A goal of the book is to debunk the myth that Middle Eastern metropolises are inherently violent places populated by inherently violent people. How does it address this?
The book approaches this misconception by “normalizing” violence: That is, by showing how violence has always been an integral part of city life and of urban architectures of power. Unfortunately, the authoritarian backlash after the Arab uprisings that began in 2011, the war in Syria, and ISIS have contributed to flawed representations of Middle Eastern people as intrinsically violent. At any time in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many urban societies in Europe, Asia, and Africa experienced levels of violence comparable to the Middle East. That cities like Mosul, Raqqa, and Aleppo are currently suffering from extraordinary levels of violence is not a Middle Eastern given, but the manifestation of the instability and profound disruption resulting from cataclysmic events such as the American invasion of Iraq and the sectarianization of regional politics.
It’s important to try to explain and make sense of the current “rule of violence” beyond the irrational and primordial—not to justify the actions or forget the many victims, but to come to terms with it as an historical and sociopolitical phenomenon that is common to all societies.
The book looks at both elite or state violence and more local forms of violence in Middle Eastern cities, including resistance such as civilian protests. Why is this essential?
Some chapters deal with colonial discipline, or the violent means used by occupying foreign powers to quell opposition and control cities as diverse as Cairo, Haifa, and Baghdad. Other case studies discuss the violent worlds of imperial and national state administrations by analyzing their urban intermediaries: military and religious leaders, bureaucrats, technocrats, and even urban planners. Yet state-centered vistas on violence don’t tell us the whole story about its roots, manifestations, and reverberations. The essays question the somewhat-conventional wisdom that cities are mere appendixes of state power by presenting a variety of violent actors that don’t necessarily operate at the national or state level, and by exploring different aspects of resistance.
Resistance can trigger the mobilization of urban residents. This can be as much a defensive as an offensive tactic of survival and self-assertion. Contrary to romantic visions of the moral economy of crowds, some of the chapters highlight the brutality of grassroots action. Only by taking stock of violence’s multifaceted qualities are we able to start grasping its all-encompassing powers.