History of the Modern Middle East—Lecture 1 (Introductory Concepts) (3)

The following are notes from the lecture series done by Dr. Richard Bulliet for the History of the Modern Modern Middle East course held at Columbia University (Columbia Course Catalog No. W3719) in the Spring semester of 2009. 

5.  Modernization Theory and the History of the Modern Middle East

However, that was not the only option.  One of the most significant books to present the idea of “modern” for countries in the region was Bernard Lewis’s book The Emergence of Modern Turkey written in 1961.   It was an overwhelming success at the time, because not only did it give you a history of the Ottoman empire from the 19th to the 20th century, and the succeeding Republic of Turkey, but it give you a concept of what “modern” was.   He was not speaking specifically about a time period, but of what “modernity” meant.   What is the process by which people in Turkey are becoming “modern”?   It was the story of reform, Westernization, a whole series of quite well-described actions taken by rulers in the 19th and 20th century to discard the “traditional” way of life and to replace it with a “modern” way of life.   Contemporary with that work was the The Passing of Traditional Society:  Modernizing the Middle East by Daniel Lerner written in 1964.   It suggested that modernization is a precisely describable process by which each part of the world at its own pace will become more like … America.

The notion of a modern Middle East country meaning “a state controlled by the British” had involved into the idea of a country undergoing a process of modernization.  Theorizing about this process resulted in something called “modernization theory”.   The history of the modern Middle East was essentially eclipsed by modernization theory until the time of the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s.

The most recent edition of Bernard Lewis’ book The Emergence of Modern Turkey contains a preface describing how he came to write the book.   He felt a thrill in 1950 when Turkey had its first open election and the ruling party lost, but then peacefully ceded power to its opponent.   Even 50 years later, Lewis felt he could still remember the thrill he felt at the modern Middle East emerging in the results of this election.

By the time his book had been written in 1961, that government had been overthrown in a military coup, but Lewis’ vision never wavered.   In his book written in 2003, What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, Lewis basically is lamenting the fact that the Middle East did not continue to develop along the lines he thought it would back in the 1950s.

Modernization theory which took over is perhaps a little bit difficult to grasp today, but if you take a look at the book by Daniel Lerner, you will see that it was based on public opinion polls that were conducted in a number of countries in the Middle East.   90% of the questions in the polls deal with listening to radio and reading newspapers, because part of modernization theory was that people becoming modern by becoming exposed to modern media.   That’s why he weighted his polling questions so heavily towards them.   And he also weighed the opinions of those who got their news from modern media more heavily than those that did not.Modernization theory dominated Modern Middle East theory, but the period during which modernization theory was predominant was ironically the period during which the most important seminal works by Islamic thinkers were published.   No American graduate student working on Modern Middle East theory ever studied those authors based on one of the most important concepts of modernization theory, which was that religion would become more and more obsolete, and people would replace it with a “civic religion” based on the state.   Islam was vanishing, according to this view.

6.   The Re-Emergence of Islam in the Modern Middle East

Modern Middle East was born after World War II, but it had some serious birth defects, and these defects became apparent during the 1970s.   Getting people to realize what was happening was difficult.   From 1973 to 1975, Prof. Bulliet taught at Berkeley and was a colleague of Dr. Hamid Algar who was an expert on political Islam.   He had been born as Rodney (?) Algar but had converted to Islam in Iran.  He gained enormous respect in the Muslim community and had extensive connections with Muslim political activists, particularly in Iran.

Prof. Bulliet learned a lot from him and they were among a tiny handful of American scholars who could see what was going down in the area before the Iranian revolution.   It was clear that you had people here in the United States who were planning to participate in the revolution.   Prof. Bulliet remembered attending a conference at UCLA and he later discovered that all the Iranian students in attendance received a phone call from a man named Kolte Zadek (?) who said “meet me under the Pasadena freeway at such-and-such an exit, I’ll be wearing a red carnation and carrying helium balloons.”   It was all very conspiratorial.   He was trying to lure the students into the revolution against the Shah of Iran.   The Iranian scholars who were in the United States at that time were a group of people who had come to this country to do graduate studies and had been part of the anti-Shah underground students association and had decided that the revolution wasn’t going to happen.   They made a choice:  either they could go home and work for the revolution or stay in the United States and become professors.   None of them he could think of quit their jobs and joined the revolution, and when it came, they were devastated.   They had started out as revolutionaries, and now that the revolution was actually happening, they were just professors.   What a demeaning situation to end up in as a revolutionary; on the other hand, they’re all still alive.

You could see what was happening if you knew where to look.   Prof. Bulliet had an advantage because his research was mainly in Medieval Middle East history and so he knew a lot about Islam.    He was absolutely convinced that what was happening in the Middle East with regard to Islam was going to change history.   But the modernists didn’t know anything about Islam, and so they were caught unprepared and missed a lot of what was going on.

Prof. Bulliet visited Israel in 1980 and there was a conference where he gave a talk saying that the revolution of Iran and the rise of political Islam was the most important historical trend in the Middle East and it would be one that would affect the rest of their lives.    The intellectual elite all denounced Prof. Bulliet and had the newspapers write articles extremely critical of his views.   He was in the airport in Tel Aviv and he saw his picture on the cover of an Israeli newspaper and so he casually sidled over to the person reading the article and asked him what the article was about.  “Oh, it’s some stupid American that says Islam is important.”

If you were into modernization theory, if you saw history as a path or trajectory and you knew where the path would lead, your job was simply to identify the entities that were moving along that path, and show how they were gradually making progress towards American-style perfection.  They didn’t know what to do with the revolution in Iran.  People in the Middle East who sucked up to America, i.e., virtually every government, told Americans what Americans what they wanted to hear, namely that Shiites were fanatics but that Sunni Muslims were peaceful.  When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar converted to Sunni Islam from the Nation of Islam, that was the first time when the word “Sunni” became introduced to the American public.  So there was a general image that the “Sunni” Muslims were the “good” Muslims.

Although people in the government would tell the US that the Sunnis were the “peaceful” Muslims, they knew that this wasn’t always true.  Around 1982, Prof. Bulliet went on one of his first trips to Saudi Arabia, and he was in a conversation with an official in the Interior Ministry.  He asked the official whether he could ask about religious resistance to the Saudi regime, and he said there was.  In the Eastern province there were a lot of Shiites, and they were potentially revolutionary and so they were making sure that everybody in that area had appliances in their homes and paved roads, etc., to keep them happy.  Prof. Bulliet said he wasn’t asking about the Shiites, he was asking about the Sunnis.  He responded that there wasn’t any resistance; nobody about the Sunnis was opposed to the kingdom.  Prof. Bulliet said he would take that message back to the United States where he knew of students in secret cells in Texas who were plotting to overthrow the Kingdom and they were all Sunnis.  (He didn’t share any names with the official, of course…)

There was a tremendous amount of denial about the importance of Islam prior to and immediately after the Iranian revolution.  And yet, what Islam has become in political terms, in the balance of world strategic affairs, not to mention in personal terms for individual Muslims, is what is central to the Middle East now.  The problem is you can’t explain that centrality or even begin to guess at it by reading standard books on Modern Middle Eastern history, because they start with different premises.  They were based on the rise of nation-states, or they were interested in the process of modernity, or more parochially interested in the political fortunes of a certain ruler.

Tomorrow I will post Prof. Bulliet’s final remarks in the lecture, where he draws a remarkable parallel between the United States and Saudi Arabia when it comes to the role of fundamentalist religious movements.


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