Skip to main content
Select Source:

Westernization: Southeast Asia

Westernization: Southeast Asia

Westernization in world history can refer to the transmission and reception of European ideas, technology, lifestyles, and institutions throughout the globe. Much of the scholarly attention has tended to concentrate on the intensity and nature of that transmission during the era of European colonialism and its attempts to transform the very consciousness of the peoples it encountered. Although the modes of transfer, the locales of interaction, and the intellectual capital are no longer the sole domain of Europe, the nature of Westernization continues to be relevant as local traditions become more integrated (or subsumed) within supposed "universal" values. Societies that are unable to cope with the blistering pace of technological change, the fluctuations of an interdependent world economy, or the insensitivity of an "international" community often find fault with "Westernization," which is associated with these uncontrollable and unfamiliar pressures on local societies. As a result, the idea of Westernization continues to be a part of twenty-first-century historical discourse, framing the ways in which scholars examine the interactions among cultures, regions, and nations.

Approaching Westernization in Eurasian History

Contemporary ideas of what constitutes "Western culture" reflect its postcolonial origins and twentieth-century politics, just as the idea of the "West" may have had slightly different meanings between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the history of Southeast Asia, Europeans had competing ideas about the cultural values they represented and were attempting to infuse into the societies they encountered. Spanish policy in the Philippines was exceptionally different from Dutch policy in Indonesia, and the Spaniards and the Dutch certainly did not see each other as representing a single, unified, cultural domain. These motivations were often couched in religious or political agendas that many times reveal tensions between empires as much as they disclose the tensions within. Scholars gazing toward the past sometimes project "Westernization" into the histories of exploration, trade, and colonialism, despite the fact that those participating in these global exchanges probably saw and articulated their missions in slightly different ways. Caution must be employed when considering Westernization as a process because it was often much more disparate in nature than coherent. Nonetheless, using Westernization as a category of analysis can provide a useful lens into the history of global interactions with Europe.

In the history of colonialism, the term Westernization reveals the geographic context and self-referential perspective that would inform the ways in which peoples of Asia would be categorized and understood, though elites within these societies would also adopt the term to represent their notion of "modernity." This association can be attributed partly to the rhetoric of colonialism, which blended Europe's cultural forms with theories of human development in order to organize and tabulate the communities and societies that came under colonial authority. Colonized elites would appropriate these conceptions of modernity and apply them to their own societies, fundamentally changing their own identity in relation to the world. Within these discourses, the "East" or the "Orient" was seen as something homogenous, unified, and fundamentally opposite to that which was European, even though the idea of a coherent "West" encountering a coherent "East" tended to overstate the complexity, nature, and composition of these societies. In addition to Asia, this process of European interaction also occurred in Africa and the Americas, producing very similar narratives of exchange, acculturation, and domination. Whatever the context, early European scholars, traders, soldiers, and missionaries viewed themselves and the people they encountered as coming from very different worlds. In some instances, Europeans would view Westernization as the process of making others more like themselves, though they probably did not consider this transformation as "Westernization" per se. Throughout history, Westernization would come to have different meanings, effects, and forms, but in essence it refers to one of many global processes that have characterized the interaction of human societies.

From a regional perspective, the history of Westernization in Southeast Asia can be seen in much the same way: It is but one of many continuing processes that have contributed to the region's character. For a millennium, Southeast Asia has benefited from its unique geographic location of being both a mainland and maritime crossroad between the Indian and Chinese cultural zones. This vital location has given it exposure to three great religions (Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity), global trade, and the movement of peoples from all over the world. Many scholars have chosen to consider the dynamics of regional change in the context of Islamization, Indianization, and Sinicization (modification under Chinese influence), to which Westernization might be compared. While these regionally specific processes may be associated with particular times in Southeast Asia's deep past, closer readings of how these exchanges occurred in specific cases reveal that all four processes continue to interact, intersect, and overlap, thereby illustrating the complexity of these ideas and their interrelatedness in the Southeast Asian context.

The Structure of Westernization in Southeast Asian History

Most scholars have approached the structure of Westernization in Southeast Asia as a process that has developed over stages and varying intensities according to location, internal receptiveness, and the circumstances in which the encounter took place. One of the most important mechanisms contributing to the transmission of Western culture to the region was trade. In this context, trade consists of the movement, over the centuries, of peoples, goods, and ideas between the Mediterranean, Bengal, and Southeast Asian waters. With this in mind, Western interaction with Southeast Asia can be organized chronologically into four stages.

In the first stage, labeled Early Maritime Influence (15111670), initial contacts were made through the agency of European and Southeast Asian traders. The nature of interaction here could be described as minimal in terms of cultural penetration, but certain important technological exchanges did occur. During this period the Portuguese and the Spanish began to make headway into the region, securing the regional port of Malacca in the case of the former and Cebu in the case of the latter. The Dutch also began to initiate activity in the Southeast Asian waters, but powerful Muslim states and trading networks still continued to thrive, producing minor levels of exchange. Although Portuguese firearms would contribute to the reintegration of the Burmese kingdom in the 1550s, European influence was marginal on the Southeast Asian mainland.

By 1670, Dutch penetration of the regional trade networks intensified as they slowly began to involve themselves in internal political issues of succession and power relations. Under this second stage of Accelerated Influence (16701820), the main Muslim kingdoms disintegrated and regional trading networks fragmented as the Dutch (in particular) increased their influence in the island interiors. Similarly it is during this period that the Spanish increased their role in the Philippines, inserting the religious-political structures that would become the foundation of their strong presence among the local communities there. While the islands of Southeast Asia were beginning to be exposed to Western technology, religion, and economic pressures, the mainland on the other hand was left on its own, as the spices and other natural resources of the island world continued to draw Europe's attention.

By the early nineteenth century, however, the mainland was to bear the brunt of new European initiatives in the form of Full Scale Conquest (18201870). Because of European political maneuvering and competition, and the promise of the Chinese market, mainland Southeast Asia was conquered during this period by the British (Burma) and the French (Indochina). With the establishment of colonial governments, mainland Southeast Asian communities were slowly integrated into new economic, political, and ideological shadows of empire. For the most part, because of the limitations of military operations, coastal sections of the mainland were more intensely affected than the interior, leaving the people in the latter area and their ways of life somewhat unaffected.

With the opening of the Suez Canal, the improvements in steam technology, and the development of the telegraph, Southeast Asian societies experienced an intensification of Western influence under High Imperialism (18701942). Because of changing world demands for natural resources, the potential for capital from the taxing of local populations, and the influence of new theories of European cultural superiority, Europeans began to actively pursue and initiate programs designed to colonize the consciousness of ordinary Southeast Asian people. Colonial bureaucracies, churches, schools, and other institutions produced a consolidated view of the world that placed European civilization at the peak of humanity's development, self-justifying the role and influence Europeans had on indigenous peoples of Southeast Asia. New standards of language, authority, health, and knowledge were produced, professed, and dictated that fundamentally questioned the role and place of indigenous values and beliefs. Throughout the region, colonialism would change the character of Westernization by restructuring the nature of this global exchange through the reduction of local autonomy.

Yet the contribution by Southeast Asians to the shape of Westernization was not minimal in any regard. Southeast Asians adapted, modified, and reshaped colonial influences to fit their needs and concernsjust as they had done for centuries through Indianization, Sinicization, and Islamization. Colonialism produced a particular body of knowledge and symbols that were consciously (and at times unintentionally) adopted by indigenous elites in order to improve local power and prestige. The idea of nationalism in Southeast Asia developed in just this manner, through local innovation and appropriation of ideas either introduced in schools or through the mechanics of the civil service. Southeast Asians contributed to the construction of what was Western and especially what was notby identifying and constructing elements of "traditional" Southeast Asian culture (using Western modes of knowledge production) that might stand independent of Western influence. In the case of Thailand, the monarchy actively engaged European education, nation-building, and popular culture in order to transform itself into a modern country based on European definitions. Though not formally colonized, it initiated reforms that paralleled colonial legislation in British Burma, French Indochina, and Dutch Indonesia. In short, Westernization was as much a part of Southeast Asian regional processes as it was an encounter between cultures.

In postcolonial Southeast Asia, the nature of engagement continued in much the same way, though the colonial powers were no longer formally (except in the case of Vietnam) dictating the nature of this exchange. Southeast Asians continued to view Western technological and economic influences with interest in some cases and distrust in others. Burma withdrew into itself and limited interaction with what it viewed as the colonial "West," though it continued to adopt certain principles of European economic planning in order to craft a locally sensitive state policy called the "Burmese Way to Socialism." Because of its history of direct colonialism and the disruption of its most important cultural institutions, Burma's postcolonial history has viewed Western influences with considerable hesitation. Understandably, measures to "de-Westernize" or decolonize itself have even included changing the nation's name back to its precolonial form, Myanmar. In contrast, Thailand's autonomy throughout the age of High Imperialism has left it more culturally secure, with its institutions intact, and less wary of Western influences. While sharing a similar historical and cultural trajectory as its Western neighbor, it has chosen a completely different path from Burma, choosing to adopt Western forms and ideas at a ferocious pace while at the same time applying adjustments along the way. In short, the intensity of colonialism has affected the intensity of the response to colonialism and its cultural features.

Shaping Westernization in Southeast Asian Studies

Scholarship has addressed the concept of Westernization in Southeast Asia indirectly through alternative themes and interests. That the early histories of Southeast Asia by colonial officials were actually the history of Westerners in Asia and their perspective on the region's culture reveals something about the idea of Westernization. As many early accounts describing this process were involved in the spreading of ideas, technology, or goods, their assessments tended to reflect their interests and their unfamiliarity with the region as a whole. One aspect of this approach was to view Southeast Asian history within the chronological and narrative framework of the West's own history, leading to judgments proclaiming the region's political, social, and technological levels to be inherently backward. It was believed that through colonial policies, Southeast Asia under European tutelage would be emancipated from itself, joining the civilized world by emulating it. Thus, early assessments by colonial officials saw the process of Westernization as the process through which traditional cultures could be made modern.

This view was shared to some degree by Southeast Asian observers as well. The emerging class of indigenous elites who were trained in Western schools began considering the idea that European culture had something to offer and could improve their situation. These groups began to speak in European languages, adopt European modes of dress, and evaluate the world through European conceptions of it. For many scholars following World War II, Westernization became viewed in terms of nationalism and its specific role in the process of constructing the nation-state. Histories were produced that deemphasized pre-European elements and themes in favor of more "modern" narratives that embraced the structures, ideas, and values of "Western" historical writing. As a result, nationalist histories supported the idea that Westernization and the formation of the nation were inevitable and inextricably linked. Ironically, colonial and nationalist historians envisioned Westernization and its role in history in much the same way.

In response to colonial and nationalist histories, attempts were made toward writing histories that promoted "Southeast Asian" perspectives, with the emphasis placed on alternative, locally defined categories upon which new narratives of regional history could be written. Scholars began to question the role and place of European influence on the superstructure of Southeast Asian beliefs. Many began to see Westernization as a "thin and flaking glaze" over more enduring ideas and institutions that had defined the region for centuries. With this shift in perspective, Westernization was perceived as having far less of an impact in Southeast Asia than previously held before, swinging the pendulum to the other side. Studies of anticolonial movements, economic systems, nationalism, rituals, and identity deemphasized the impact of Westernization in order to accentuate Southeast Asia's cultural integrity more clearly. As a result, the reappraisal of colonialism led to a different reading of Southeast Asia's Westernization. Where the colonial period might have previously represented a significant conjuncture in the region's long history, scholars now viewed more continuity with the precolonial past and its traditions.

With changes in the world of the early twenty-first century, and most notably in postcolonial scholarship, the shape of Westernization has once again taken a more prominent place in Southeast Asian studies. The realization that many of the categories once thought "Southeast Asian" were actually colonial constructions led to important reappraisals of European and U.S. influence in the region. This shift has thus reinserted the importance of European culture back into the mix that is Southeast Asian culture. Scholarship since the late 1990s has also shown that, in the last two centuries of the colonial encounter, the distinctions between "West" and "East" were much more ambiguous than once held; that identities of race, ethnicity, gender, and religion were openly contested; and that the nature of Westernization in relation to the idea of modernity has not only changed in terms of its receptiveness, but that it was also losing its distinctiveness as being derived from Europe. Popular culture from Japan, technological innovation from India, and cultural tourism have redefined the relationship between what is perceived as Western influence and what is not, while growing economic, political, and technological integration has moved the region much closer to its neighbors around the world.

See also Anticolonialism: Southeast Asia ; Colonialism: Southeast Asia ; Empire and Imperialism .


Cooper, Frederick, and Ann Laura Stoler, eds. Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997.

Dirks, Nicholas B., ed. Colonialism and Culture. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Lieberman, Victor. Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 8001830, Vol. 1: Integration on the Mainland. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lieberman, Victor, ed. Beyond Binary Histories: Re-imagining Eurasia to c. 1830. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.

Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 14501680, Vol. 1: The Lands below the Winds. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 14501680, Vol. 2: Expansion and Crisis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993.

Reid, Anthony, ed. Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power, and Belief. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Steinberg, David Joel, ed. In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern History. Rev. ed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Tarling, Nicholas. Southeast Asia: A Modern History. South Melbourne, Australia: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, Vol. 2: The Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Maitrii Aung-Thwin

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westernization: Southeast Asia." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Westernization: Southeast Asia." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (June 22, 2017).

"Westernization: Southeast Asia." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from

Westernization: Middle East

Westernization: Middle East

The notion of Westernization in the Middle East raises a number of interrelated issues. First, it refers to a period (nineteenth to twentieth centuries) in which Middle Eastern intellectuals engaged Western political philosophy in a self-conscious search for modernity. Albert Hourani, in his groundbreaking Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17981939 (1983), dates this engagement from Napoleon Bonaparte's invasion of Egypt in 1798. This defeat revealed the weaknesses of Ottoman government and sent shockwaves throughout the Ottoman Empire. How had the Europeans gained such superiority, and how could the Muslims catch up? Selim III (17611808), the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, and Muhammad Ali (1769?1849), the Ottoman governor of Egypt, enlisted European advisors to implement military and governmental reforms on the Western model (tanzimat). A generation of "new men," many graduates of these European-style schools, began a period of intense reflection and critique. They studied Rousseau, the Manchester textile mills, and parliamentary government for clues to European power. They also criticized traditional Islamic institutions and advocated reform of education, government, and the Arabic language.

These two avenues of reform raise a second issue: did the reform movement mark "Westernization" or a local modernity forged by traditional intellectuals? Many historians have defined Westernization narrowly as the "all-out adoption of the Western model," which they contrast to "modernization," an Islamic response to political, economic, and social pressures from the West. Modernity and Westernization cannot be separated, however. Islamic modernist thought was formulated as a specific response to the European challenge. Thinkers from Muhammad Abduh (18491905) to Ali Shari'ati (19331977) had to explain European superiority and propose specific solutions for Muslim decline. Even when Western models were not adopted, the West provided the terms of the debate: industrialization, women's rights, secular law, the bureaucratic state, and popular sovereignty. Finally, modernism itself, a self-conscious effort to organize and govern society according to rational principles, was invented in the West. Islamic modernizers embraced the centrality of reason, which led them back to a classical question: "What is the relationship of reason to revelation?"

Yet the Muslim modernizers posed the question in a new way. How could reason and religion be reconciled to reform Islam, and how could this purified Islam be applied to society? Thus, our subject is actually the reform of Islam and its new transformative role, a program formulated in engagement with the West. The relationship between the Middle East and the West occurred at a number of levels. First, the reforms on the Western model (tanzimat ) centralized the states in Egypt and Anatolia, disciplined their populations, and laid the social foundations of modern Egyptian and Turkish nationalisms. Second, the modernizers adapted Western ideologies (liberalism, socialism, nationalism) to create cultural hybrids. Colonial industrialization was part of this process, for changes in labor and production produced new classes and new consciousness. Finally, even those intellectuals who rejected the West unwittingly adopted Western approaches to knowledge. Islamic modernizers rejected Gnostic knowledge and mysticism (Sufism), much as Western positivists tried to fit all knowledge into a rational framework. This helps to explain a central puzzle in Islamic history: the secularists and the Islamic fundamentalists (one branch of the Salafiyya ) spring from the same intellectual root.

At first contact, Egyptians were not impressed with liberalism and the French Republic. Consider the Egyptian chronicler Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti's reaction to the French and their political ideas:

[Napoléon] saying "[all people] are equal in the eyes of God the Almighty," this is a lie and stupidity. How can this be when God has made some superior to others as is testified by the dwellers in the Heavens and on the Earth those people are opposed to both Christians and Muslims, and do not hold fast to any religion. You see that they are materialists, who deny all God's attributes. (p. 31).

Yet as Ottoman rulers adopted European institutions, a new generation of intellectuals adopted French political ideas. The Egyptian Rifa'a Rafi'a al-Tahtawi (18011873) tried to reconcile the republic with the umma (community of believers), secular law with the shari'a (Islamic law), the ulema (religious scholars) with the republican legislator. Tahtawi argued that Muslims had failed to develop theories of government; they saw the executive only as a guardian of Islamic law and spiritual guidance. However, government also gave order to society and should thus be used to promote the public welfare. Creating the just society and upholding the will of God were thus compatible if not identical projects. Drawing on the thought of al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, and the Mu'tazili school of the Middle Ages, al-Tahtawi argued that reason and philosophy were two paths to the same ultimate reality and thus must be reconcilable. Al-Tahtawi was the first to articulate the notion of an Egyptian nation, a historical community of the Muslim and Christian occupants of Egypt, and a brotherhood "over and above the brotherhood in religion." He attributed Egyptian decadence to foreign rule, specifically that of the Turkish overlords (Mamluks and later Ottomans) who ruled Egypt from the thirteenth century.

Yet Tahtawi's project failed to address a basic tension between secular and religious law. In a republic, the people are sovereign and the social contract defines the members of the political body. The law is the expression of the general will and thus utilitarian and subject to change. In the umma, the community is defined in relation to God; the Muslims are those who submit to God's will, (a Muslim is "he who submits [to God]"). Since God is sovereign and the law is the expression of his will, many Muslim jurists argued that once the Koran and hadith had been elaborated into a legal code (shar'ia ), by the fourteenth century, it was universally valid and permanent, and so "the gates of ijtihad [independent legal reasoning] are closed." A second question arose: if Islamic law is divine, what checks, if any, should there be on the executive? Finally, Muslim scholars feared that Western institutions might be inseparable from a secular worldview. Indeed, historians of the scientific revolution have argued that elements of Western modernity could not be conceived before the "paradigm shift," the replacement of religious worldviews by a Newtonian universe. Finally, Muslims had to answer Orientalists like Ernest Renan, who claimed that Islam was antithetical to science.

In response to all of this, Muhammad Abduh and Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (18391897) presented a synthesis that "rationalized" Islam and opened the door to both secularism and Islamic fundamentalism. Abduh argued that the true Islam of the Companions (al-salaf ) of the prophet Muhammad was the tool for social modernity. Islam must be freed of antiquated scholarship; he demanded that the traditional Islamic institutions like Al-Azhar in Egypt replace rote memorization with a new ijtihad and teach the modern sciences. Islam must be unified into a single creed: Shiism was a "heresy" and Shiites must be brought into the fold. Abduh suggested unifying the four Sunni schools of Islamic law (Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafa'i, Maliki) into a single school. Islam was to be purified of heterodoxy and foreign elements; thus the modernizers condemned Sufism (mystical Islam), visitation of the graves of the awliya' (holy men), and other popular practices (amulet-writing, healing) as shirk, or worship of things other than God.

Abduh collapsed the divide between the secular and the religious in The Sociological Laws of the Qur'an. He argued that Islam and Western civilization were of the same order of knowledge and that a purified Islam held the answers to all modern social problems. Parliaments, railroads, and space travel were anticipated in the Koran and fully compatible with its message. He translated legal conceptions of the medieval period to the "modern day": ijma' (consensus of the jurists) was "public opinion," shura' (consultation, especially in the selection of the caliph) was "parliamentary democracy." Among his disciples, this synthesis split into two strands.

One strand was secular nationalism (19001939), and nationalists in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Iraq, and Iran embraced the institutions of political liberalism under French and British "protection." Secularists dropped the project of "Islamic government" because, as they argued, the Koran contained or prefigured (or so they believed) Western institutions. Religious minoritiesCopts, Druze, Maronites, Jewswelcomed the opportunity for full participation in political life. The Egyptian Qasim Amin advocated women's emancipation as a national project. However, as liberals failed to address growing labor and social problems or bring an end to colonial rule, liberal constitutionalism lost popular support.

Other secularists turned to Marxist socialism. Lenin's Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism provided an economic critique of colonialism and a plan of revolutionary action. The 1952 "Arab Socialist" revolution of Jamal 'Abd al-Nasser (19181970) proposed social equality for all citizens through state capitalism. Nationalism in Algeria and Tunisia grew from the trade unionism of migrant labor in France (Étoile Nord-Africaine). However, the materialism of Marx was difficult to reconcile with Islam, and the Iranian Islamist intellectual Ali Shari'ati rejected Marxism as a solution to social ills.

Finally, the second group of Abduh's successors, led by Muhammad Rashid Rida (18651935), focused on the rationalization of Islam to create a "true Islamic state." Rida believed that Sufism (mystical Islam) had created division in the Islamic community and that westernizers undermined its moral foundation; only a strict adherence to shari'a and the Islam of the salaf would rejuvenate the umma. This strain of thought found various expressions in the work of Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb, the premier theoretician of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and Shii form in the work of Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini (19001989), leader of the 19781979 Islamic Revolution in Iran. Thus, even the ideas of the contemporary Islamist radicals were formulated in dialogue with the West.

See also Anticolonialism: Middle East ; Empire and Imperialism: Middle East ; Nationalism: Middle East .


Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17891939. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Jabarti, Abd al-Rahman al-. Napoleon in Egypt: Al-Jabarti's Chronicle of the French Occupation, 1798. Translation by Shmuel Moreh. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener, 2001.

Keddie, Nikki. Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn "al-Afghānī." Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972.

Laqueur, Walter. A History of Zionism: From the French Revolution to the Establishment of the State of Israel. New York: MJF Books, 1972.

Rahnema, Ali. An Islamic Utopian: A Political Biography of Ali Shari'ati. London: Taurus, 2000. This essay has been devoted exclusively to Islamic modernism, but there are significant parallels in the development of Zionism and the haskala movement.

Renan, Ernest, and Jamal al-Din Afghani. L'Islam et la science: Avec la reponse d'Afghani. Montpellier, France: Archange Minotaure, 2003.

Sirriyeh, Elizabeth. Sufis and Anti-Sufis: The Defence, Rethinking and Rejection of Sufism in the Modern World. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon, 1999.

Tibi, Bassam. Arab Nationalism: Between Islam and the Nation-State. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism, Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2001.

Ellen Amster

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westernization: Middle East." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Westernization: Middle East." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (June 22, 2017).

"Westernization: Middle East." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from

Westernization: Africa

Westernization: Africa

As applied to non-Western societies, the term Westernization is almost always equated with modernization. It is important, however, to distinguish between the two, for modernization, considered as an overhauling of African societies, predates the incursion of the West on the continent. Before the Europeans, the most important agents of modernization in Africa were the Arabs, who, after their settlement in North Africa, introduced Islam into West Africa and thus set in motion a profound transformation of societies and cultures in the region. Similarly, the coastal peoples of East Africa were in touch with external civilizations long before the arrival of Europeans; the influence of the Arabs in this area has been as deep and durable as in West Africa. Internally, the Zulu leader Chaka's (17861828) conquests of and his creation of the Zulu nation out of diverse ethnicities over an extensive area in South Africa entailed a restructuring of their societies; the same can be said of Ashanti hegemony exercised over neighboring societies and peoples drawn into its sphere of imperial authority and cultural influence. In all these cases, what is involved is not merely a process of adjustment consequent upon conquest, but an extensive re-fashioning of the institutions and cultural practices of the societies affected in conformity with a new model of the world.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between these earlier processes of change and modernization as it is understood in the twenty-first century: that is, as the transition from an agrarian to an industrial-technological civilization. The origins of this process in the West and its global character constitute this civilization as a universal paradigm. It is in this sense that Westernization can be said to be synonymous with modernization in relation to the impact of the West on Africa.

The historical context of Westernization in Africa is the encounter with Europe, under the specific conditions of the Atlantic slave trade and the European colonial adventure, which was its logical extension. The forced acculturation of the black populations in the New World, already in full swing by the mid-eighteenth century, represents the first sustained assimilation of Western culture by Africans. It is significant to note the contribution that diaspora blacks were later to make to the process of Westernization in Africa, notably through their role in Christian evangelization and education.

The colonial factor was essential to the process of Westernization in Africa itself. The comprehensive reorganization of African societies in every sphere of life signaled a new dispensation that functioned as the comprehensive framework of the African experience under colonialism. The boundaries that resulted from the nineteenth century partition of Africa were determined without regard to antecedent institutions and cultures; the entities that emerged from partition represented a patchwork of administrative territories that in the twenty-first century have evolved into "modular states," each encompassing a diversity of languages and ethnicities. The colonial powers, especially the French and the Portuguese, undertook a systematic dismantling of indigenous institutions in order to establish colonial rule as the primary source of legitimacy in the territories they controlled. Moreover, they imposed new legal systems based upon European concepts of law, often at variance with indigenous legal systems and almost always with serious implications for such questions as property and inheritance.

A major effect of European colonialism was the progressive integration of Africa into the world capitalist system, within which Africa functioned primarily as a source of raw materials for Western industrial production. This required a total reorganization of African economic life, beginning with the introduction of the cash nexus and the imposition of taxation, which forced Africans into wage labor, a more intense and problematic variant of which was the migrant labor created by the mining industry in Southern Africa. Colonial economy also caused agriculture to be diverted toward the production of primary products and cash crops: cocoa, groundnut, palm oil, sisal, and so on. In the settler coloniesnotably in Kenya and Rhodesiathe alienation of native land complicated the economic situation of the indigenous populations. The infrastructure undertaken by the colonial administrations was minimal, developed strictly as a function of the requirements of the new economy, which saw the rise of the colonial cities such as Dakar, Lagos, Nairobi, and Luanda. Urbanization led to rural exodus and the displacement of large segments of the population.

It is against this background of the disagregation of African societies and the destabilization of African life that the impact of Christianity has to be considered, for this has been the most important single factor in the process of Westernization in Africa. Western education, involving literacy and the mastery of a European language, became the condition for entry into the modern sector. For most of the colonial period, education was in the hands of the Christian missions, who sought not only to convert Africans but also to inculcate Western values. In West Africa, the assimilation of Western lifestyles was mediated by returnees from the diasporathe West Indians, Brazilians, and Sierra Leoneanswhose education and skills enabled them to play an effective role in Christian evangelization and the nascent colonial civil service; their relatively privileged status enabled them to serve as a major reference group for indigenous Africans.

Christianity challenged traditional belief systems and promoted the diffusion of new ideas and modes of life; in particular, it sought to impose monogamy and the nuclear family as the norm. Romantic love and new conceptions of the self emerged, a development that was reinforced in the postwar period by the influence of the cinema and popular literature from the West. All over the continent throughout the colonial period, Africans were adopting new habits and acquiring new tastes derived from Western culture, often considered progressive in relation to traditional culture. This cultural revolution came to be associated with the new elite that was spawned by Christian education, an elite developed from an initial body of clerks, interpreters, and later, of teachers and lay preachers, expanding with time to include professionals, especially lawyers and doctors.

The ranks of the elite swelled with the establishment of the universities after World War II. Because they were linked at first with the metropolitan universities and staffed by Europeans, and the structure and content of the education they dispensed, they functioned essentially as outposts of Western culture, which thus proved a determining factor of modern cultural expression. This is attested by the dominance of Western-educated Africans, products of the new universities, in the genesis and evolution of a new literature written in the European languages, for which the forms and conventions of the metropolitan literatures have served as reference. Western cultural forms also provided expressive channels in other areas of aesthetic manifestation. This was most notable in music, where Western instruments such as the piano, the trumpet, and the guitar have been adopted by African artists to fashion a new musical idiom fusing indigenous and foreign modes, a creative syncretism that is forcefully demonstrated in African popular music, and that can be observed in other areas such as the visual arts.

The transformations provoked by the pressures of colonial rule in all spheres of life are sufficiently extensive and pervasive to qualify as the signs of a new modernity in Africa. In no area is the association of Westernization with modernization clearer than in the impact of science and technology on African experience and consciousness. Modern medicine has largely taken precedence over traditional methods in matters of health; ironically, the drastic reduction of infant mortality it has made possible has also complicated the demographic issues in Africa, with consequences for agriculture and social services. Although no major effort of industrialization took place during the colonial period, and there has been no significant development since, Western technology has long entered the lives of Africans through familiarity with manufactured products imported from the West.

As with other societies and cultures in the so-called Third World, the impact of Western civilization on Africa has occasioned a discontinuity in forms of life throughout the continent. This has led to a cultural dualism that often presents itself as a real dilemma in concrete, real-life situations. In other words, the African experience of modernity is fraught with tensions at every level of the communal and individual apprehension. African nationalism was predicated on the conjugation of nation-building and economic development as a means for the improvement in standards of living. Beyond these immediate objectives, it was concerned more fundamentally with the establishment of a new order informed by modern concepts of political life and behavior and by a rationality in conformity with a modern world outlook. The upheavals of the postindependence era have derived from the stresses arising from the quest for this ideal. It is thus fair to observe that the fundamental issue with which the contemporary societies of Africa are confronted is that of their full and orderly accession to modernity, that is, to a mode of collective organization based on the model of the liberal and democratic nation-state and of the industrial-technological civilization, a model that is associated with the West.

This is not to restrict Africans to a single model, nor to deny the capacity for adaptation manifested by African societies. There is an undeniable energy in the movement toward a new integration evident in the original forms of life and expression that have been evolved on the continent since the encounter with Europe. As Melville Herskovits and William Bascom have observed, "There is no African culture which has not been affected in some way by European contact, and there is none which has entirely given way before it" (p. 3).

Indeed, the significant fact about African cultural history is the convergence upon the indigenous tradition of the two external influencesthe Arab-Islamic and the European-Christianto which the continent has been exposed for well over a millennium. The values and lifestyles associated with these traditions have been assimilated and to a large extent indigenized on the continent. This observation provides a broader perspective on the phenomenon of Westernization in Africa, an observation made as early as the late nineteenth century by the great African cultural theorist Edward Wilmot Blyden and summed up in the late twentieth century by Ali Mazrui as "the triple heritage."

See also Arts: Africa ; Colonialism: Africa ; Diasporas: African Diaspora ; Religion: Africa ; Religion: African Diaspora ; Third World ; University: Postcolonial .


Ajayi, J. F. Ade. Christian Missions in Nigeria, 18411891: The Making of a New Elite. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1969.

Anderson, Benedict R. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso Editions/NLB, 1983.

Herskovits, Melville J., and William B. Bascom. "The Problem of Stability and Change in African Culture." In Continuity and Change in African Cultures, edited by Melville J. Herskovits and William B. Bascom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959.

F. Abiola Irele

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westernization: Africa." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Westernization: Africa." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (June 22, 2017).

"Westernization: Africa." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from



The word Westernizers appeared in Russia at the turn of the eighteenth century as the antonym to Easternizers and was used to denote Russian religious figures who minimized the difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy. The Orthodox Easternizers interpreted the term West as "sunset," "decline"; hence for them Westernizers embodied decline and darkness. In the 1840s, in the course of a heated discussion held in the Russian press as well as in St. Petersburg and Moscow literary salons, Russian thinkers discussed the specific character of Russian culture, the interrelation of Russia and Europe, and the further development of Russiaeither with Europe or along its own special path. Those who advocated rapprochement between Russia and Western Europe and adoption of the European way of life were called Westernizers. Those who defended a nativist course for Russia's development were called Slavophiles. These terms born in polemics were widely used in the press, literature, and everyday language of the intelligentsia. They were used for the division of people into allies and opponents. They were also used to mobilize the public under one banner or the other. After the 1860s, the term Westernizers was applied to the representatives of a variety of ideological trends whose pedigree could be traced to the Westernizers of the 1840s.

In modern scholarly literature, the term Westernizers is used in both a broad and a narrow sense. In its broad meaning the term denotes all people of a pro-Western orientation, irrespective of historical period, from the ninth century to the present time who, unlike Slavophiles, regard Russia and western European countries as indivisible parts of a united Europe, with common cultural and religious roots and a common destiny. In the narrow sense the term is used to denote Westernizers of the first post-Decembrist generation of the 1830s through the 1860s, and in this case they are called classical Westernizers.

Classical Westernizers had European education and largely belonged to the privileged nobility estate and intellectual elitepublicists, literary men, scientists, and university professors. In St. Petersburg of the late 1840s, some of them formed a group known to society as the Party of St. Petersburg Progress, which mainly consisted of young officials.

The philosophical views of Westernizers were formed under the influence of Western enlighteners and philosophers such as Georg Hegel, Johann Herder, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schelling, Johann Fichte, and Auguste Comte. As a way of thinking, Westernism was based on the recognition of the leading role of human intellect. Intellect pushed back faith, offering an opportunity to conceive of the world (including the world of social relations) as a system of cause-and-effect relations, governed according to laws common to animate and inanimate nature. The historical views of Westernizers were largely derived from the contemporary western European scholars Henry Buckle, François Guizot, Barthold Niebuhr, Leopold Ranke, and Auguste Thierry. Westernizers perceived historical process as the progress of society, a chain of irreversible qualitative changes from worse to better. They asserted the value of the human being as the carrier of intellect. They opposed individualism to traditional social corporatism (korporativnost ) and defined a just society as one that held all the conditions for the existence and self-realization of the individual.

The views of the Westernizers cannot be contained in a single work or document because these views had numerous shades and peculiarities. Some views differed substantially. As early as the 1840s two trends took shape among Westernizers: a radical one (A. I. Gertzen and N. P. Ogarev were its brightest representatives) and a liberal one comprising the overwhelming majority of Westernizers. Representatives of the first trend were not numerous. Some lived as emigrants and justified the use of violence for changing the existing political system. Representatives of the second trend were advocates of peaceful reforms. They advised bringing the pressure of the public opinion upon the government and spreading their views in society through education and science. Despite differences, however, the Westernizers' sociopolitical, philosophical, and historical views shared common features. They denounced serfdom and put forward plans for its abolition. They demonstrated the advantages of hired over serf labor. They criticized censorship, the absence of legal rights, and persecutions on ethnic and religious grounds. They contrasted the Russian autocratic system with the constitutional orders of western European countries, especially those of England and France. They advocated civil rights, democracy, and representative government. They called for a speedy development of industry, commerce, and railways, and supported the replacement of protectionism with a free-trade economic policy. Nevertheless, many Westernizers maintained a critical attitude toward the sociopolitical system of western European countries, which they regarded as a point of reference and not an ideal for blind imitation.

During the reign of Nicholas I, when practical political activities outside the frame of official ideology were impossible, Westernism was a purely ideological trend. Under Alexander II, Westernizers seized new opportunities for practical work: They played an active role in the preparation and implementation of the Great Reforms of the 1860s and early 1870s. In the post-reform era, Westernism provided the theoretical basis for the politics of liberalism. It also became the ideology of radical theories, which promoted ideas for changing an unjust society, based on belief in the value of the individual and the inadequacy of the official Orthodox religion.

After 1985 Westernism experienced a rebirth in Russian social thought. Polemics between supporters and opponents of Russia's rapprochement with the West continue to rest on arguments first articulated by the classical Westernizers and Slavophiles.

See also: great reforms; intelligentsia; slavophiles; thick journals


Edie, James M.; Scanlan, M. P.; and Zeldin, Mary-Barbara, eds. (1965). Russian Philosophy, Vol 1: The Beginnings of Russian Philosophy: The Slavophiles; The Westernizers. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Roosevelt, Priscilla R. (1986). Apostle of Russian Liberalism: Timofey Granovsky. Newtonville, MA: Oriental Research Partners.

Treadgold, Donald. W. (1973). The West in Russia and China: Religious and Secular Thought in Modern Times, Vol. 1: Russia, 14721917. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Walicki, Andrzej. (1975). The Slavophile Controversy: History of a Conservative Utopia in Nineteenth-Century Russian Thought, tr. Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka. Oxford: Clarendon.

Walicki, Andrzej. (1979). A History of Russian Thought: From the Enlightenment to Marxism, tr. Hilda Andrews-Rusiecka. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Boris N. Mironov

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westernizers." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Westernizers." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . (June 22, 2017).

"Westernizers." Encyclopedia of Russian History. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from



The relatively uncritical adoption of first European and then North America cultural and sociopolitical attitudes and practices on the part of the non-European and nonNorth American world.

Westernization is sometimes inaccurately equated with modernization, and by extension with modernization theory, a construct very much in vogue in "development" and foreign aid circles between the 1950s and 1970s. In spite of a certain estrangement in the early modern period, and because of its geographical location, the Middle East never entirely lost the contacts that it had had with Europe in the high Middle Ages. However, the Arab, Iranian, and Turkish world did not experience the European humanist Renaissance, or any equivalent of the European Reformation, and by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had lost most of the preeminence in science and technology that it had enjoyed earlier.

More regular contacts between the West and the Middle East were reestablished at the end of the eighteenth century, partly as a result of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt in 1798, although the Ottoman Empire was probably as much if not more affected by the territorial losses inflicted upon it by Austro-Hungarian and Russian military superiority earlier in the century. By this time, the West was clearly "ahead" in economic, material, political, and scientific terms, so that the relationship became one of dependency, by the Middle Eastern "periphery" on the Western "center." Between 1798 and 1914, much of the region became politically subject to Britain and France (and to a lesser extent to Italy, Russia, and Spain), and the areas that were not directly colonized became part of the "informal empire," that is, part of the orbit of the capitalist West.

In the course of the nineteenth century, many of the states in the region, particularly Egypt, Qajar Iran, the Ottoman Empire, and Tunisia, underwent programs of administrative, educational, judicial, and finally constitutional reform. To some extent these programs reflected pressures from Europe and incorporated deliberate borrowings from European models, but they were also responses to widely felt local needs to achieve greater administrative efficiency and consistency, to reduce arbitrariness and despotism, and to introduce concepts of legal equality and citizenship into public life. Thus the Hatt-i Şerif of Gülhane of November 1839, one of the key texts of the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms, declares that all Ottoman subjects should have complete security for life, honor, and property, and that they shall be taxed and conscripted fairly and equitably, but also that "these imperial concessions extend to all our subjects, of whatever religion or sect they may be."

The extent and speed of the changes that took place in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often introduced considerable confusion into the lives and thought of those involved. For example, the growing secularism of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe has not been easily transposed to the Middle East, with the result that the relationship between Islam and modernity, or the West, has never been satisfactorily worked out. It has proved almost impossible for believing Muslims to apply the same critical-historical methodology to Islamic history as most Christians or Jews would apply to discussions of Christian or Jewish history. At the same time, some Western social attitudes, especially those concerned with consumerism, dress, the consumption of alcohol, and the social mixing of the sexes, have either been vigorously embraced or equally vigorously rejected by Middle Easterners. The Persian author Jalal Al-e Ahmad coined the phrase Gharbzadagi, or "Westoxification" to describe this awkward and often disturbing ambiguity. In general, the notion that the Middle East simply copied everything from the West is too simplistic; the reality is far more complex and nuanced.


Abrahamian, Ervand. Iran between Two Revolutions. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Anderson, Lisa. The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya, 18301980. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Deringil, Selim. The Well-Protected Domain. London: I. B. Tauris, 1998.

Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 17981939. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1962.

Hunter, F. Robert. Egypt under the Khedives, 18051879. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984.

Martin, Vanessa. Islam and Modernism: The Iranian Revolution of 1906. London: I. B. Tauris, 1989.

peter sluglett

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westernization." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Westernization." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . (June 22, 2017).

"Westernization." Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and North Africa. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from


west·ern·ize / ˈwestərˌnīz/ • v. [tr.] (usu. be westernized) cause (a country, person, or system) to adopt or be influenced by the cultural, economic, or political systems of Europe and North America: the agreement provided for the legal system to be westernized | [as adj.] (westernized) the more westernized parts of the city. ∎  [intr.] be in the process of adopting or being influenced by the systems of the West: [as adj.] (westernizing) a westernizing tribe. DERIVATIVES: west·ern·i·za·tion / ˌwestərniˈzāshən/ n.west·ern·iz·er n.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"westernize." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"westernize." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . (June 22, 2017).

"westernize." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from



This entry includes three subentries:

Middle East
Southeast Asia

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westernization." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Westernization." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . (June 22, 2017).

"Westernization." New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from


Westernizers, in Russian history: see Slavophiles and Westernizers.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Westernizers." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 22 Jun. 2017 <>.

"Westernizers." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (June 22, 2017).

"Westernizers." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved June 22, 2017 from