Debating Western Influence in the Middle East – Lessons from Taha Hussein and Jalal Ale-Ahmad

Foreign governments–like the US, UK, France and Russia–and international organizations–like the IMF and UN–continue to exert tremendous influence on the fate of the Middle East. The current Iranian nuclear crisis, military aid to Israeli, the Syrian opposition and recent loans made to the hobbling Egyptian economy are a potent sampling of this reality. It is no coincidence that in courses like the one I currently teach–entitled the “Modern Middle East”–that the region enters into “modernity” via its subjugation to the European colonial enterprise beginning in the late 18th century. However, the connection between western influence on the one hand and the fate of the region on the other has always been hotly debated.

In this vein I am moved once again to share some insights following another lively discussion with my students. In the mid 20th century, as nations in the Middle East struggled for economic and political sovereignty, intellectuals came to different conclusions about western influence in the region. Two of these intellectuals are the Egyptian, Taha Hussein (d. 1973), and the Iranian, Jalal Ale-Ahmad (d. 1969). Like many elites Hussein believed that the only way to strengthen Egypt was through “Europeanization” (i.e. Westernization)–a case made amply clear in his works, including The Future of Culture in Egypt. By contrast Ale-Ahmad characterizes this kind of obsession with Europe as a disease usually translated as “Occidentosis” or “Westoxification” (Pers. gharbzedgi). The name of his famous book which bears this name draws a sharp division between East and West, and insists that the former remain colonized to the latter by means of consumerism and industrialization. Their ideologies were built to some degree on the secular and Islamist undercurrents within Egyptian and Iranian society at the time, but continue being debating across the greater Middle East today. I leave you with a quote by Hussein as well as Ale-Ahmad.


In order to become equal partners in civilization with the Europeans, we must literally and forthrightly do everything that they do; we must share with them the present civilization, with all its pleasant and unpleasant sides, and not content ourselves with words or mere gestures. …For our national defense we need a strong army, one equal in men and equipment to that of any potential aggressor. Our forces must be organized on the European pattern, particularly with respect to the training of soldiers, officers, and the various categories of specialists. I think all Egyptians would agree with this…We want to be like the European nations in military power in order to repel the attack of any aggressor and to be able to say to our English friends: “Thank you, you may go; for we can now defend the Canal.” Who wants the end must want the means; who wants power must want the elements constituting it; who wants a strong European-type army must want European training.

We also need economic independence. No one doubts or disputes this. Indeed, we clamor for it and importune the government to do whatever it can as quickly as possible. We want this independence not for its own sake, but for the protection of our wealth and resources. I do not mean we should be independent of the Hejaz, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq, but independent of Europe and America. We must therefore use the same means that the Europeans and Americans use to defend their national economies. This would entail, among other things, the building of schools to train our youth for this purpose. Again, who wants the end must want the means. It is not enough, not is it logical, for us to seek independence while we behave like slaves.

Further, we want scientific, artistic, and literary independence so that we may be equals, not slaves of the Europeans in these aspects of life too. Desiring this intellectual and concomitant psychological independence, we naturally must want the means, namely, studying, feeling, judging, working, and organizing our lives the way they do. We want, finally, to be free in our country, free from both foreign pressure and domestic inequity and oppression. The former requires strength, the latter democracy. If we aim at these ends we must adopt the means to acquire them. These are the means by which the European and American countries acquired their independence and their democratic government. Now that we have succeeded in restoring the honor and self-respect that come with independence, it is our plain duty to protect what we have won. We must rear a generation of Egyptian youth who will never know the humiliation and shame that was the lot of their fathers. Some Egyptians object to Europeanization on the grounds that it threatens our national personality and glorious heritage. I do not naturally advocate rejection of the past or loss of identity in the Europeans; …the only time that we might have been absorbed by Europe was when we were extremely weak, ignorant, and possessed of the notion that the hat was superior to the turban and the fez because it always covered a more distinguished head!…Although great powers imposed their will on us for many centuries, they were unable to destroy our personality. I am merely asking that the preservatives of defense, religion, language, art, and history be strengthened by the adoption of Western techniques and ideas
–Taha Hussein, The Future of Culture in Egypt


Looking more closely, we see many traces of this turn to the West. The water of life was in the Eastern darkness, but Alexander, who went in search of it, was a Westerner. Our own Nizami of Ganja called him a prophet, confounding him with Dhu’l-Qarnayn. The Garden of Eden is in the West, and ambergris always comes from the northwestern seas. Baghdad, the Mecca of the Manichaeans, was at the western edge of the Iranian plateau. The Zangi and Byzantine armies were compared to night and day or to the locks and the face of the Beloved. Perhaps for that reason no Eastern harem lacked for Byzantine slave girls, the heralds of day, imbued with whiteness and white luck. Regard gnosis for all its orientosis (if one may so term it): Sheykh San ‘an, the anchorite of the desert, falling for a Byzantine slave girl, apostasizes and dons the zunnar. Even Nargis Khatun, mother of the expected Mahdi of the Shi ‘is, is a slave girl of Byzantine extraction. There are many other examples we could quote. For us, never a callow, bigoted people, the way west has always been open. Like Sa’di, we went to Mecca via Tripoli to be set to corvee labor. Or we went to Karbala and Najaf to lay down our burdens. Or now we go to Europe to live it up.

All this traffic with the West is natural for a people who want every day to live better, know more, and die more at peace than the day before. There’s nothing extraordinary about it. It is inter-course with neighbors near and far. It is to seek to widen one’s humanity in other existential molds. What is strange is that, al though until some three hundred years ago our westward regard had, as its sole aspect, motive, and cause, hatred, jealousy, and rivalry, these have since been replaced by rueful, worshipful longing. We had always felt jealousy or hatred toward the West. We competed with her. We fought for her verdant lands, busy ports, placid towns, and steady rainfall. All through those bygone times, we regarded ourselves as worthy of possessing such bounty and our own beliefs and customs as true. We called them unbelievers; we saw them as lost souls. If despite the Sasanians’ fanatic Zoroastrianism we gave refuge to their scholars fleeing Alexandria and Con- stantinople, we evaluated these by our own criteria. At times we went so far as to declare open season on their lives and goods; thus we raided westward all we could.

All this rancor and competitiveness was a justification or motive for us to further extend the Assyrian domains, while tempering Assyria’s crudity. We thus brought cedar from Lebanon and gold from Lydia. We propagated the works of Aristotle during the European dark ages through our translations. We imported the Roman legion and Roman architecture. Whatever may be said of these two thousand years of transactions with the West, for all the reciprocal destruction (itself emblematic of life), each side came out the winner. Neither lost a thing.

If we have not dealt as two friends, we have certainly met as two rivals. And what could be better? We contributed silk and oil. We provided a passage to India, to Zoroaster and Mithra. We traveled in the quiver of Islam as far as Andalusia. We placed turbans from India and Khorasan on the heads of Islam. We transformed the divine farr into the halo and set it about the heads of the saints of Christianity and Islam.40 The list goes on and on. But for these last two or three centuries, we have known the other side of the coin: envy and regret.

We have forgotten the spirit of competition and come to feel in its place the spirit of helplessness, the spirit of worshipfulness. We no longer feel ourselves to be in the right and deserving. (They take the oil, because it is their right and because we cannot stop them; they manage our politics, because our hands are tied; they take away our freedom, because we’re unworthy of it.) If we seek to evaluate some aspect of our lives, we do so by their criteria, as prescribed by their advisors and consultants. Thus do we study; thus do we gather statistics; thus do we conduct research. This
makes sense insofar as science has universal methods: scientific methods bear the imprint of no nationality.

But what is curious is that we marry just like the Westerners. We pretend to be free just like them. We sort the world into good and bad along the lines they lay out. We dress like them. We write like them. Night and day are night and day when they confirm it.’ One would think our own values had been abrogated. We even pride ourselves in thus being their one-eyed offspring. One of the two ancient rival wrestlers has been demoted to the position of ring keeper; the other owns the ring. And the ring is filled with lust, stupidity, boasting, and vanity. What has happened in these last couple of centuries? What has happened to turn things upside down? Let us again turn to history to find out.

–Jalal Ale-Ahmad, Occidentosis: A Plague from the West


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