In A Land of Aching Hearts, new this month, Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University Leila Fawaz offers the personal stories of the Middle East’s civilians and soldiers in the First World War. What emerges is a picture of a region completely transformed, with consequences still shaping politics, conflicts, and lives across today’s world. Below, Fawaz relates the rise of the Islamic State to that century-old cataclysm and identifies the troublesome dynamics poised to outlast a strategy that aims to “degrade and destroy” only their most recent manifestation.
The Islamic State aims to create a new Islamic Caliphate and restore Islam to its rightful place in world politics and human history by erasing the borders drawn after the First World War. It seems to be a product of the suspicion, suffering, and unfinished project of reconstruction that yet remains after the war tore the Middle East apart. In Europe, the wounds of World War I have healed. In America, World War I was not a disruptive experience for society so much as a brief first foray into the international politics of the Old World. But in the Middle East, the economic, social, and political wounds were deep and never truly healed. In short, the Great War devastated the Middle East. The Islamic State is an entity whose popular appeal and commitment to unspeakable violence feed on the memories and consequences of those societal war wounds.
Economically, the eastern Mediterranean on the eve of the war was a vibrant area of coastal trade and commerce. Increasing infrastructural development in communication and rail links began to integrate the coastal metropolises of rising wealth like Alexandretta, Beirut, Tripoli, and Latakia to the interior of Greater Syria with its agricultural commodities, especially silk and cotton but also grain, olives, and sesame seeds. Railroad construction in the early twentieth century leapt, connecting the Fertile Crescent to the rest of the Levant and beyond. In 1908, a railway linked the political city of Damascus to the religious hub of Medina. Factories sprouted across the urban landscapes. Crops entered global markets faster and in larger quantities than ever before. On the eve of war, Greater Syria, like much of the globalizing world economy, was growing at a healthy pace and was prospering.