Modernity in the Middle East

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Western political and social influence across the Middle Eastern region, such as Iran and Turkey as well as the Arab nations, shows the effects of modernization. A current example of this influence is visible in the capital cities of Cairo, Riyadh, Tehran, and Istanbul which have become Westernized in terms of appearance, culture, and modernization. Historically speaking, modernization refers to the significant social, political and religious changes that have occurred in these cities and that were accomplished through secret deals that took place during and after World War I. The modernization and transformational change that has taken place in these cities were also due to military conflict and political revolution. The most significant sources of Western influence and ideology that affected the Middle Eastern region and Arab nations were military conflicts and the Iranian Revolution. The extent of modernization can be best understood when analyzing the Middle East from a historical point of view. Similar to many other civilizations, the Middle East has been subject to numerous government conquests by individuals and groups connected to rebellion, uprising, and insurrection. Western forces often justify an invasion and/or military action because they believe it is their right or responsibility to protect their ideologies, such as democracy. Western leaders believe that it was their responsibility to expel political or religious ideologies that operate through reigns of terror because terrorist actions such as the bombings in Turkey conflict with Western belief systems; their self-proclaimed goal is to protect and ensure justice for the majority using secret political agreements as a catalyst for modernization. Therefore, Western ideologies confronted and challenged past and present Islamic traditions, questioning the social and political status quo. The modernization of these capital cities (Cairo, Riyadh, Tehran, and Istanbul) have included the same confrontation and challenge to Islamic traditions.

Concords and the Modernization of The Middle East and Arab Nations

Agreements, like the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Constantinople Agreement, were two Agreements used by Western powers to usher in modern change (Gelvin 186). Analyzing modernity in the Middle East is an appropriate undertaking, as the name “Middle East” is a contemporary idiom which became familiar beginning in the early 21st century. The arrival of new nation-states and their brush with the contemporary West was also a trigger to significant political and cultural occurrences, which contributed to modernism. Also, the role of religion is an underlying factor which affected modernization and continues to be debated across both the Middle Eastern region, as well as the Arab Nations. Its role is best analyzed by studying the Middle East and the Arab-speaking world separately, specifically Iran and Turkey being with mutually beneficial agreements (Tagharobi and Ali 206). 

Sykes-Picot Agreement 

The Sykes-Picot Agreement also referred to as the Asia Minor Agreement, is credited as being a catalyst in creating the modern Middle East and materialized from discussions between Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot, a political consultant to the Middle East during World War I and a French lawyer and diplomat, respectively. It was an almost decades’ long process that yielded modern Middle East states out of the Ottoman Empire remnants. The secret Agreement, which dates back to 1916, symbolizes one of the earliest forms of interventions of contemporary European and American interferences in the Middle East. The Agreement was made official by World War I Western Allied/Entente Powers, the United Kingdom, and France, during the San Remo Conference in 1920 and was accepted by the Russian Empire. The Sykes-Picot Agreement furnished a basic comprehension of both the British and French realm of power in the Middle Eastern region. Britain and France eventually seized the region on a decree, resulting in a part of the British acquired region later becoming Iraq. The purpose of the Agreements was also to drive a wedge between both the British and the French and the Ottoman Empire’s Arab provinces, with the exception of the Arabian Peninsula. The Agreement also specified their mutually agreed spheres of control, which included portions of Southwestern Asia. The significance of the Agreement in terms of Middle Eastern modernization related to the majority of the Arab lands that were under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which was separated into British and French sectors of power which were to take place at the end of World War I. 

The Agreement resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and created significant problems in the region, mainly because the colonial dissection was never well protected. The main reason being that the Agreement map dismissed native identities and political ideologies. It was also received as immoral by those who opposed it and continued to be viewed that way for over a century. Most importantly, the Agreement was recognized as one that provided a collection of impracticable and impossible promises that were made to the “Arabs”. It also played a primary role in the conflict after the United States invasion in the Middle East, as members of the Islamic State embarked on attempts to reverse the old borders (Wright). However, during that time, it was the current Western powers’ hypothesis to keep the Sykes-Picot borders, with the goal being to further modernize the region, socially and politically, which was similar to the Agreement which would modernize Turkey.

Constantinople Agreement

The modernization of Turkey historically referred to as the “Ottoman Empire” was the direct result of the details surrounding the Constantinople Agreement. According to the Agreement, “Britain and France recognized Russia’s claims to the Turkish Straits and the city that overlooked them, [which was] Istanbul” (Gelvin 186-187). Due to this recognition, France received acknowledgment for its self-acceded entitlement of Syria, which was never specifically outlined in the agreement, and Britain received acknowledgment for its self-claimed land in Persia. The Agreement also stipulated that Britain would gain power over a greater territory in Iran, and Russia would obtain control over Istanbul. In addition, Russia was promised the Dardanelle Straits, with Turkey bordering on the East. Britain’s decision to allow the Russians to gain power over both the Constantinople and the Dardanelles was the price it paid for keeping Russia’s presence in World War I. The Agreement was one of a series of consensuses that led to the modernization of the Middle East. The significance of the Agreement “[was] that it established the principle that [the] Allied/Entente Powers had a right to compensation for fighting their enemies and that at least part of that compensation should come in the form of territory carved out of the Middle East” (Gelvin 187). 

Modernization of the Middle East

Western modernization and involvement continue to be an issue facing the Middle East. Since the beginning of the U.S./Iraq War in 2003, Western and other nations, such as the United States, Europe, and Russia have spent tens of billions of dollars daily in military and civilian operations to remake the Middle East’s ideologies, with many arguing that the presence of these forces was done intentionally to change political, social, and religious norms to gain more control of the region’s natural oil resources. However, Western forces have aborted its monumental goal of total the Middle East regional transformation and opted for restoring stability and control of the region. The war would become known for creating one of the world’s greatest humanitarian refugee crisis, which currently continues to spread across the region. It has been also been argued that the War was really a plan to modernize the social and political fabric of the region but could not be accomplished without toppling the then current regime of Sadam Hussein. To this date, the West, which is headed by the United States, has earmarked hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve that goal, as have other nations, who are seeking different political outcomes, which were in contrast to the region’s own political, religious, and social standards. 

Modernization of The Arab Speaking World

Kamaly addresses the role of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which culminated in the complex modernization of the Middle East (ix). The modernization of Iran started when a vital mass in the societal region disowned a life of introversion and took on a more assertive, extroverted approach and engaged in a catalyst of action. During this time, it was discovered that modern civilization was not a passive society but one in which held a mass of strength and energy. It is without question that the Revolution and the Islamic Republic, created in the aftermath, discouraged some of most the significant characteristics of modernity. Looking back, it is clear that some thirty years prior to the Revolution was the initial stages of modernity being laid down, although Janus-faced. In relation to Iran, there were theoretical norms that resulted in the perception of modernity as a transformation in the human subconscious mind that empowered natives in a way that they would no longer simply be bystanders but instead become more aggressive in bringing about change. This was seen as their obligation and responsibility as a collective force to move forward and take a proactive stance. It was from this viewpoint that it had to be understood that the idea of modernity was debatable, even controversial. Perhaps the reason being was the encapsulation of differing methods of interpretation, values, and viewpoints, all resulting in a change in religious, social, and political life for the Iranian people, with the greatest impacts being recognized in Tehran, Iran and Istanbul, Turkey, with the rise of General Reza Khan being the driving force.

General Reza Khan took power in a coup d'état in February 1921, creating a constitutional monarchy, which resulted in the toppling of Ahmad Shah Qajar in 1925. This brought about various political, social, and economic reforms. Most of these changes resulted in major societal resentment which laid the foundation for the Iranian Revolution. Islamic laws were replaced with Western laws, which banned traditional Islamic wear. The laws not only caused the separation of men and women but also for women to be veiled. To enforce these extreme changes, legal authorities carrying out Reza’s orders, ripped chadors off women who did not want to comply with his orders. In 1935, there was a rebellion that left many citizens maimed and injured, along with many being killed. Also, during Reza’s early rise, the Qom Seminary was established by Abdul-Karim Ha'eri Yazdi, which resulted in significant seminary changes. Surprisingly there were no attempts to take on any type of political issues, which gave a nod for similar religious leaders to follow. As a result, there were no massive anti-government protests during Reza’s rule. However, modernization proved to have a significant impact on technology, socialization and Islam Politics after the Revolution.

Modernization, Technology & Islam Politics

Abu-Lughod examines the politics of television and its role in shifting politics and political movements in the Middle Eastern region (ix). This form of then-modern technology resulted in introducing the television as a medium which was clearly connected to the nationalist political goals of the Egyptian government under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Since then technology has played a greater role in political movements and tensions across the region, which has intensified after the U.S. Iraq War of 2003. Today, Islam Politics has spread through Internet technology and has replaced the politics of television and has had a more effective and larger global platform. Political Islam also refers to a particular facet of the Islamic resurrection that started during the modernization of the 20th century. Intervention by political extremists groups and Islamic movements at this level has changed the course of politics and daily life throughout the Middle Eastern region. Most importantly, the emergence of modernity had a significant role in Middle Eastern influence on political, social and religious changes that took place throughout that region during the past decades, particularly in Uzbekistan,  Egypt, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. 

Modernization has also been the result of the cause of Muslim Extremists and Islamic Movements yielding political developments throughout the region. These increasing forces continue to cause chaos and uncertainty which endangers the basic Islamic political concepts, which include elected leadership or those who were in line to come into power after the Prophet Caliphs. These forces are a vast range of individuals and political and religious-based groups who are proponents of the transformation of the current state of the Middle Eastern region and its impact on society and its lack of reflection of modern day Islamic ideologies. They believe that similar outside interferences of modernity which have reshaped the West has infiltrated Muslim society and negatively impacted Middle Eastern politics and has been the cause of several modern conflicts. These include the Iran–Iraq War, The U.S.-Iraq War, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and most importantly, the Arab Spring and the arrival of Islamist extremist groups, such as ISIL and the Taliban, who capitalized on the use of technology.

Middle Eastern politics were made more complex and multifaceted by the use of technology and the rise of the global jihadist movement. The groups’ sophisticated use of social media as a recruitment and fundraising tool has been very effective in reaching sympathizers around the world. This shows a level of modernization which represents a new form of unelected leadership. This type of leadership is problematic in the Middle Eastern region because it causes modern conflicts. They include conflicts in messaging that conflict with long-established Islamic moral values and principles. Also, these new messages do not pay homage to Islam as an origin of law or to Islamic ideals and values recognized as a foundation for the Middle Eastern region and Arab speaking states, which caught the attention of groups and individuals who advocate for social and political change through uprisings and anti-government protests by armed rebellions.

The Arab Spring has led to significant political gains for Egyptian Islamists, as well as having introduced the role of social media in Middle Eastern politics. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood’s movement represents the governing majority in the government of Egypt, because it is viewed as both an Islamic religious and political group that was established based on the concept that Islam is both a religion and a lifestyle. The group is also a proponent of motioning away from secularism and going back to the laws of the Quran, especially as a guide for spiritual leadership in the region. This form of modernization has continued to move across the Middle East region, and in doing so has promoted a contemporary set of Islamic cultural contexts, global viewpoints, and expectations across the region. 

Altinay discusses the transformation from Ottoman Nationalism to Turkish Nationalism. Ottoman Nationalism was the attempt to develop a new nation referred to as the “Ottoman nation” inside of existing Turkish borders (16). This occurred for approximately 700 years under the Ottoman Sultans’ rule. During this time, the Ottoman Sultan was recognized as the supreme regional leader.  He also was the ruler of both the state and the government, as well as the territory’s political, military, judicial, social, and religious leader, with his words accepted as the rule of law and final legislation. As the Supreme Leader, according to him, he would be held accountable only to Allah and God's Laws. Turkish nationalism was one of the last ethnic nationalisms to develop within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. It was only around the turn of the century that Turkish nationalism became an articulate ideology. The end of the Ottoman Empire was recorded as a period of years of great loss and agony because of World War I. The end of World War I found a period of confusion within the Turkish borders but was ended when Kemal Ataturk came into power setting in motion the modernization of Turkey. He was recognized as being very well received and fascinating, with most Turks accepting his visions. However, Atatürk ‘s changes yielded a more secular society, causing some people to dissent. 

As the leader of the newly created Turkish Republic, Ataturk initiated a meticulous program of societal reforms with the goal of establishing a modern, emerging and secular nation. He was sure that Turkey should undergo a transformation to become a modern nation, which is why he established a modernization program in the Turkish region. He also clearly laid out his vision of what a modern nation would be under his leadership. Ataturk explained that he wanted men and women to be viewed as equals and was a believer that women and girls should be educated. His vision of female equality would also include a women’s right to vote and be able to work in both the private business and government sectors. He also created a western style judicial system. Also, similar to Western modernized marital laws, Ataturk made it illegal for a man to have more than one wife, which conflicted with practices described and allowed in the Quran. His vision also included calling for the Western script to play a greater role in the nation.  His strategy for achieving this goal was to incorporate a Western alphabet into society and called for that print to be used for all periodicals and books, as well as public street signage. His argument for making such a controversial decision was his conceptualization that the complex nature of Arabic script played a significant role in Turkey’s illiteracy rate. As a result, he took a personal interest in ensuring that the nation’s citizens could learn how the letters and words were articulated. He also argued that native script was also very difficult for foreigners to comprehend. Also, modernized social changes also included reforming clothing that reflected long-established Turkish wear, even going so far as to banning customary Turkish clothing to ensure that citizens looked civilized according to Western modernity standards. 

Modernization and Religion

After the modernization of the Middle Eastern region, Western powers have implemented their interpretation of Islam and the role they perceived it to have on the Middle Eastern region and its culture. Mitchell refers to The Cambridge History of Islam writings to support this argument by stating that the writings: 

describe[s] urban life as a model or ideal at the centre of Islam, [as well as] an ideal whose strange material [is an] embodiment in actual Middle Eastern towns [which has] [become] a 'paradox' of Islamic society [where] [t]he urban ideal of Islam created no forms, no urban structure [and] replaced the solidarity of a collective community with an anomalous disorganized heap of disparate quarters and elements. [The writings go on to say that] [b]y a really very remarkable paradox, this religion [is] endowed with the idea of urban life produced the very negation of urban order. (58)

Perhaps what is not clearly understood from the outsiders is that religion was the foundation of political identity in the pre-modern Middle East, which came from the Muslims’ comprehension of Islam’s foundational significance and state establishments that came into existence with the growth of the Islamic Empire. In fact, at the start of the 19th century, European colonial authority, along with aboriginal reformers, was inquisitive about the significance of regional religious acknowledgment and importance, especially its role in defining the political community. This authority and need to better understand how grounded the Muslim faith was embedded in the region continued and caused the infiltration of 20th century religious and political ideological conflicts in the region, modernizing and molding the claims of secularists and Islamists. Currently, proponents of religious change look back to pre-modernization Islamic history as they seek to place religion over national identity, in efforts to determine the distinction between religious and secular schools’ national identities in a modernized Middle Eastern region. As far as the modernized Middle East, one can also see that the region is also torn apart by conflicts of regional identity, with religion being the primary basis for these tensions, even in terms of the redefining of social norms in major cities such as Iraq, Cairo, Istanbul, and Tehran, beginning with the Iranian Revolution, spawning social change. 

Modernization and Social Transformation

Modernization, which occurred after the revolution, also resulted in social reform, which had a major impact on Iranians and the Arabic speaking population. This was especially the case for women, especially in relation to the ceiling. Changes were also present in education, which became very conservative. State universities were made to alter their curriculum to reflect Islamic ideology, and social sciences had been eliminated. Men and women and were educated using different standards. However, the literacy rate increased but did so in order to spread Islamic ideology and philosophy throughout the region. In addition, socializing in any manner that reflected Western modernization, such as parties and other social gatherings, were prohibited and were carried out incognito. The arts were state-controlled, which was evidenced by the fact that foreign entertainment was not allowed, especially that which reflected Western cultural influence. Women were regulated to take on some responsibilities, with their primary responsibilities being to obey their husbands and maintain Islamic values. Also, prior to the Iranian Revolution, there was a severe polarization between social and gender classes, which resulted in an economic imbalance.  

After the Revolution, women were recognized in the education system, laws, marriage, and various professions. All of the limitations and legal changes which promoted gender bias, especially in differing education standards for men and women were addressed. The issues relating to the inequalities between women and men in professional positions were also remedied, resulting in a narrowing of the disparities. There were also changes in the legal systems in terms of the biased and unfair criminal laws that were in place. There was greater equality between the sexes, despite the perception of the Middle Eastern countries. This was especially important in scenarios where women were witnesses and their testimonies where valued at half that than the male counterparts. However, although modernization has resulted in great changes in Iran and Turkey, there continues to be religious conflicts in Iran, impact political, social, and religious norms. 

Modernization and Religion

Kamaly also argues that it is impossible for one to comprehend the region without analyzing the role of religion and its Awakening in 1979, especially its interpretation of Islam (8). In that regard, the modernized connection between religion and politics should be analyzed from a historical context, beginning with ancient times. In addition, the role of Iranian religious leaders in political movements reveals the extent of the Iranian government involvement in Shia radicalism. It can be argued that the Iranian modernity was the result of the introduction of Shi'ism as a smaller, more radical faction of Islam, which continues to be evidenced in the Iranian national character of religious separation, as well as that of country’s historical norms related to its positions as a regional power, coming from its capital city of Tehran. Shi'ism is best described as a modernized remnant of the Iranian past religious norms which contributes to Islamic civilizations. Shi'ism is also an example of the nation’s ancient tradition of declaring its independence in the modern era, during a period of world transformation led by Middle Eastern and Arab nation superpowers. Post-modernity, it is clear that Iran is the origin of Shi'ism and is recognized in the region that Shi'ism is the current face of Islamic Iran.


Modernity has resulted in the Western political and social influence which has rapidly spread through parts of the Middle Eastern region and Arab speaking nations. From a historical perspective, Western powers brought modernity to the Middle East through the use of secret treaties, such as the Constantinople Agreement, and the Sykes-Picot Agreement. The modernization of Arab speaking nations of the Middle East eventually led to uprisings, coups, anti-government protests and reformist movements, such as the Iranian Revolution, Arab Spring, and other movements, which transformed Arab nations such as Iran and Turkey. This is not astonishing considering the level of Western influence and modernity of capital cities such as Iraq, Egypt, Tehran, former capital of the Qajar Dynasty and Istanbul. After the end of military conflicts and reforms, some regions’ economic, religious, political, social, and cultural revisionisms reflect Western influences, resulting in more civil and to a certain extent, a more democratic and stronger Middle Eastern region and Arab nations.  

Lastly, modernization also led to the revitalization of capital cities, such as Iraq, Tehran, and Istanbul. Today, these cities have been reconstructed and resemble modern Western cities and include the revamping of legal, educational, health, banking systems, infrastructure, transportation, factories, commercial service industries, suggesting that modernization, to a certain extent, has been accepted throughout the Middle East and Arab nations.

Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila. Dramas of Nationhood: The Politics of Television in Egypt. The University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Altinay, Ayse  Gul. The Myth of the Military-Nation: Militarism, Gender and Education in Turkey. Palgrave MacMillian, 2004.

Gelvin, James. L. The Modern Middle East: A History, 3rd ed., Oxford Press University, 2011.

Kamaly, Hossein. God and Man in Tehran: Contending Visions of the Dive from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic. Columbia University Press, 2018.

Lewis, Bernard. “The Middle East, Westernized Despite Itself.” Middle East Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 1, 1996, 

Mitchell, Timothy. “Colonising Egypt.” Columbia University Press, 1988, Timothy Mitchell - Colonising Egypt-University of California Press (1991).pdf. Accessed 17 April 2019.

Tagharobi, Kaveh and Ali, Zarei. “Modernism in the Middle East and the Arab World.” Routledge Encyclopedia of the Modernism, 206, DOI: 10.4324/9781135000356-REMO14-1. 

Wright, Robin. “How The Curse of Sykes-Picot Still Haunts the Middle East.” The New Yorker, 30 April 2016, Accessed 19 April 2019.