Elie Kedourie

Martin Kramer, “Elie Kedourie,” Encyclopedia of Historians and Historical Writing (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1999), vol. 1, pp. 637-38.

Kedourie, Elie 1926-1992

British historian of the modern Middle East

For forty years Elie Kedourie was the most formidable practitioner of a dissident historiography of the Middle East, one who rejected the post-colonial dichotomy between Western guilt and Eastern innocence. In detailed studies of British diplomatic history, he attributed the failure of British imperial will in the Middle East to romantic illusions about the Arab-Muslim world. In his studies of Middle Eastern politics, he documented the importation of radical nationalism that ultimately transformed the Middle East into what he called “a wilderness of tigers.” A deep conservatism, born of a disbelief in the redemptive power of ideological politics, suffused all of Kedourie’s writings. Armed with a potent and lucid style, he waged a determined defense against the siege of Middle Eastern history by leftist theory, the social sciences, and fashionable Third Worldism. Kedourie’s iconoclastic work forms the foundation of a diffuse school that views the post-Ottoman history of the Middle East not as an “awakening,” but as a resurgence of its own despotic tradition, exacerbated by Western dissemination of the doctrine of self-determination.

Kedourie made his first systematic critique of British policy in his Oxford thesis, later published as England and the Middle East (1956). The thesis constituted a closely documented indictment of the British for their encouragement of Arab nationalism during and after World War I, especially in Kedourie’s native Iraq, where Britain had imposed a militantly Arab nationalist regime upon a diverse society. It also included a devastating account of the adventurism of T.E. Lawrence, at a time when Lawrence was still an unassailable hero. (Richard Aldington’s debunking biography would not appear until two years later.) Kedourie’s thesis stirred the ire of one of his examiners, the Oxford Orientalist Sir Hamilton Gibb, who insisted that Kedourie alter his conclusions. In a decision that demonstrated the depth of his convictions, the 28-year-old candidate refused, withdrawing the thesis and forgoing the doctorate. By then, the conservative political philosopher Michael Oakeshott had extended a hand to Kedourie, bringing him back to the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1953, where he remained for his entire career.

Kedourie’s criticism of Britain’s indulgence of Arab nationalism animated much of his later work. This reached its culmination in his monumental study of the correspondence exchanged during World War I between the British high commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, and the leader of the Arab Revolt, the Sharif Hussein. In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth (1976) demonstrated how later British officials, motivated by a mixture of self-doubt and self-interest, accepted the Arab nationalist claim that Britain had promised the Sharif a vast Arab kingdom including Palestine. Kedourie argued that Britain had made no such promise, and that British self-reproach over “defrauding” the Arabs rested upon a myth of Britain’s own making.

In an earlier essay, his most famous, Kedourie traced the intellectual origins of this British loss of confidence. “The Chatham House Version” (1970), a reference to the influential Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, constituted a sharp critique of its guiding spirit, Arnold J. Toynbee. Kedourie regarded Toynbee’s theory of civilizational decline, built on improbable analogies, as an exercise in moral self-flagellation that denied the civilizing role of empires, Britain’s included. For Kedourie, the end of empire—of Hapburgs, Ottomans, British—tended to bring not national liberation but misgovernment, frequently followed by lawlessness and oppression. The failure of the Middle East to find political equilibrium figured as the theme of his last book, Politics in the Middle East (1992).

In his critique of modern nationalism, Kedourie ranged beyond the Middle East, as did much of his teaching at the LSE. In his book Nationalism (1960), he emphasized the fluid character of national identity, which rendered national self-determination “a principle of disorder.” For Kedourie, nationalism represented an ideological temptation, which spread across the world in no discernable pattern, but largely in parallel with European influence. Ernest Gellner later criticized Kedourie for failing to explain the spread of nationalism in sociological terms, particularly as a feature of the early stages of industrialization. Kedourie pointed to many obvious exceptions to this postulate, and rejected any sociological explanation as a form of reductionist “economism.”

In this as in many other debates, Kedourie vigorously resisted the penetration of the social sciences into history, maintaining the primacy of evidence over all theory. In his many general writings on historiography, he criticized Marxist determinism, the structuralism of the French Annales school, and psychohistory of any kind. Kedourie maintained that “history has no depths to be plumbed or main lines to be traced out,” and that “history does not need explanatory principles, but only words to tell how things were.” These views, combined with his conservative politics, made him an adversary of mainstream trends in Middle Eastern studies. Kedourie’s own preferences governed Middle Eastern Studies, the quarterly he founded in 1964.

In his later years, Kedourie became a well-known public intellectual in the United States, warning Americans against the same flagging of will that had diminished Britain. While his influence among conservative American intellectuals grew, he became disillusioned by the declining standards of British universities, including his own. He retired from the LSE in 1990, and was about to take up a new chair in modern Middle Eastern history at Brandeis University, when he died at the age of 66.


Born Baghdad, 25 January 1926. Attended Collège A-D Sasson and Shamash School, Baghdad; BSc, London School of Economics, 1951; graduate work, St. Antony’s College, Oxford, 1951-53. Taught (rising to professor) at London School of Economics, 1953-90. Married Sylvia Haim in 1950 (2 sons, 1 daughter). Died 29 June 1992.

Principal Writings

England and the Middle East: The Destruction of the Ottoman Empire 1914-1921, 1956

Nationalism, 1960; revised 1993

Afghani and Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Islam, 1966

The Chatham House Version and Other Middle Eastern Studies, 1970
Editor, Nationalism in Asia and Africa, 1970

Arabic Political Memoirs and other Studies, 1974

In the Anglo-Arab Labyrinth: The McMahon-Husayn Correspondence and Its Interpretations, 1914-1939, 1976

Islam in the Modern World and Other Studies, 1980

The Crossman Confessions and Other Essays in Politics, History and Religion, 1984

Politics in the Middle East, 1992

Hegel and Marx: Introductory Lectures, 1995

Further Reading

Maurice Cowling, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980-85