Laura Robson, The Politics of Mass Violence in the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book? 

Laura Robson (LR): In truth, I have to confess that the idea for this book did not come from me; it came from Mark Levene and Donald Bloxham, the editors for the “Zones of Violence” series in which the book appears. But it immediately appealed to me as a project, because some of my earlier work thought seriously about the phenomena of forced migration and ethnic cleansing in the twentieth-century Middle East, and I had been doing some teaching around the topic of genocide. It seemed like a valuable and necessary book that could bring discussion of the Middle East into the field of genocide studies and encourage thinking about the historical phenomenon of mass violence in a new and constructive way.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

LR: Well, the book is concerned above all with the question of how mass violence came to be a constitutive element of the state and of political authority in the Mashriq over the course of the “long” twentieth century. It is a question that has not really been satisfactorily answered or even asked, either within genocide studies or within Middle Eastern history. On the one hand, genocide studies has for a long time been stuck in the frame of regarding legally defined genocides as fundamentally different and separate from other instances of mass violence, and so has had very little to offer vis-à-vis the Middle East. And Middle Eastern history has had its own limitations with regard to broad analytical questions like the history of mass violence, because it has for a long time been committed to profoundly nationalist frames of reference and been reluctant to engage with broader conceptions of region—particularly across the borders of Palestine/Israel, which is nearly always regarded as a kind of sui generis story. So, by taking a frame of mass violence and applying it to this broad regional context, I was hoping to do two things: first, to re-integrate some of the separate national narratives that make up the field of Mashriqi history, and also to expand our understanding of the phenomenon of mass violence beyond strict legal definitions of genocide.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work? 

LR: Much of my earlier work has to do with empire: how it functioned, what strategies of rule it deployed, and how it changed political, legal, and social formulas on the ground in places like Palestine and Syria and Iraq, in long-term and often irreversible ways. And this book is also in many ways about empire: it traces how the experience of imperial occupation installed state-sanctioned violence—and especially ethnically or communally conscious violence—at the heart of practices of governance across the modern Mashriq, in ways that inescapably marked the region’s postcolonial condition.

This book also serves as a kind of continuation of my interest in processes of minoritization and the physical segregation of different communities. As part of its argument about the installation of violence at the center of political authority, it suggests that one of the major themes that we can see in the Mashriq from the late Ottoman era up until the present is the gradual and violent territorialization of communal and ethnic identities: that is, the transformation of social identities into political and spatial ones, and thus the transformation of a reasonably functional pluralistic society into a fragmented and violent geography of zero-sum politics. So in some ways it takes some of the themes I have been working on for a long time and applies them to a broader time scale and a particular kind of analytical framework.

On the other hand, this is also in some ways a work of political economy. It makes the argument that there is a centrally important material aspect to the history of mass violence in the Middle East that has generally gone unrecognized. Throughout the twentieth century, external power repeatedly deployed violence in the region in service of their own material interests, creating a fragmented political landscape in which bloodshed became the only way of laying claim to territory and power for both state and nonstate actors across the Mashriq. This emphasis on political economy is something that does not really feature in my earlier work, but it actually seems more and more important to me as I try to come to grips with the various brutalities of the twentieth and now the twenty-first centuries—not just in the Middle East, but across the globe.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

LR: I hope scholars and students in Middle East studies will read it, of course, and that they will think it is useful in relating the history of the twentieth-century Middle East to similar processes of imperial occupation, state formation, and mass violence in in other parts of the world. I also hope that scholars in other fields will think seriously about it: especially in the fields of genocide studies, migration studies, and the political economy of empire and decolonization.

But I also hope that the book will be of interest to people who are engaged with the contemporary Middle East, and especially the American role in it. One of the goals of the book is to demonstrate the essential continuities between the European imperial projects of the pre-1948 (or maybe pre-1952) era and the American imperial projects of the Cold War era and its aftermath. We are used to decrying the British and French imperial interventions of the interwar period; I hope this book will show readers that the United States—and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union as well—essentially continued those policies into the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, and that this new form of empire was (and continues to be) every bit as destructive as its predecessor. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

LR: My current book project is a history of schemes for refugee resettlement across the twentieth century. It looks at how the Middle East came to serve as a kind of laboratory for remaking refugees as mobile labor pools, and shows how that process was supported in the internationalist realm through the development of a body of international law that redefined displaced populations as voluntary participants in industrial development schemes across the globe. I am envisioning it as both a history and a contemporary analysis of the phenomenon of “solving” the problems presented by political refugees by recasting them as migratory workers in an international capitalist labor market—a project whose appeal remains undimmed today despite its many and myriad historical failures.

I am also working on a major digital humanities project with my colleague and friend Jennifer Dueck, at University of Manitoba, on global histories of statelessness. This will be a set of digital resources—interviews, essays, image galleries, maps, and sources—that collectively offer a corrective and counterpoint to the existing historiography, which typically takes European-focused histories of mid-century refugeedom as its point of departure. This project tries to reconsider the modern condition of statelessness as a phenomenon that surrounds and includes—rather than succeeds and follows—the mid-century European refugee experience and its subsequent international legal categorization. In other words, we are looking to construct a really global approach to the political phenomenon of statelessness that allows scholars and practitioners to look beyond the post-1945 European legal framework toward a broader and deeper history of statelessness across the twentieth-century world—including but not limited to the Middle East.

J: How should contemporary mass violence in the Middle East be understood in historical context?

LR: I think we need a reconsideration of the whole of the post-1945 period, which is an era in which both authoritarian and semi-democratic governments across the region engaged in massive arms acquisition and then deployed many—in some cases most—of those weapons against their own populations. We usually see this as a process of violent decolonization and then an equally violent postcolonial descent into either authoritarianism or fractured forms of democracy, which is a pattern that of course we can identify elsewhere in the world as well. But actually, when we look through this lens of mass violence, we can see that there are many ways in which this is not a period of decolonization at all. It is a period of recolonization: a recalibration and a recasting of empire into new shapes, in which superpowers control spaces by combining economic dominance with a deliberate flooding of weaponry in the relevant territory, alongside the careful—and sometimes not so careful—creation of specific ethnic or sectarian client populations. I hope that this book begins to shed light not just on the past but also on the present of this kind of neocolonial violence, and helps readers to understand that contemporary mass violence is not somehow endemic to the Middle East but is a manifestation of an ongoing system of imperial colonization, domination, and oppression that has continued long past the era of formal empire.


Excerpt from the book (from the Epilogue, pp. 201-204)

The Mashriq today is characterized by an astonishingly bloody civil war in Syria; an ever more militarized approach to the concept of a Jewish state in Israel and the Palestinian territories; an Iraqi state paralyzed by the emergence of class- and region-inflected sectarian identifications; a Jordan ever more dependent on foreign assistance to maintain its authoritarian monarchy and keep its population pacified; a Lebanon teetering on the edge of collapse from the pressures of its huge numbers of refugees and its sect-bound political system; and the rise of a wide variety of Islamist paramilitary organizations seeking to operate across all these borders. It would appear that there are now vanishingly few political arenas across the Mashriq not imbued with the specter, if not the practice, of mass violence. […]

The rise of exceptionally violent forms of modern statehood in the Mashriq unfolded in three broad stages. Violently exclusionary modes of governance first emerged in a late Ottoman empire being bloodily dismembered from both within and without, and for which violence, militarization, and ethnic purification seemed potentially effective responses to externally inflicted damage. After the First World War, European colonial rule validated its material claims to Mashriqi oil, land, and money via the forcible and often brutal promotion of particular ethnic, communal, and national (especially settler national) claims. Then, various kinds of postcolonial governments emerging after the trauma of 1948 took the decision, in the face of more or less continuous external intervention, to institutionalize violence as the main tactic of state authority. Today, in states like Syria where violence represented the primary strategy of governance for a decades-old authoritarian regime, there are few – perhaps no – viable alternatives for producing and maintaining power over territory in the context of state collapse and widespread regional chaos.

There are significant continuities that run through these three stages of installing violence at the heart of the state. First, the whole of the twentieth century in the Middle East was marked above all by a series of brutal and toxic foreign interventions. The European imperial powers, and later the United States and the Soviet Union, saw the Middle East – from the late Ottoman period to the present – as a space for exploitation of the most dramatic kind: a space where the bodies and minds of indigenous inhabitants were entirely disposable, and where Western economic and strategic claims could be pursued with utter ruthlessness, often including the unapologetic use of force against civilians. The old imperial powers and the new superpowers alike paired this physical brutality, over and over again, with a rhetoric of liberation: first a message of national and religious liberation for Christians in the Ottoman sphere, then a discourse of training for national self-determination and minority rights under European mandate rule, then a narrative of military defense for allies in the American and Soviet blocs and claims of humanitarian aid for beleaguered minorities in places like Iraq. Particularly in the second half of the twentieth century, such verbal hypocrisy was accompanied not only by the actual wielding of British, French, American, and Soviet force but by the deliberate – and, we must note, fabulously lucrative – strategy of strewing every square inch of the Middle East with weaponry. (It is worth observing the many parallels between the postcolonial Mashriq and other decolonizing societies across the globe; as Edward Said so trenchantly wrote, “The history of the post-colonial world is disfigured by one-party tyrannies, rapacious oligarchies, social dislocation caused by Western ‘investments’, and large-scale pauperisation brought about by famine, civil war or outright robbery.”)

It is no wonder, then, that so many postcolonial leaders across the Arab world came to view the language and practice of liberal democratic representation as weak and hypocritical, tainted by its association with decades of military occupation, political repression, and violently enforced ethnic and communal hierarchies. And here we have another continuity: the ongoing process of centralizing state control. Ottoman, European, and independent postcolonial regimes alike held the goal of intensifying their government’s reach and jurisdiction to the point of absolute territorial control, as a way above all of claiming resources for the state. Charles Maier’s emphasis on territoriality as a primary marker of global modernity holds profoundly true for the Mashriq, where centuries of relatively loose, premodern-style imperial governance – encompassing taxes and conscription but not much else – saw a long twentieth century marked above all by governmental determination to count, track, and control its subjects in unprecedentedly thorough ways.

Finally, this twentieth century territorialization often served to articulate ethnic, religious, and linguistic divides – long socially salient, but in earlier kinds of non-representative states less politically charged – as fundamentally tied up with land, resources, economic access, and political rights. From the late Ottoman period through the mandates into postcolonial rule, governmental attempts to take firmer control over territory featured both literal and figurative methods of ethno-communal differentiation: forcibly resettling refugees, creating hierarchies of citizenship and education, labeling particular ethnic communities as enemies of the state, and limiting governance to particular sectors of the population. Unsurprisingly, then, resistance to state territorialization also often began to take on sectarian overtones, labeling “minority” communities as national enemies, mustering new and exclusionary national identifications as modes of anticolonial solidarity, and sometimes mobilizing new minority separatisms as a mode of resisting state control. External powers, too, saw opportunities in such sectarianism, making use of these newly powerful social and political divisions to stake political and economic claims via ethnically or communally defined client communities – who could be backed not just with internationally resonant words of support but with the material apparatus of war, from uniforms to tanks to bombs.

To some degree – as Max Weber noted many decades ago – any state is made by its claim to a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” But the sorts of states that governed the Mashriq through the twentieth (and now into the twenty-first) centuries not only claimed a monopoly on violence: they relied solely on this monopoly, which became at once the primary legitimization and the primary strategy of their operation. As one observer wrote about the Husayn regime in Iraq, in such a state violence “undercuts any form of consent…. The writ of a state modelled in this way would in principle extend only as far and as firmly as the reach of its repressive capability.” This is precisely how statehood operated in all three of the broad stages outlined above, with governments’ repressive capabilities increasing through each era as a consequence of the material provenance of progressively more destructive types of arms. And as violence was gradually installed at the heart of statehood and governance across the Mashriq, from Syria to Israel to Iraq, nonviolent forms of protest were defeated, again and again, by force of arms – a process that gradually but thoroughly delegitimized both the forms of protest themselves and the international communities, diplomatic channels, and legal systems at which they were directed.

In the twentieth century Mashriq, then, the exercise of violence on the ground created a sectarian landscape in which bloodshed became the only way of laying claim to territory and power for both state and nonstate actors. This inscribing of physical brutality at the heart of political practice has proven almost impossible to reverse – not least because the longstanding tradition of violent external interventions have continued, and indeed intensified, in the first decades of the twenty-first century. For old and new imperial powers alike, it would seem, nothing could be more convenient than that the Mashriq – strategically central, economically valuable, a major gateway to the modern world’s most lucrative natural resource – should remain more or less permanently in a state of bloody chaos.