Last week, a New York Times news roundup heralded the chance for “the first peaceful transition of power in Iraq’s modern history” after Nouri al-Maliki’s announced that he would be stepping down as prime minister and transferring power to Haider al-Abadi, also of the al-Dawa party.
That got us wondering, when does history start being modern? The piece the Times’ roundup linked to went into more specificity: “Mr. Maliki’s decision held out the prospect of a peaceful transition of power, based on democratic elections and without the guiding hand of American military forces, which would be a first in modern Iraq’s troubled history of kings, coups and dictatorships.” But according to an Iraqi historian I spoke with, the country’s recent monarchies were full of peaceful transfers of power.
Phebe Marr, a retired University of Tennessee history professor and author of “The Modern History of Iraq,” said she was frustrated that “the whole formative period of the Iraqi state seems to be part of forgotten history.” From the 1920s until 1958, when the monarchy of King Faisal II was overthrown, Marr said, it was common for Iraq’s parliament to transfer power without incident.
There were “elections, they had a parliament, they had a relatively open press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion. They had a succession of cabinets. There was real politics in Baghdad … opposition parties and opposition figures, too.” When I asked Marr whether that qualified as “modern history,” she didn’t hesitate: “Absolutely.”
Although Marr acknowledged key differences — power wasn’t entirely in the hands of parliament at the time because there was a monarchy and the British still had influence — she highlighted important similarities, too. In Iraq’s formative period, “we have a change of people, not a change of power,” she said, just as Maliki is ceding power to Abadi, a close ally of the same political party and religious denomination.
The phrase “in modern history” isn’t one that journalists only apply to Iraq, of course. A scan of LexisNexis suggests it has appeared in 248 Times articles over the past five years, in pieces about Polish-Ukrainian relations, sanctions against Iran and sexual freedom (“taking on an apparent epidemic of low-libido marriages in what is theoretically the least repressed era in modern history”). When I expanded the search to all major English language news outlets, LexisNexis displayed 1,619 results from just the past three months.
When talking about countries’ historical eras, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a history professor at New York University, said in an email that “there is no universally agreed upon periodicization for history.” The definition of modern history depends heavily on the country or region in discussion. She compared, for example, Iran’s “early modern” era, which started in about 1500, to her own training “in ‘modern European history’ which meant 19th century-20th century (or to the present).”
Especially when a country’s recent past is full of upheaval, it’s easy for journalists to overlook whatever came before. It’s all the more easy when “modern history” is a supple term that changes depending on the place — not even historians can agree on what’s included. The next time you read a sober claim that something was the “first,” “last” or “best” in “modern history,” it’s worth speculating how far back you have to go to make that claim valid.