Monday, June 21, 2004

Modernization in the Middle East

Lucas Henry

Modernization can be defined as the transition from traditional to modern society. Before understanding how the Middle East has changed in the post-colonial era, it is necessary to understand the characteristics of what is considered traditional versus what is considered modern. To do this, one needs only to look at the elements of each respective society. For example, in a traditional society, the economy is based chiefly on agricultural production and subsistence, a class of landlords or notables hold a great deal of power, the population is rural-based, education is limited and illiteracy is high, and religious authority is dominant and is the basis for political rule. In a modern society, on the other hand, the economy relies more on industrial production, either the state or a group of capitalists control much of the power, the population is urban-based, there is mass literacy and universal education, and religion is marginalized as authority is legitimized through other means.

A great deal of transformation occurred in the Middle East following the Second World War. The reasons for this are many but can be explained rather easily. The most immediate impact on the ability of Middle Eastern reforms to take place was the crippling of former colonial powers, such as Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy. War had damaged the reach of these states, as their economies and armies had been depleted, leaving the Soviet Union and the United States in prime positions to influence how Middle East policy would develop. The USSR decided to promote anti-imperialist rhetoric in order to persuade the fledgling states in the region to ally with the Communist bloc. The U.S. also decided to pursue a policy of decolonization, attempting to thwart the Soviets’ attempts to win friends and also because it did not benefit directly from colonialism or formal empire. This left the window open for a period of modernization, and signs of this trend could be found throughout much of the Middle East.

It is important to note, however, that although World War II served as a catalyst for modernization in many Middle Eastern states, some transformation occurred in the region prior to this conflict. In Turkey and Iran, for example, the agent for change was a military leader who equated Westernization with modernization. Other countries in the region, having been “liberated” in a sense from the colonial powers following WWII, could now look back to the reforms these men instituted and would follow in the steps of these leaders. Arthur Goldscmidt, Jr. notes that the leaders of Iran and Turkey, for example, were “army officers (who) became the greatest force for modernization in the Middle East. As efficiency is essential in military operations, it is natural for commanders to apply the same standards and employ similar methods to modernize their countries” (237). It therefore follows that just as external influences are important in determining how a country adapts to the world, so too is the leadership of that state.

The leaders of those states attempting to modernize often seized power and held it with only a thin grasp. Control was often acquired through the overthrow of local governments (e.g., Iraq and Syria), kings (e.g., Egypt), or the remnants of colonial powers (e.g., Algeria) by those with command of either soldiers or rebels; other potential sources of power, such as political parties or social classes, had often been weakened by colonial policies, thus making new leadership all the more easy to acquire. In many such cases, those now in charge had had some exposure to either Western education or military service. Although the colonial powers were seen as hypocritical and as undesirable authorities, their notions of freedom, liberty, and self-determination were admired, as were their institutions and forms of government. These new commanders, seeking to justify their roles, sought the education systems, military technology and strategies, laws, and economic systems of the West for their own countries.

Seeking to validate their newly acquired power, revolutionary leaders often promised the people progress through modernization and embarked upon major social, political, and economic reforms. One goal of many of these leaders was the establishment of a strong civilian foundation, which meant pursuing policies designed to settle nomadic tribes and promote urbanization. This was accomplished, for example, in both Iran and Saudi Arabia as both Reza Shah and Ibn Sa’ud attempted to weaken nomadic tribes and prevent their movement. Ibn Sa’ud controlled tribes by welding them into what was called the Ikhwan (Brothers). This made such groups easier to control, and according to Goldschmidt, “the Saudis could not have united most of Arabia within a generation” without such measures (232). Many Middle Eastern governments also offered free public education and government employment in major urban centers, which, coupled with increased industrialization, helped to facilitate urbanization.

A second route of modernization pursued by many leaders was the promotion of a new “middle class,” composed of professionals (e.g., doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, etc.). This was done through policies of universal primary and secondary education and subsidies for higher education. This social reform was considered of major importance in both Turkey and Iran, as the leader of each country attempted to support a more knowledgeable citizenry. Kemal Ataturk, for example, instituted linguistic reforms, Romanizing the Turkish alphabet, greatly improving the ease with which people could become literate. Strong pressure from conservatives prevented this reform in Persia (Iran), but Reza Shah also understood the importance of education. He instituted night schools and tied military promotion to education of the troops; he also opened the University of Tehran in 1935.

Another modernizing feature adopted by leaders in the Middle East was the development of the economy through state-led industrialization and expansion of public employment. This allowed the state or the military to control these “levers of power.” It also allowed for the mass employment of the population. Even when it meant inefficiency resulted, people were happy to be employed. This reform was also undertaken because leaders sensed that private industry did not have a vested interest in improving the social conditions in their respective countries but rather sought merely to profit themselves from any endeavor taken in the region. The nationalization of resources often sparked bitterness on the part of Western governments, as was the case when Nasir nationalized the Suez Canal. By doing this, Egypt was bound to see increased revenue and a spirit of national pride develop, but the cost of this action to Western nations was more than they were willing to pay for Egypt’s economic or social improvement.

In modernizing the Middle East, often religious institutions, long the source of power in the region, were pushed to the margins of government. This was done as leaders imitated either the example of the Soviet Union (atheistic state) or that of the Western world (which stressed the separation of church and state). Leaders who sought to control religious institutions often felt that such organizations were a hindrance to progress, as women’s rights, economic policies, legal codes, etc. were behind the times. Another reason for seeking to limit the power of religious institutions was the very real threat that religious leaders were a source of opposition to government. Kemal Ataturk instituted many of these reforms while in power, and Turkey serves as a model of this example to this day. Religious endowments, known as Waqfs, were nationalized; the Shari’ah (which encompassed family law and had existed for centuries) was replaced with a variation of the Swiss Civil Code; women saw the abandonment of the veil in the 1920s and in 1934 were allowed to vote; and political opposition parties that used religion as a base were not allowed to gain power (e.g., Welfare or Justice). This policy of secularism helped ensure a responsible government dedicated to the forward economic, political and social progress of its citizens.

As states in the Middle East underwent this process of revision and adaptation in the twentieth century, a great deal of change occurred. Counterbalancing, to some degree or another, the push toward “modernization” (which is often equated with Westernization) is a call for a return to older ideals. Fundamentalism has grown in the Middle East as a response to the perceived “sweeping away” of many centuries’ worth of values in a single generation. In many respects, this clash of visions for the future can find its origins in recent history. As the twenty-first century begins, perhaps a new chapter in the Middle East will commence, as well.


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