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The Emergence of Minorities in the Middle East

The Politics of Community in French Mandate Syria

Benjamin Thomas White

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Why, in the years around 1920, did the concept of 'minority' suddenly spring to prominence in public affairs worldwide? Within a decade of World War One, the term became fundamental to public and academic understandings of national and international politics, law, and society: 'minorities', and 'majorities' with them, were taken to be an objective reality, both in the present and the past.

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Map 1. Syria c.1936
Map 2. The Far Northeast of Syria in the 1930s
Outline Chronology of the French Mandate, 1919-39
Part I
1. Minorities, Majorities and the Nation-state
2. 'Minorities' and the French Mandate
Part II
3. Separatism and Autonomism
4. The border and the Kurds
Part III
5. The Franco-Syrian Treaty and the Definition of 'Minorities'
6. Personal Status Law Reform
Conclusion: Minorities, Majorities and the Writing of History
Select Bibliography

About the Author

Benjamin Thomas White is Lecturer in History, 1400–present, at the University of Glasgow


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.

- James A. Reilly, Professor of Modern Middle East History, University of Toronto, The Syrian Studies Association Newsletter
'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...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.'
- Melanie S. Tanielian, University of Michigan, English Historical Review

Enjoyable and insightful… [A] fine work.

- Abraham Marcus, Professor of History, University of Texas at Austin

We often think that modern nation-states suppress other collective identities identities, but this thought-provoking book turns that assumption on its head, showing how fluid regional and religious identities were constituted as “minorities” through the very process of state-building. Scholars interested in the relationship between collective mobilization and political institutions will want to read this book.

- Susan Pedersen, Professor of History, Columbia University

“…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”.

- Annika Rabo, Insight Turkey (Vol.16, No.1)

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