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The Question of Identity: Ethnicity, Language, Religion, and Gender

Islamic Period:  Diversity and Pluralism

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Examining Stereotypes

“Clash of Civilization”: East and West

A contemporary view sees the region's identities, especially its Islamic character, in perpetual conflict with Western culture. Further stereotypes link democracy, progress, and pluralism to the West, and authoritarianism, backwardness, and oppression to the East and to Islam.

The view of East and West as monoliths hostile to each other merits further attention. Medieval Islamic cultures integrated elements from Greek philosophy, science, and medicine, and translated important works of the world of antiquity into Arabic (often through Syriac). The Ottoman Empire was a Middle Eastern and European empire, which had important diplomatic and commercial relations with European powers.

In the modern period, translation, trade, and the expansion of education, as well as colonialism and imperialism, made the relationships between East and West even closer. The Industrial Revolution and globalization connected the Middle Eastern markets to the world's economy. Western inventions, like print, became important tools of communication. From the nineteenth century onwards, Muslim members of academic missions abroad acquired European and, later, American education. In this period, important works in criticism, science, and philosophy were translated from European languages into Turkish, Arabic, and Persian. Western architecture, clothing, and leisure practices became common in the Middle East, as cities like Istanbul, Cairo, Alexandria, and Beirut turned highly cosmopolitan.

The adoption of Western norms was not accepted without debate. The degree to which Western norms should be adopted as part of the Middle Easterners' identity was a matter of much disagreement. Some reformers, for example, complained that Middle Easterners adopted only a superficial veneer of Western life, without paying heed to important elements in Western thought. Other thinkers produced cultural models in which ideas originating from the West were hybridized and synthesized with local traditions. For example, architectural work in the Middle East interlaced both modern and Islamic elements. Furthermore, even Middle Easterners who fought against the colonial powers did not always object to Western science or to the ideas of democracy and civil rights. Rather, they argued that “the West" they had known, in the form of imperialism and colonial expansion, did not represent democracy, freedom, and human rights, but rather exploitation and occupation.

Supporting Links:

Jones, Dorian.  “Istanbul Skyline Gets Woman’s Touch.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed May 4, 2010).

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