How was the modern Middle East made? It is widely believed that the political problems of the Middle East date back to the era of World War I, when European colonial powers unilaterally imposed artificial borders on the post-Ottoman world in postwar agreements. This presentation directly counters this "original sin" standard genesis story of the modern Middle East with a new, revisionist account of how the Great War unmade and then remade the political order of the region. Ranging from Morocco to Iran and spanning the eve of the Great War into the 1930s, it demonstrates that the modern Middle East was shaped on the ground, not through secret agreements or peace settlement pen strokes, but through complex and violent power struggles among local and international actors. After the 1914–1918 phase of the war, violent conflicts between competing local and colonial political visions of the post-Ottoman future continued across the region over the next decade. It was in these extended struggles that the new political world of the greater Middle East was reforged through entwined processes of state, identity, and boundary formation.
The modern Middle East was not made by international actors unilaterally imposing their will after World War I; it was shaped by warfare between colonial powers and local movements as they tried to do so. The borders eventually negotiated and demarcated among the surviving political units were neither arbitrary nor natural; they were, as in the rest of the world, produced through historical processes. Correcting the origin story of the modern Middle East helps reimagine and reassess the present moment, as political orders are, in many parts of the region, again being unmade and remade through violent conflict in the early twenty-first century.