Book

Cover, hi resMy first and so far only book is The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East: the Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), which is available in paperback, as an ebook, or as an astronomically expensive hardback. If you’re at a university, you may well have a library subscription to the ebook through University Press Scholarship Online. Here is the book’s page on the publisher’s (rather 1990s) website. The image on the cover comes from the Musée Albert Kahn, which you should visit if you’re in Paris and interested in photography. It shows Armenian orphans in a courtyard in Damascus in 1919.

The book has now been reviewed in quite a few places. Below are some extracts, ordered by reviewer’s surname. The reviewers have generally been kind, with the exception of J.M. Hushour on Goodreads, whose harsh but fair review I felt deserved to be quoted in full. Where possible I’ve also included links to the reviews, some of which are behind academic paywalls.

If you skim down to the bottom of the page you can also download a sample chapter.

*

Kenneth Christie, in Politics, Religion, and Ideology, vol. 14, no. 4 (2013), pp. 593–594
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21567689.2013.838479

‘Overall the book is theoretically well informed, with a wealth of information on this understudied topic and represents an original and innovative piece of scholarship that adds to the literature. Moreover, it is well written and lucid, which should appeal to generalists seeking a better contextualization of Syria and the region. Those wanting to understand not only the historical circumstances in which minorities emerged but also the possible directions for the future of these groups should read this work.’

*

Jennifer Dueck, in H-France Review, vol. 13, no. 164 (2013)
http://www.h-france.net/vol13reviews/vol13no164dueck.pdf

‘Benjamin White’s recent book does a good job of de-politicizing the study of minorities in the Middle East and striking back against the exceptionalism that has frequently coloured the debates on this subject. […It] presents a compelling angle through which to consider minorities in the Middle East, and a useful framework that advances our understanding of Syria under the French mandate… White’s arguments come vividly to life with detailed snapshots and anecdotes.’

*

Edward Falk, in Review of Middle East Studies, vol. 46, no. 2 (2012), pp. 246–248
http://www.jstor.org/stable/41940906

‘White’s work mandates a reevaluation of the position of communities now termed ‘minorities’ in these regions, and requires historicizing the vocabulary of minorities before this period. While White’s focus is on the interwar period, his analysis is equally applicable to the Ottoman period… [C]hallenges scholars to think about how communities of all definitions were organized and integrated into the Ottoman or national body politic.’

*

J.M. Hushour, Goodreads, 23 Feb 2013
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13763426-the-emergence-of-minorities-in-the-middle-east

Rating: ★★

‘Lacking in many regards, the most blatant problem with this work is that it isn’t really much of a history of “minority” communities in Mandate Syria at all! Rather, it is a history of the term, what it meant to divers peeps, and how it came to be used in its modern sense vis a vis…a majority. Yes, this is one of those books. If you’re looking for a history of French divide-and-rule policy towards the various communities in the Syrian nation-state, look further, ’cause you ain’t gonna find it here, baby. If, however, you are curious as to how a historian can speculate political motive via terminology and how words are somehow imbued with an engine of causality hitherto the preserve of the WordSmiths of Zargaron-11, then this is the book for you. Little to no nudity.’

*

Philip S. Khoury in the American Historical Review, vol. 118, no. 2 (2013), pp. 623–4
http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/ahr/118.2.623

‘In his concluding chapter, Benjamin Thomas White states his main argument in a single sentence: “The nation-state form creates the objective conditions in which people begin to consider themselves as minorities and majorities; however, these remain subjective categories” (p. 209). Much of the evidence he musters in this illuminating study convincingly supports his argument.

[…] What he provides is abundant evidence situated in a clear framework of interpretation that should systematically and productively guide others in their study of the invention of minorities elsewhere in the region. He has helped to reposition the historical study of minorities in a refreshingly neutral manner, which has not always been typical of previous historians.’

*

Daniel Neep, in Political Studies Review, vol. 11, no. 1 (2013), p. 147
http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1478-9302.12000_117 :

‘[A]s this thoughtful study points out, the category of ‘minority’ is not a natural representation of an objective demographic reality. Instead, the worldwide appearance of ‘the minority’ in the early to mid-twentieth century is bound up with the processes of modern state formation […]

‘French Mandate Syria (1920–46) provides an excellent case study to explore this line of analysis. […] Although a historian, White analyses his evidence through a framework informed by the literature on nationalism and state formation […] White’s book represents a rare injection of social theory into historical work on the interwar Middle East.’

*

Annika Rabo, in Insight Turkey, vol. 16, no. 1 (2014), pp. 204-206
http://insightturkey.com/the-emergence-of-minorities-in-the-middle-east-the-politics-of-community-in-french-mandate-syria/book-reviews/1385

‘This book is a very valuable addition to the history of the mandate period in Syria… highly relevant for providing a historical background to contemporary debates about states, ‘minorities’ and foreign intervention in Turkey and the Middle East.’

*

James A. Reilly, in Syrian Studies Association Bulletin, vol. 17, no. 1 (2012)
https://ojcs.siue.edu/ojs/index.php/ssa/article/view/2739/663

‘At the present time, when the language of majority-minority is very much at the forefront of political discourse in and about Syria, and when the future contours of the Syrian state are in flux, White’s study helps readers to understand how “the politics of community” developed in early 20th-century Syria. The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East is an antidote to interpretations of the Syrian present that depend on an uncritically primordialist reading of the country’s past.’

*

Laura Robson, ‘Review Essay: Minorities and Majorities: The Nation-State and Identitarian Politics in the Modern Levant’ in Journal of Levantine Studies, vol. 2, no. 2 (2012), pp. 187-193
http://www.levantine-journal.org/Subscribe.aspx?url=Winter+2012_cid_10.aspx&i=55&c=10

‘Benjamin White’s book […suggests] that communitarian political identities in Syria, far from representing preexisting and highly compelling alternatives to nationalism, arose in conjunction with and inseparably from the rise of the nation-state.

‘White’s convincing conclusion—that the terms “minority” and “majority” are meaningless to Syrian history before the imposition of the nation-state during the twentieth century and that these terms were constructed as categories only in the specific political context of the extension of state authority during the mandate period—is carefully argued and extensively documented.’

*

Steve Tamari, in Arab Studies Journal, vol. 22, no. 1 (2014), pp.261–264.
Bizarrely missing from this table of contents:
http://www.arabstudiesjournal.org/pages/issues/593/spring-2014

‘…historians of colonialism and national identity in the modern Middle East will find White’s analysis compelling.

The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East is a fine example of history writing as myth-busting, one that has significance for understanding current events in Syria as well as for the comparative study of the pivotal role of the modern nation-state in shaping national and subnational identities.’

*

Melanie Tanielian, in English Historical Review, vol. 130, no. 547 (2015), pp. 1602-1604
http://ehr.oxfordjournals.org/content/130/547/1602.full

‘White’s work is a welcome case-study of communal politics in Mandate Syria. Its greatest contribution, however, lies in the author’s ability to weave together layers of local, colonial and international legal discourses, giving voice to a myriad of historical actors. Most importantly, the book links state-building processes to international legal innovations which mandated ‘minority protection’ as a prerequisite for independence and membership in the newly-established League of Nations. Here, the author makes a significant contribution to the often Eurocentric historiography of interwar minority politics and treaties (see, for example, Mark Mazower, ‘Minorities and the League of Nations in Interwar Europe’, Daedalus, xii [1997], 47–63). White successfully demonstrates the way in which newly-forged international legal categories gained political currency in the Middle East, even in the absence of independence and minority protection clauses. […]

‘With possibilities for research in Syria foreclosed by the political situation, works like this are ever more important. White has produced a work that is a must-read, not only for scholars of the Middle East, but also for the general public interested in placing contemporary events in general, and regional sectarian politics in particular, into the wider historical context.’

*

Max Weiss, in International Journal of Middle East Studies, vol. 45, no. 4 (2013), pp. 824-826
http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0020743813001037
‘At a time when reductive conceptions of sectarianism and minorities have never had greater purchase on popular understandings of Middle Eastern societies in general and Syria in particular, Benjamin Thomas White provides an important, alternative lens through which to understand the making of modern Syria…

‘Historians interested in the ongoing debates over how to gauge the relative weight and importance of nation and state, sect and community, in the making of modern Syria will find much food for thought in these pages.’

*

Eyal Zisser, in Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 49, no. 4 (2013), pp. 668–671.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00263206.2013.793489

‘[V]ery illuminating… makes an important contribution to our understanding of the practical significance of the establishment of the Syrian state… a timely book that deepens our understanding of the development of the Syrian state in the shadow of the French Mandate authority and afterwards.’

*

If that all makes the book sound like your cup of tea, here is a link to a sample chapter: chapter 5, which is about the Franco-Syrian treaty of 1936 and the definition of ‘minorities’.

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