How the Modernization of the Middle East Went Terribly Wrong

July 18, 2017 | Amir Taheri

Reminiscing about life as a journalist in Tehran in the 1970s, Amir Taheri recalls the advice of the numerous foreign intellectuals who visited the once-cosmopolitan city, which could be summed in one word: “modernize!” The Middle East has by no means failed to modernize; however, Taheri argues, it has done so in all the wrong ways:

Traditions that had provided a moral compass for centuries were now dismissed as cumbersome if not a sure sign of backwardness. Old institutions such as tribes, guilds, Sufi orders, clerical hierarchies, and family networks that had counterbalanced the power of the state were dissolved or weakened, leaving power concentrated in a few hands at the center of government. The aim was to “Westernize” as quickly as possible even if that meant the destruction of the indigenous culture which now appeared atrophied or degenerate. . . .

Another thing [the apostles of modernization] ignored was that in our neck of the woods, that is to say the Middle East, the machinery of state had modernized itself by enhancing its powers and developing new modes of control, manipulation, and repression. That, in turn, had led to the Westernization of part of traditional society that now used an essentially Western narrative in its struggle against the established order.

For example, the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s discourse owed more to Lenin and Stalin than to the great Muslim philosophers and theologians of the ages. The seizure of power by mullahs in 1979 highlighted Iran’s jump to Westernization. The revolt was dubbed a “revolution,” a Western concept for which we have no word in the Persian language. The mullahs organized a referendum, wrote a constitution, devised a Western-style flag, raised a Trotsky-style militia, and built a cult of personality around Khomeini modeled on the one that existed around Stalin.

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