successive presidential administrations. (He chronicled what he saw as the Obama administration’s missteps in the Syrian Civil War as a blogger for the French-language Times of Israel site in 2014-15.) For the author, the Trump administration continued the downward trend.

“History is terrible because you get no second chances,” Filiu reflected. “Missed opportunities don’t come back.”

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