Ideology, Political, Middle East

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Ideology, Political, Middle East

European colonialism elicited in the Middle East a wide range of ideological reactions, both at the official and unofficial levels. These reactions ranged from outright rejection or defiance to a gradual acceptance of the inevitability of instituting reforms or overhauling entire political and economic systems. In the nineteenth century, these reactions were largely couched in religious terms and suffused with references to indigenous cultural traditions. However, as the century wore on a new ideological vocabulary began to be adopted. Such a vocabulary was soon to develop into an all-encompassing discourse embracing ideologies as disparate as liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and Marxism. Nevertheless, the seeds of such a discourse were first planted in the nineteenth century, despite its dominant religious overtones.


The nineteenth century witnessed the steady and large-scale intrusion of Western colonial powers in the Middle East. These intrusions took the form of either outright military conquest or repeated attempts to open local markets to Western goods and industrial commodities. These twin movements were also supposed to allow Western powers to obtain inexpensive primary sources and agricultural products for their own markets and industries. The end result of such policies was to create a wide gap between an advanced Western set of institutions and structures and other societies increasingly perceiving themselves to be falling behind in the realms of nation building, sound economic development, and cultural progress. In other words, the indigenous articulation of new ideas and ideological responses was in large measure conditioned by the inexorable advance of European colonialism as an all-pervading movement. Ottoman officials and bureaucrats, as representatives of the most prominent and powerful Middle Eastern state, put forward one of the earliest ideas designed to halt the decline of the Ottoman Empire, on the one hand, and check the colonial encroachments of European powers, on the other.

The first ideological articulations were initially confined to military and administrative measures. The defeat of Ottoman forces by European armies on numerous occasions could be said to have dictated such an initial diagnosis. It was thus thought that European supremacy resided in the production and acquisition of better armaments and as a result of a coherent set of rules capable of creating efficient systems of organization. What the Ottoman state needed to do was simply acquire such military equipment, and hire Western experts to acquaint local soldiers with their mode of operation and deployment, in addition to mastering the art of administering institutions closely connected with enforcing law, order, and security.

This line of reasoning gained widespread support under Sultan Selim III (r. 1789–1807) and his successor Mahmud II (r. 1808–1839), as well as the autonomous governor of Egypt, Muhammad 'Ali (r. 1805–1848). As these military and administrative reforms did not succeed in halting either the decline of the empire or the increasing presence of European influence, it was now thought that more radical reforms had to be implemented in order to create viable political structures and revive the old spirit of military efficiency. This meant the introduction of a number of new ideas that broached for the first time the question of nationality, political identity, and the rights of citizens, albeit citizens who were at the same time loyal subjects of their emperor. Hence such a political program, proclaimed toward the end of the 1830s, constituted a revolutionary intellectual rupture, heralding thereby far-reaching repercussions in the development of modern Middle Eastern culture and theoretical debates.

So it was that hitherto purely communal, local, or tribal affiliations were to be transcended and linked to the notion of equality based on the presumption of sharing a common national identity, to be later elaborated as Ottomanism. Moreover, individuals, rather than communities, were henceforth to be equal subjects of one single state, governed by a uniform set of standard rules and laws, irrespective of race, religion, or language. The idea of a common fatherland (watan) was consequently highlighted as an essential prerequisite for building a modern state capable of meeting the challenges of Western domination.

Because those who articulated such arguments belonged to the official stratum of state representatives, their reforms were restricted to what became known as the twin concepts of modernization and centralization. Such an attitude excluded the possibility of introducing universal suffrage or the idea of democratic participation as part of the rights and duties of citizenship. More importantly, these reforms were deemed to derive from Islam itself as a religion based on rationalism and the notion of self-renewal. It was in this context that those who wished to widen the scope of these reforms, or render them more coherent practically and theoretically, reached back for the same Islamic traditions to put forth the case for a new vision.


Launched in its systematic formulations by a group dubbed the Young Ottomans, organized in 1865, this trend developed in direct response to the officially inspired movement known as the Tanzimat, or reorganization, which had by now embraced the central Ottoman establishment, Egypt, Tunisia, and Iran to a lesser degree. These Young Ottomans, or their counterparts in various Middle Eastern and North African countries, represented a new intelligentsia whose members were products of modern institutions and networks introduced by the first generation of reformers. Being educated in secular schools and largely familiar with Western ideas, while at the same time deprived of the opportunity to influence the decision-making process of their states, they began to articulate a counter-ideology based on a rigorous theoretical approach. Although the adherents of this approach represented diverse groups and sometimes divergent political attitudes, they shared a number of common ideas that have been given the label of Islamic reformism. Moreover, their ideas roamed far and wide, embracing in their sphere of operation not only religion or politics, but literature, the arts, theatre, poetry, journalism, and translation of foreign works, particularly French and English.

By and large, this new trend accorded Islam a more prominent position as an ideological system, deeming it capable of meeting the demands of modernity and its institutions, while keeping its original message intact. The reformers did so by reinterpreting certain traditions, practices, and Qur'anic injunctions in such a way as to make them in complete harmony with the notions of constitutionalism, parliamentary systems of government, and the rights of nationality.

Although some religious leaders, such as the fiery Persian-born militant and intellectual Jamal al-Din alAfghani (1839–1897) and his disciple the Egyptian reformer Muhammad 'Abduh (1849–1905), came out in favor of such novel interpretations, the ulema (the body of Muslim scholars and officials) as a professional group were largely opposed to such innovations for theoretical reasons or as a result of pragmatic calculations. It was during the second half of the nineteenth century that this modern, Western-educated intelligentsia began to replace the religious leaders in various realms and fields relating to education, justice, and the promulgation of new laws, or by simply articulating the grievances of their communities.

As a political force, Islamic reformism scored a number of practical victories when various Ottoman provinces introduced quasiparliamentary institutions in Tunisia (1860) and Egypt (1866), culminating in the promulgation and endorsement of an Ottoman constitution in 1876 that provided for an elected chamber. However, these experiments were short-lived either because of constant colonial interventions, as in Tunisia and Egypt, or as a result of combined internal and external pressures, as in the case of the Ottoman Sultan 'Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909) proroguing the Parliament and suspending the constitution until 1908. By this time, new ideas and ideologies were being entertained to counter both internal tyranny and external interference.


By the turn of the twentieth century the question of national identity came to the fore in ideological debates of the members of the Middle East intelligentsia. In the central Ottoman establishment it was taken up by military officers, college teachers, journalists, and lawyers as an exercise in discovering the best means of balancing purely Turkish interests with those of other nationalities in the empire, mainly Arabs, Armenians, Kurds, and Albanians. Whereas Ottomanism was the preferred option of a previous generation, the Young Turks, who restored the Ottoman constitution of 1876 in the wake of the 1908 revolution, began to favor a program of tighter central control. This program, while not aiming at relinquishing the idea of the unity of imperial domains, envisaged the Turks as the central community charged with preserving its integrity. The era of constructing national identities had begun.

The other Middle Eastern nationalities were at the same time rediscovering their own identities in a more systematic and persistent fashion. It was now assumed that each ethnic or linguistic community possessed its own distinct history, language, and territory, and was therefore entitled to form its own nation-state. However, Arab intellectuals in particular did not at first argue the case for outright separatism, aiming instead at some form of decentralization whereby both Turks and Arabs would enjoy equal rights. Nevertheless, the outbreak of World War I put an end to such schemes. On the other hand, European Zionist organizations had by this time set their eyes on Palestine as the future site of the dispersed Jews of the world. More importantly, since its inception Zionism sought the backing of major Western powers as a prerequisite condition for its success.

The idea of building a modern nation-state, based on a combination of distinct factors or ingredients, was to a large extent inspired by a number of European or Western examples, ranging from England and France to Italy and Germany. Although the new imperialist fever, which, at this stage, gripped various Western states, did not escape their notice, most Middle Eastern thinkers and writers married their nationalist aspirations to a liberal model of state and government, echoing the general themes of the Enlightenment, as well as those of the American and French revolutions.

More importantly, local political alliances were largely dictated by the disposition of European powers and their particular strategies. Thus the period between 1900 and 1950 was essentially characterized by the struggle for independence from the tutelage or occupation of one European power or another. It was intellectually dominated by ideological options revolving around the best way of constructing national identities and the problem of adopting an appropriate system of governance in the wake of liberation. It was also in this period that the rights of women became a controversial issue, either supported or rejected by various members of the intelligentsia.

Broadly speaking, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire allowed Turkey to emerge as a fairly homogenous nation-state under the leadership of its nationalist hero, Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938). Adopting a program of sweeping changes, Atatürk discarded all the remaining religious symbols of the old empire and opted for a secular system of government, unabashedly modeled on European lines. However, having experimented with its failed liberal phase earlier than other Middle Eastern states, the new Turkey introduced authoritarianism as the most efficient instrument of development and national renewal. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that democratic politics or pluralism began to take hold in Turkish public life.

In Iran, a similar pattern of intellectual debates and ideological allegiances emerged from 1900 onwards. Reacting to commercial and financial concessions granted to Western interests and companies, Iranian intellectuals and enlightened religious leaders published tracts, pamphlets, and newspaper articles praising the benefits of constitutional government and parliamentary elections. Iran's 1906 revolution represented the culmination of these ideological debates and ushered in a brief period of liberalism in state institutions. However, the shah, Muhammad Ali (1907–1909), with the aid of Russia, was able to put an end to such an experiment within a few years.

A new generation of Iranian writers, journalists, and historians emerged in the 1920s and 1930s as the advocates of a new type of Iranian nationalism that emphasized the pre-Islamic glories and culture of Persia, thereby rediscovering or resurrecting at the same time its Aryan identity. This tended to marginalize, at least at the state level and its institutions, the religious discourse and its representatives. Such a state of affairs continued to manifest itself under various forms until the Iranian Revolution of 1979, led by Ayatollah Khomeini (1900–1989).

In the Arab world, both liberalism and nationalism were at first embraced as two concomitant concepts, equally validated by religion, reason, and the example of Western states in their positive domestic achievements, as opposed to their negative foreign policies. Liberalism was, for example, enthusiastically acclaimed by large sections of the Egyptian, Moroccan, and Syrian educated elites between 1900 and 1952, before they became disillusioned with its efficacy either in regenerating political participation or achieving national independence. Some Egyptian leaders and writers, such as Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid (1872–1963), introduced to the Arab reading public the ideas of the British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) and his brand of liberalism, while one of the most popular Egyptian nationalists, Mustafa Kamil (1874–1908), insisted on the twin goals of complete independence and the establishment of a parliamentary system of government.

Moreover, nationalism in the Arab world was both local, centering on a particular Arab state, and general, embracing all the Arab lands. The first trend was particularly pronounced in North African countries and Lebanon—but tended to lose its local peculiarities by the second half of the twentieth century. It was then that Arab nationalism came into its own as a dominant ideology, particularly under the leadership of the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918–1970).

Arab nationalism was represented by three closely related ideological currents: Nasserism, named after the Egyptian president; Baathism, deriving from the pan-Arab political party, the Arab Socialist Baath Party, set up in Damascus in 1947; and the Movement of Arab Nationalists, founded by Palestinian, Syrian, and Kuwaiti former students of the American University of Beirut in 1952. They all called for the liberation of Arab lands from colonialist domination or control, considered Zionism as an alien movement allied to the ultimate aims of colonial powers, and sought to chart an independent socialist path of economic development as the only viable solution to dependency and backwardness.


However, prior to the ideological hegemony of Arab, Turkish, and Iranian nationalisms, two other trends made their appearance in the 1920s and 1930s as part of the intellectual and political landscape. The first trend was represented by communism in its Soviet version, while the other was embodied in Islamist organizations seeking to turn Islam into a political system. Communist parties in the Middle East were established, after the triumph of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, in Turkey, Iran, Syria/Lebanon, Palestine, and Egypt.

By the 1940s there were communist parties in almost every Middle Eastern state. The parties that made the most enduring impact were those of Iran, Syria/Lebanon, Iraq, and the Sudan, particularly after World War II. These parties adopted ideological and political attitudes that were in line with those of the Soviet Communist Party, preaching a message of anti-imperialism and championing the cause of the working classes, broadly interpreted to include peasants and civil servants. Moreover, Marxism, in its Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban varieties, enjoyed for a brief moment after 1967 a noticeable ideological ascendancy in Iran, Turkey, and the Arab world, serving in the process to inject its theoretical concepts and units of analysis (such as class struggle and the characteristics of imperialism) into the intellectual discourse of purely nationalistic movements.

On the other hand, Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (founded in 1928) and its subsequent expansion into other Arab countries, Fedayeen of Islam in Iran (founded in 1942), and other groups, were initially anti-colonialist organizations opposed to British, French, and Western interests in the region, with particular emphasis on their rejection of the harmful effects of these cultures and their permissible moral values. However, by the mid-1950s and the onset of the Cold War, political Islam became more identified with the struggle against communism rather than imperialism in its American incarnation. Such a state of affairs persisted until 1975 in some countries, and well beyond that in other countries. This was particularly the case in Afghanistan when Islamist fighters from all over the Arab world joined the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan in their efforts to resist the Soviet invasion of 1979. The final split between Islamism, in its Sunni varieties, and American policies in the Middle East did not occur until after the liberation of Kuwait in 1991.

The defeat of the Arab armies by Israel in 1967, the death of Nasser in 1970, the sudden rise in oil revenues after 1973, the growing repression in Iran of the regime of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi (r.1941–1979), the intensification of the Soviet-American rivalry, and the demographic explosion in all Middle Eastern countries, coupled with the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union—all these factors combined to herald new ideological configurations across the region. The most noteworthy feature was the fierce assault on radical movements associated with what came to be known as the ideology of secularism. In this sense, secularism was used by its critics to denote and identify a set of ideas associated with Western culture and values. Thus, liberalism, nationalism, and socialism were all condemned and considered to have caused irreparable harm to the inner and authentic dynamics of Arab and Muslim civilizations.

This assault coincided with a new wave of democratization that swept across Eastern Europe, Latin America, and some Afro-Asian countries. It was in this context that the region seemed to be polarized between two currents of thought and practice. One current, initially classified under the controversial rubric of fundamentalism, received its most spectacular vindication with the triumph of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The other current grew amongst circles of writers, intellectuals, and professional groups formerly associated with authoritarian ideologies that favored one-party rule and excluded pluralist democracy as a reactionary ideology linked to the interests of particular social groups and their colonial masters. Such a line of argument was suddenly dropped in favor of a new discourse born out of what came to be known as the necessity of conducting intellectual self-criticism as a prelude to regaining the initiative in the face of new dangers emanating either from within or from Western powers.

Arab authoritarian regimes, facing the twin challenges of fundamentalist politics and democratic arguments, coupled with external pressures and mounting economic problems, responded by introducing reforms of liberalization and privatization. However, these reforms have so far failed to yield concrete and enduring results owing to their haphazard application, or to the reluctance of the leaders of these regimes to accept the full implications of democratic participation. Turkey and Iran have faired better as they both embrace pluralistic politics, with the former approaching a Western-type democracy and the latter restricting participation to a limited number of vetted candidates.

see also Abdülhamid II; Afghänï, Jamal ad-Dïn al-; Empire, Ottoman; Empire, Russian and the Middle East; Islamic Modernism.


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