Decoding the Middle East: Jean-Pierre Filiu’s decisive study

Decoding the Middle East: Jean-Pierre Filiu’s decisive study
Book Club: Prominent French historian Jean-Pierre Filiu's latest book is a comprehensive exploration of the Middle East's political history, from the split-up of the Roman Empire in 395AD to the counter-revolutions of the present-day.
6 min read
04 October, 2023
Filiu's magisterial and up-to-date history of the Middle East will be essential reading for students and scholars and for anyone interested in the history and politics of one of the most important and contested regions of the modern world [Polity Press]

It's possible that readers of The New Arab might feel bored or disinterested when presented with another book about the Middle East. The market is flooded with writers who all want to grab our attention with their latest publications. However, not all of these "experts" are capable of doing justice to such a vast and complex area of the world, with its many different cultures, religions, and peoples. 

Jean-Pierre Filiu, an experienced academic and author of other excellent works (including a best-seller about Gaza) is an exception to this. He possesses a deep and genuine knowledge of the region that allows him to navigate its vast expanse of history, geography, and culture.

While his work is political in nature and focuses on battles and borders more than deep-rooted societal changes, he admits that it lacks representation of women in this narrative.

"Filiu debunks the myth of the clash of civilizations and rejects the sectarian model that is often used to explain regional dynamics. He explains how even Sunni-Shia rivalry is not what it seems and how such powers have often been allies"

Many analyses of the Middle East focus too much on religious challenges, but Filiu's central thesis in his book challenges this view. He takes a secular approach, refusing to reduce the region to being solely the religious zone for the three monotheistic religions that are inevitably drawn into conflict. He also argues that the vanished monotheism of Zoroastrianism, the state religion of the Sassanid empire, should not be excluded from the discussion.

Filiu challenges the standard chronologies of Middle Eastern history in his book. He deliberately chooses the year 395 CE as the starting point for his analysis because he believes it was then, with the founding of the Eastern Roman Empire, that the region became free from external domination. This was the moment when the Middle East came into being, long before the term itself was coined as a European colonial construct. 

Filiu also notes that 395 CE is a date free from religious significance, unlike the burden of the year 0 or 622. He abandons the customary landmark of 1453, the date of the Ottoman capture of Constantinople, in favour of 1501, the founding year of the Safavid dynasty. Filiu believes that the Safavid dynasty's rivalry with the Ottomans pushed the Ottomans into conquering most of the region.

Before 395 CE, the Persians, Greeks, Romans, and other empires invaded and colonized the region. However, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Middle East started developing its own identity, which was not marked by perpetual conflicts.

In his book, Filiu debunks the myth of the clash of civilizations and rejects the sectarian model that is often used to explain regional dynamics. He explains how even Sunni-Shia rivalry is not what it seems and how such powers have often been allies. Competing empires in the Middle East had developed relationships, and Byzantium became the regional focal point, particularly for Christians of the Middle East.

The development of the Christian creed was shaped by varying emperors for their own purposes, and it was in the Middle East that the traditions of saints and monasticism were developed and later spread westwards. Christianity is not a Western religion as many presume.

Filiu also explores the spread of Islam and questions why the Eastern Roman Empire and Anatolia resisted this new religion while the Sassanid Empire was overwhelmed. He highlights how quickly the centre of power moved from the Arabian Peninsula to Damascus under the Umayyads, where they established a monarchic-style dynasty that recycled Byzantine pomp.

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The Crusades are often viewed by European historians as a significant event in the history of the Middle East. However, according to Filiu, they were not part of a continuous development. At the time, the major trends were the competing Caliphates in Baghdad and Cairo, followed by the Turko-Mongol invasions.

Filiu depicts the region as being historically centred around three poles: Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. This was due to the riverine civilizations along the Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris. Syria was a central territory that was fought over by empires in Egypt and Iraq from the Pharaohs to the Parthians.

For almost a millennium, from 661 to 1516, Islamic power was concentrated on these three poles. The Fatimid and Abbasid caliphates were in conflict with each other, and the Ayyubids, an Egyptian-Syrian Sultanate, replaced the Fatimids. The Ottoman Empire ended this Egyptian hegemony, and once again, the Middle East was divided between the Ottomans in Anatolia and the Safavids from Iran.

During the modern era, the region was once again subject to massive external interference through the European colonial powers and American hegemony. The axis of Egypt, Syria, and Iraq fell apart and weakened, particularly with the creation of the state of Israel and support from the West and the East. This era excluded local populations from decision-making, leading to increased uprisings against this exclusion.

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The author emphasizes the persistent significance of the Middle East, believing it to be a region that cannot be ignored. He cites the example of the Ukraine crisis, where the West's perceived weakness in response to the atrocities committed by the Assad regime led to the Russian invasion of Syria and the annexation of Crimea.

Filiu sees this as evidence of the diminishing influence of the United States in the region, which had been evident well before its withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. The author believes that the Middle East cannot be managed by foreign powers and that it is time for the people of the region to take control of their own destiny and make their own decisions.

Despite some disagreement on this point, the author maintains that neither Russia nor China are in a position to replace US hegemony in the region.

The era of foreign hegemons is over, writes Filiu. Many in the region even believe this is true. He believes that the people of the region will once again get to determine their own destinies and make their own decisions.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding). He is a regular opinion writer and commentator on the Middle East and has organised and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to the region.

Follow him on Twitter: @Doylech