From clash of civilisations to the Arab Spring and beyond:
how A Concise History of the Arabs came to be written

In the late 1990s, like many other people, I had been optimistic that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was finally going to be resolved in a just fashion. I thought that if this happened it might defuse much of the bad blood between the West and the Arab world. Sadly, however, hopes of a resolution proved to be a mirage. That bad blood was exacerbated by what happened on 11 September 2001 and the so-called “War on Terror” that ensued. It was also worsened by the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the chaos America and its allies brought to an already devastated Arab country.

The rhetoric of “the clash of civilisations” was at its height during those first years of this century. Over the twelve months before the invasion of Iraq the war drums in London were getting louder all the time. At first, the voices in Britain pressing for the invasion came from a particular corner of the political spectrum: people such as Michael Gove in The Times, Melanie Phillips in The Daily Mail, Barbara Amiel  in The Daily Telegraph, and each and every one of them in The Spectator alongside Mark Steyn.  As I read their columns, I could not believe they would be taken seriously. However, as the drums of war beat ever more furiously, new voices joined the chorus. They included people whose independence of judgement and lack of baggage on issues concerning the Middle East entitled them to respect.  Anne McElvoy in the London Evening Standard and David Abramovich and Johann Hari in The Independent were good examples.

Although I marched in the great demonstration in London against the invasion on 15 February 2003, I paused to reflect after the famous statue of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad’s Firdaws Square nearly two months later. Could it be that I had been wrong? Perhaps those who had pushed so insistently for the invasion did, after all, know best? Whatever I might feel about the journalism of Gove, Phillips, Steyn and Amiel, I knew there was one voice which I could not ignore.  This was Bernard Lewis, who was then the doyen of the Islamic Studies establishment in English-speaking universities in the West. He also happened to be the originator of the phrase “clash of civilisations” which Samuel Huntington made famous, and was very influential in the America of George W. Bush. I believed that, more than anyone else, his books and essays provided the intellectual underpinning for the arguments that swung so many people round to supporting the war. When I was a student of Arabic and Islamic studies in the 1970s, I had respected some of his scholarly insights – but he was also frequently seen (rightly, in my view) as sometimes having tendentious views about Islam and the modern Arab world. The furious attack on him by Edward Said in Orientalism initiated one of the great academic feuds of the late twentieth century.

As events spun out of control in Iraq and civilian casualties mounted into the tens of thousands, the American and other coalition militaries made no systematic attempt to count the Iraqi slain. My anger returned. One day, a friend sat me down with one of Lewis’s short and very readable books about the “clash” between Islam and the West.  As read it, I knew someone needed to reply to him.  I resolved to make this my project, but I was keenly aware that in order to match him intellectually I would need to engage first in some very serious study.

I began by looking at a diverse group of writers who had also had an influence on the kind of attitudes that led to the Iraq invasion. These included such very different works as Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, the pulp fiction novels Exodus and The Haj which Leon Uris wrote about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the much more recent book by the Russian-Israeli Natan Sharansky The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. In 2006, Michael Gove and Melanie Phillips gave me further food for thought by rushing out their own books, Celsius 7/7 and Londonistan, which were their responses to the suicide bombs in London on 7 July 2005. Lewis, Sharansky, Gove and Phillips claimed to speak with what they called “moral clarity”. I knew that they were doing no such thing, and reading them spurred me on.

It is not easy to reply to arguments based in large part on a reading of history unless you are equally familiar with the historical narrative as the writers to whom your reply is addressed. I soon realised there was an ever-increasing array of historical topics I would have to take my readers through if my reply to Lewis was to convince. I began to conceive of a historical introduction to my book.

But how far back should I go? How could I explain the Arab world today unless I delved into, say, the history of Iraq since the monarchy was overthrown in 1958 or the history of the Arab-Israeli dispute since the Balfour Declaration in 1917? How could I explain Palestine and Iraq unless I set out the whole history of the Mandates? How much further back should I go? Would it be adequate if I began with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798? Even that, I decided, would not do. And there was something else. The realm of ideas needed to be considered. How could the Muslim revival of the late twentieth century be explained without elaborating the frustration of Arab nationalism and setting out the encounter in the nineteenth century between Arab intellectuals and European thought? How do you investigate Islamism unless you already have some idea of Islam?

There were also earlier periods of history that could not be overlooked: the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluks, Mongols and Crusaders. Earlier still, there had been the Caliphates, the crystallisation of Islam as the religion we know today (including the split between Sunnis and Shi’ites), the great Arab conquests, and the relationship between Islam and Christianity in countries like Egypt and Syria when the Arab conquerors erupted out of the Arabian Desert in the 630s.

And so my book developed into two parts: a historical introduction and a second part containing analysis of the world view that led to the clash of civilisations mentality. At that point I intended to call it Rebuilding Babel: The West and the Arab World. And yet I found myself constantly spending more and more time on the historical introduction, which was soon longer than the analysis in the second part. In 2009, a draft was complete and yet my study and background reading were not.  Much more honing and polishing was required, and I discovered it was now always the historical introduction that I was refining. Bit by bit, the analysis of the clash of civilisations seemed to become an add-on at the end of the book that did not quite fit.

Almost at the exact moment when I was at last satisfied with my draft, history intervened with the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt at the end of 2010. Those events may now seem to have happened a long time ago, but we still do not know where the forces which were then unleashed in so many Arab countries will lead. New and often contradictory developments almost every day make all attempts at analysis hazardous, even if at the moment pessimism generally outweighs the initial optimism. However, the draft I had written provided the means to put the new developments into context and explain how the current, explosive situation had built up. The result was that the historical section of my book was expanded with two new chapters: The Age of the Autocrats and the Rise of Islamism and a conclusion entitled Something Snaps: The Arab Spring and Beyond. The second part of the book, which had dealt with the clash of civilisations, was deleted except for a few observations which were incorporated elsewhere into the new draft. I think the book is much more effective as a result. Perhaps it is a case of “less is more”.

In January 2014 I updated the published text for the revised paperback edition. It is a manageable 100,000 words. It truly is a concise history, and its aim is to increase understanding of the Arabs in the West. I hope you enjoy it.