Modernization of the Middle East

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During the late 19th century and the early 20th century, Islam in the Middle East was introduced to its greatest threat yet; modernization. Conflicts within the muslim community and the rapid development of the surrounding world, has left the muslim society in the dust. The technological/scientifically dominant Ottoman empire went through expiration and was left with the remnants of its broken empire. Western civilizations then modernized and quickly became more superior in its European trade, technological advancements, and consumerism, in result causing muslim subordination.

Seemingly, the only response that this society can possibly come to is to modernize as an attempt to “rank up” in the world. It is this fact that has led to the struggle between modernization and what many experts call fundamentalism. Should they reform their society to complement the new modern world, or should they hold to their traditions? It is this resistance, this struggle between the old and the new that has led to many great conflicts within the muslim world.

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Though modernism has become more widespread in the muslim world today, Islamic Modernism has had more of a negative impact on the muslim society, that can be explained in three extremes: adaptation or rejection of modernism, relativism and religious fundamentalism, and modernism and fundamentalism. Modernism can be defined as “A movement toward modifying traditional beliefs in accordance with modern ideas” (Google DIctionary). As it follows, “Islamic Fundamentalism” as described by Yevgeniya Baraz, is the modification of traditional Islamic beliefs to accommodate the modern ideas of the modern world (2010).

One of the first pioneers of Islamic Modernism was Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani and his pupil Muhammad Abduh who are also known as the “catalyst of Islamic Modernization” (Baraz 2010). These two Islamic reformers blamed the subordination of muslims not on the actions of the West, but the brokenness of the Islamic society itself. Afghani saw that its traditional values had poisoned itself, the nature of the muslim society at the time was to cling to the past and to suppres of outside values.

The muslim society is what Brian Beary (Global Researcher 2009) would describe as religious fundamentalist, the desire to replace secular law with religious law. This brings up the first extreme, between fundamentalism and modernism. The struggle between fundamentalism and modernism is not only between Islam and the west but Islam and itself. Some modernist like Afghani and Muhammad Abduh were pro-modernization and sought advancement and reform. On the other hand there were people like Celal Nuri (another important face of Islamic Modernization) who was more against it. But with all extremes there is a medium.

The medium that Nuri accepted was called “partial westernization” (Buzpinar 2007). This ideology is focused on taking on some of the industrial and scientific parts of western society, but leaving out the cultural ideas and attitudes. In this way muslim society has made itself more modern while attempting to hold on to its values. Though it seems fail-safe, this view has caused much conflict. In a sense, fundamentalism is a direct result of modernism. Seyyed Hossein Nasr (Professor of Islamic Studies, Georgetown). said that the only reason Islamic fundamentalism exist is because modernism.

He describes fundamentalist as a strict society that has a “you’re with us or against us” complex. So if the muslim society remained static and never changing, then there would be no conflict. I do not believe that it was the west that causes many of the conflicts, but it is when the muslim societies try to adhere to western ideas that conflicts arise. To say that if the “west” didn’t exist that there would not be any more struggle between modernization and fundamentalism would be incorrect, but to say that if the muslim society in general did not try to westernize much conflict would be avoided would be more correct.

This goes back to “partial westernization” where a mix between modernization and fundamentalism is met. But people in the Islamic society have many divergent views on this and the fact that it deals with opposite forces can make related conflicts heated, to a point of where even violence can exist. The result are fundamentalist groups who either go against modernization either violently like al Qaeda and Hezbollah, or more politically like The Muslim Brotherhood (Beary 2009). The one thing that both of these violent and nonviolent groups share in common is the belief that fundamentalism is the exact opposite of modernism.

These groups are a direct result of muslims feeling threaten as the see their society slowly being consumed by western ideals as it goes against their traditional teachings. This brings up the second extreme, between relativism and religious fundamentalism. On the relative side of the extreme everything is relative and laws or ideals should not be thought of in a literal sense. On the fundamentalist side of the extreme, the muslim law should be upheld word to word, and everything along with all of its teachings should be taken literally without hesitation.

Those who are closer to the fundamentalist side of the extreme might think that all of those against what they believe should be cast away or even removed (Peter Berger Director, Institute on Culture, Religion and World Affairs, Boston University 2008). Someone who is closer to the relativism side might think that the Islamic laws are great, but are only applicable to the people of 1000 years ago. A person on the relative side may see Islam relative as a whole, as one possible way to the same goal as every other religion might be.

But as stated before, every extreme has a medium. The medium of this extreme would be a person who believes in their Islamic law but might agree there are certain aspects of it that are outdated, for modern times and some of these aspects should be reformed, while keeping the muslim faith and traditions intact. But not all people feel the same way about fundamentalism and relativism. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr explained, it was during a time right after the world wars when modernism really started to hit the Islamic world.

The Islamic world had a front stage seat of western technology and power, and some of these aspects were starting to set in the muslim countries. Nasr said that as a young boy it was evident that the youth were the first ones to modernize is the Islamic society. The youth embraced the technological advances and materialistic attitudes of the west, but then were radically rejected by the predating generation. This gave potential for widespread conflicts because the traditionally fundamental Islamic society was now dealing with its first experiences with modernization.

It has benefits to the society as a whole, but it can damage and forever change the religion as we know it. This brings up the last extreme between adaptation and rejection. We know for a fact that today muslim countries are (though still resisting) more modern than ever. When a society has gone or is going through a dramatic change, the people can either accept or reject the newcommings. To accept the change of modernization would be similar along the lines of what Afghani and Abduh believed when they first started their effort to reform.

They saw what modernism could do for the society and how it was better than to comply with the current status of the muslim society. But now at this point westernization has already greatly infected Islamic societies so the only options left is to accept or reject. This itself causes more conflict, as the medium between the two that would be to partially accept some parts of modernization and reject some others stays alive. As long as there are radicals, and as long as the Islamic world is under the west, I believe that it is unlikely that the clash and conflicts will ever stop.

Thought the purpose of Islamic modernism from the Islamic point of view was supposed to be for the better of the community and to advance it technologically and scientifically, its clash with Islam’s natural fundamentalism has led to great conflicts. From the West point of view modernization is advancement, but to the muslim traditionalist it is oppressive. Creating a paradox that the Islamic fundamentalist are constantly trying to “liberate themselves from the West’s liberation” (Nasr 2008). But fundamentalism is a direct result of modernism.

Muhammad Abduh and Jamal-al-Din al-Afghani most likely did not know what modernism would do to the Islamic society as it is today. As it is seen today as a struggling world or “third world religion”, inspired by hate, which would have probably have never happened in the first place if Islam never even attempted to westernize.


Baraz, Y. (2010). Islamic Modernism: Responses to Western Modernization in the Middle East. Student Pulse, 2(05). Retrieved from Student Pulse database. Beary, B. (2009, February 1). Religious fundamentalism. CQ Global Researcher, 3, 27-58.

Buzpinar, S. (2007). Celal Nuri’s concepts of Westernization and religion. Middle Eastern Studies, 43(2), 247-258. doi:10. 1080/00263200601114091 Oguzlu, T. , & Kibaroglu, M. (2009). Is the Westernization Process Losing Pace in Turkey: Who’s to Blame?. Turkish Studies, 10(4), 577-593. doi:10. 1080/14683840903384836 Gulalp, H. (1995). The Crisis of Westernization in Turkey: Islamism Versus Nationalism. Innovation: The European Journal Of Social Sciences, 8(2), 175-182. Berger, P. , & Nasr, S. H. (2008, March 4). [Personal interview by M. Cromartie,].

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