Westernization vs. Traditionalism
One of the continuing debates in the modern Middle East, beginning in the eighteenth century and continuing to the present, was how much of Western thought and culture to adopt or adapt in order for residents of the Middle East to succeed and compete on equal footing with Europe (or later, America). Governments in the Middle East tried to incorporate those elements of European culture and technology that seemed key to European success. They focused particularly on military technology, the education necessary for a modern army and industrialization (this included everything from foreign languages, to engineering, to veterinary medicine), and reform of the legal system, but also included clothing reform and changes to the educational system. There was much debate over whether these changes were too much, were changing society too radically, or whether they were insufficient. Traditional elements, often centered on religious authorities and powerful landholders who would lose power in the new system, protested the effects of Western ideas and methods on society. They put pressure on the government to prevent changes they believed were undermining the core values and unique character of Middle Eastern societies.
These debates remain in the Middle East today. In many countries nationalist governments undertook massive modernization programs in the first half of the twentieth century (industrialization, mass education, etc.) that resulted in prosperity for a small stratum of society, but stagnation or even deterioration of conditions for many, and severe social dislocation for large numbers of people from all segments of society. This state of inequality, combined with severe government repression against those who protested negative changes, lead residents of the Middle East to search for new alternatives to secular modernization in the European or American style. The approaches have been quite varied. At one end of the spectrum, some frustrated citizens turned to Islamic protest movements, both reformist and radically militant. At the other end, people argue that there has not yet been enough change, and that more modernization is required. There is a wide range of responses in between these two extremes, yet most people in the Middle East are in agreement that they have specific cultural values they want to see preserved, not simply traded for the latest habits of the residents of Europe or the United States.
“Al-Ikhwan Al-Muslimeen: The Muslim Brotherhood” Military Review, July-August 2003. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
Cambanis, Thanassis. “Saudi King Tries to Grow Modern Ideas in Desert.” The New York Times, October 26, 2007. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
“Tanzimat.” Wikipedia. Link to resource (accessed April 30, 2010).
A. Holly Shissler
Associate Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish History, University of Chicago
Erin L. Glade
Ph.D. candidate, University of Chicago
1. What does this history say about whether it is possible to change deeply imbedded cultural and religious tradition by political mandates?
2. Who have been the beneficiaries of social and cultural reforms and what are your ideas for more effectively implementing reforms? Why would they be more effective?
3. What links do you see between present-day ideological and political conflict and the reform movement initiated during the 1950s?