Understanding the Contemporary Middle East

cover image

By: illian Schwedler, Editor

Publisher: Lynne Reiner

Understanding the Contemporary Middle East. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2013. 487 pp. $27.50. ISBN: 978-1588269102.

Volume: 1 Issue: 8

December 2013

Review by:

Dina Wafa

The American University in Cairo


The fourth edition of Understanding the Contemporary Middle East, edited by Jillian Schwedler, offers a detailed overview of the region. As Schwedler states in her introduction, the book is intended for Western scholars to challenge their perceptions and misconceptions through an exploration of Middle East history, geography, culture, politics, economics, religion, and people. However, its detailed presentation also makes it quite useful in supplementing introductory studies of Middle Eastern scholars as well.

This book has 14 chapters written by 15 authors with diverse disciplines. It offers a well-balanced approach, in addition to varied expertise and disciplines which present a study of historical and contemporary impact of the world on the region, and vice versa. The authors are all specialists in their fields, including several who have first-hand experience in the region. An element that distinguishes the book is its unimpeded flow of information and material, which creates a clear link between the various chapters and topics.

Understanding the Contemporary Middle East, fourth edition, has four features that are distinctively different from past editions. The first is that it includes a new chapter on the “Role of Women,” by Lisa Pollard, which enriches the edition with its description of how the status of women was used to define states’ agendas. Pollard portrays how women were used as vehicles to advocate modernity and secularism, on the one hand, and also how they were the main targets of repression, on the other. The second unique feature is that two authors provide an analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The chapter is co-authored by an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Simona Sharoni and Mohamed Abu-Nimer. Third is that this is the first edition to be published after the death of the series’ original editor, Deborah J. Gerner. Schwedler, who co-edited the past two editions with Gerner, includes Gerner’s co-authored chapter on “Middle Eastern Politics,” one of the most informative and longest chapters, at 50 pages, in the edition. The final distinct feature is that it naturally contains updates on the still unfolding impact of more recent events in the Middle East, such as the “War on Terror” and the Arab Spring. The updates and their analyses are brief, which is quite understandable since the current outcomes are still unfolding and their implications regarding the region and the world remain unclear.

The Middle East portrays a diverse culture, varied economies, and an influence over two continents. Yet, Schwedler distinguishes three shared common historical experiences, which have had an impact on the region: the rise of Islam, the Ottoman Empire, and European colonialism. Although there have been earlier invasions in the Middle East, including the Greeks, Romans and Semites, it is the more recent ones that have had a greater impact. Earlier invaders tended to absorb rather than disseminate their dogmas. It was through the Roman Empire that Christianity spread from the Middle East to the majority of the Western world.

Throughout the book, the authors outline the impact of the Ottoman Empire and European colonialism on the modern states’ geography, politics and international relations, economies, and even literature. Territories were formed or divided mainly to satisfy their colonizers; this led to several contemporary struggles and grievances. The authors have adopted valid arguments to attribute the outcome of the current state to the influence of the colonial past and the present, indirect influence. However, one may also attribute current grievances to local leadership as well, as the world has recently witnessed a domino effect of uprisings in the region. Other parts of the world, such as the Americas, have experienced external influence and rule during the course of their history, yet several have managed to fashion their independence and development. The Middle East states’ strategic and economic resources merit a more developed region of the world, yet most of the states continue to rely on external influences. Perhaps expanding on the five-page chapter on “Trends and Prospects” to explore the challenges of governing modern states and political reforms would have further enriched the manuscript. The Arab Spring calls for freedom and equity; the questioning of governments’ legitimacy warrants a further analysis of the developments in the region, and the impact of such developments on other areas of the world.

Understanding the Contemporary Middle East, fourth edition is recommended primarily for undergraduate studies on a detailed overview of the region. The book has a clear thematic structure, and is further enriched with an appendix of basic political data on the Middle Eastern states, and three pages of acronyms. Additionally, an appendix on the contributing authors’ affiliations is included. This title is a well balanced introduction to the Middle East

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