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Introduction – Issue 43/44 ‘Making Modernity: From the Mashriq to the Maghreb’

The recent wave of revolutions across the Arab world has brought to the surface the contradictions in popular understandings of the Middle East and North Africa. The place of the region in the global history of modernity has been unsettled yet again…

Stephen Pascoe, Virginie Rey and Paul James1

The recent wave of revolutions across the Arab world has brought to the surface the contradictions in popular understandings of the Middle East and North Africa. The place of the region in the global history of modernity has been unsettled yet again. It is possible to identify several major trends in responses to the momentous events, coinciding with various stages in the unfolding of the revolutions. Firstly, many commentators embraced the early stages of the uprisings, precisely because they were seen to fulfil a long-overdue historical destiny of democratic flourishing — the expression of a modern teleology for some, or a postmodern emancipation for others. One such commentator remarked early in 2011:

In rallying to this now universal but essentially Western value called democracy, they [the Arabs] are in effect rejoining the world, catching up with history that has left them behind.2

The implicit understanding in such a characterization, inherited from postwar modernization theory, is that the region remains stuck in some sort of transitional phase. It is uprooted from tradition but not yet fully modern. Alternatively, the “modernity” of the recent uprisings was understood in the very shallow, popular sense of “contemporaneity”. A fascination with the technology of political protest such as Facebook and other forms of social media said more about the prejudices of commentators who assumed the backwardness of the region than it revealed about the meanings of the uprisings.3 At the time of writing, the apparent stalling of these revolutions and the return to ancien régime–style politics in Egypt provide ammunition for conservative voices to insist on the inability of Middle Eastern and North African societies to embrace modern values, once more reduced to a restricted liberal-democratic definition.

A third reaction to the Arab revolutions and the civil strife brought in their wake has been a return to viewing the region as a mosaic of different religious communities, all mutually hostile and suspicious of one another. Yazidis, Alawis and Coptic Christians are suddenly capturing the imagination of Western readers. We read of ancient tribal hatreds and complex animosities incapable of resolution, this sectarian condition being understood as a permanent impediment to social peace and material progress. As Maher Mughrabi adeptly critiques in the following pages, the resort to a sectarian explanation removes the possibility of examining genuine political contestation in this period of profound upheaval and ideological re-alliance.

In the post-revolutionary predicament, the existence of ISIS has also revived the debate about whether or not Islam is compatible with modernity, and therefore whether or not the region can ever escape its pre-modern shackles. For all of the excellent academic critiques written over the last several decades, public representations and mainstream debates are still stuck in two reinforcing imaginaries concerning the “clash of civilizations” — either we are caught between modern/postmodern futures and pre-modern barbarianisms, or we are basically all the same with a few aberrations: that is, we all desire freedom and democracy, despite a few cruel anachronisms that want to take us back to pre-modern tyranny.

Two decades ago, Benjamin Barber wrote an elaborated form of this reductivism. In being confined, Barber claims, ‘to a choice between the market’s universal church [McWorld] and a retribalizing politics of particularistic identities [Jihad], peoples around the world are threatened with an atavistic return to medieval politics when local tribes and ambitious emperors together ruled the world entire”.4 Since September 11, 2001, the idea has often been expressed that if only Islam underwent a reformation, as Christianity did, the world might be spared ongoing religiously inspired violence. This sentiment is misguided in more ways than one: not only does it overlook past reformations within Islam, most notably the reform movement of the late nineteenth century represented by such figures as al-Afghani and Rida, but also it creates a false dichotomy between “religions of peace” (Christianity, Buddhism etc.) and “religions of war “, disregarding the potential for all religions to be harnessed towards violent political ends.

These responses are the latest in a long trajectory of misunderstandings of the region in which the question of modernity has consistently been misconstrued. In some quarters, including Arena, there has been a recognition that people, collectively and individually, can be variously tribal, traditional, modern and postmodern, sometimes at the same time, with all the tensions that this entails.5 If ‘the modern” is defined in terms of different ways of living in and through ontological categories such as space and time, then “modernity” simply means a period and a place where the modern is in dominance. In these terms there are not multiple modernities, but rather multiple ways of being modern in relation to being otherwise.

However, rather than this leading to an opening up of political questions of what it means to work creatively across ontological contradictions and cleaving formations of meaning and practice, the discussion has quickly either become reduced to the flat claim that we all live in multiple networks and all partake of the modern, or the assertion that none of us have ever been fully modern.6 This volume seeks to re-examine the question of modernity in the Middle East, overturning the marginal place of the region in most renderings of the development of modernity. It builds on the many decades of critical response to the orthodoxy of Western-centric models in discussions of the dynamics of modernity in the Middle East, as well as the tendency to discuss contemporary issues in the Middle East with an apparent amnesia in relation to the past struggles of Middle Eastern societies grappling to find their place in the modern world. The following essays look again at the dynamics of modernity, going back to first principles in an attempt to open up the field to more useful lines of inquiry.

Naming the Region

The region that we have come to know as the “Middle East” is a part of the world whose borders are notoriously difficult to fix, and whose meanings have been subject to intense contestation and redefinition over the past few centuries. The “Middle East” is in fact a relatively recent term, having been coined in 1902 by the American naval strategist Alfred Thayar Mahan to denote the area between Arabia and India, around the strategically significant Persian Gulf. Mahan intended his neologism to distinguish between the region on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean — then conceived by Europeans as the “Near East” or the “Levant” — and the “Far East”, denoting China, Japan and the territories bordering the Pacific Ocean.7

When examined closely, the “Middle East” is a strange designation, built on a double negation. Firstly, the region is inherently defined against the referent of a locatable “West”. The idea of ‘the West”, always closer to fantasy than coherent geographic designation, relies on the notion that the societies of Western Europe and their colonial offshoots in the New World constitute a distinctive model of social development. The second negation implicit in the term “Middle East”, vis-à-vis the neighbouring regions of the “Near” and the “Far East”, suggests that it is possible to carve up the globe using arbitrary dividing lines defined from the Centre. The neutralizing spatial logic embodied in the term, with its lack of reference to the cultures and histories of the lands in question and the assumed authority to define the world from an abstracted spatial referent, reflects the early-twentieth-century imperial modern imagination.

Notwithstanding Mahan’s attempt at conceptual partitioning, the boundaries of the Middle East became increasingly unstable. Over time, most accounts of the Middle East absorbed the predominantly Arabic-speaking lands of the Near East, eventually supplanting this term (and — ironically — often excluding the countries that Mahan had in mind, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan). Frequently, the limits of the imagined Middle East would be extended north to Anatolia as well as west into the other Arabic- speaking lands of North Africa. In recent years, some members of the American academy have taken to referring to the MENA region, so as to include more unambiguously the Middle East and North Africa. More than a century after the term first emerged, the lack of consensus on precisely where the Middle East begins and ends persists. Despite its patent unsatisfactoriness, the Middle East remains the default way of describing the region for several reasons. Political and cultural elites in the postcolonial era embraced the term, apparently giving it a local legitimacy.8 It has also been perceived as politically neutral, especially with respect to the Arab- Israeli conflict. Perhaps most importantly, there has not been a widely accepted alternative.

The naming process that bequeathed to us ‘the Middle East” was an expression of a deeper change. A spatial abstraction was emerging into commanding dominance that can best be called modern territoriality. Modern territoriality came into contention with traditional territoriality by overlaying continuing traditional cosmological understandings of the land with a set of codified claims to specified and bounded geographical zones that no longer depended on that cosmological mediation. Whereas traditional empires faded off at their edges without limiting the reach of the empire, modern empires began to lay down lines of contested territorial demarcation. They claimed land as territories marked by mapped boundaries. This overlaying of modern territoriality was not restricted to Western imperial expressions; there were also contending local examples. The local imperial conception, seen for example in the Ottoman Empire, saw a parallel tension between traditional and modern territoriality. The late Ottoman Empire promoted its own type of modern political geography within the frame of a changing traditional multi-ethnic empire. During the latter part of the nineteenth century, this gave way to more narrow expressions of modern ethnic nationalism across the region. These nationalisms perceived language and culture as the basis for political community and treated regional space through the lens of particularism. The other major contender, pan-Islamism, revived religion as an exclusivist container for the region. That is, in the name of Islam, a traditional religion, political-religious figures began to make modern claims about territorial sovereignty.

This is not to say that modern territoriality swept all before it. The Bedouins, for example, continued to live tribal and cosmological forms of spatiality, moving across the Arabian and Syrian deserts even as those places were being reconfigured and restricted by modern state boundaries. Nevertheless, modern territoriality was becoming dominant, with all the imperial and bloody implications that were part of that process.

In place of the self-enclosure of modern territoriality, there are other ways of conceiving the region. A more open conception may well be more illuminating of the forces that have shaped the societies of the region over time, the connections with other lands, cultures and networks. Fernand Braudel famously asserted the unity of the Mediterranean, which facilitated the multi-directional exchange of knowledge and culture between Europe and the Islamic World.9 John Rundell, in his contribution to the present volume, suggests a similar kind of unity as having long existed around the Indian Ocean, which in large part determined the ‘thalassocratic social imaginary” he sees as characteristic of Oman. Seen from this pivot of the globe, the region takes on an altogether different perspective.

For more than a millennium, the region was also defined by the deep cultural imprint of Islamic civilization. From the “Mashriq”, where the sun rose on the lands of Islam in the east, to the “Maghreb”, where it set in the west, an imagined civilizational unity existed across land and sea. Despite the rise and fall of empires under the banner of Islam, the notion of a confraternity stretching among the lands sharing its common cultural heritage transcended immediately local cultures. In the usage intended here, “Mashriq” and “Maghreb” remain as conceptual bookends, enclosing the deep historical longue durée of a region with many lines of ecological, economic, political and cultural interconnection. It may seem contradictory to argue in favour of a “pre-modern” conception of the region in a volume dedicated to the question of modernity. We do so precisely in the recognition that modern identities do not sweep away all that precedes them. Not all that is solid melts into air.

The Makings of Modernity

In this Arena Journal we are interested in examining how the concept of modernity has been articulated in this region. The essays in the volume approach modernity from a variety of angles and disciplines, yet the overarching aim is to explore modernity from the inside out, whether in situ or by carving out new theoretical space, without the reductiveness of Western-centric representations.

The “making” of modernity in the title of this volume implies several things. Firstly, it suggests that modernity is created and deployed for specific ends. This sense of making is not to imply that the ontological ground of meaning and practice is instrumentally or politically manufactured by people who comfortably control what they are doing. However, neither does it happen behind people’s backs, nor without being creatively enacted. Secondly, it reflects the conviction that modernity is made throughout the world in local settings, not simply exported ready-made from one part of the world to another. Modernity is therefore created, performed and transmitted locally, even where it participates in global or regional culture and makes reference to globalizing forms. As a case in point, James Field demonstrates the ways in which cinema in the Arab world has expressed local culture to regional and global audiences, using a universal medium: the global canvas of cinema. Moreover, the filmic medium, Field argues, has been a forum for negotiating the very tensions and contradictions in the experience of modernity.

As this and other essays in the volume demonstrate, modernity is made and remade at various levels, from the individual — as in Syrian dissident intellectual Yassin al-Haj Saleh grappling with the political economy of authoritarian state power — to the institutional (museums, political parties, the discipline of history), to the collective, to the national, and beyond. Not only is modernity made at different levels, it travels. Ideas and practices explored in this volume — from socialism to incarceration, Messianism to museum display — all have histories and trajectories that can be traced, meanings that have been redefined as they have been expressed across the region.

As different contributors to this volume show, these ways are constantly in flux yet nonetheless can be conceived around several common problématiques. These emergent threads underline the fundamental tensions at the heart of modernity, which take on particular prominence in Mashriq–Maghreb societies.

Modernity as Westernization

If one tries to define modernity anywhere outside the West, Samir Kassir writes in his brilliant essay Being Arab, “one cannot avoid the debate on the relationship between modernization and Westernization”.10 The reasons the debate is still so salient are multiple. Firstly, the idea of the West as the manufacturer and the patron of modernity has a strong colonial lineage. It is still perceptible to this day in the developmentalist discourses promoted by institutions such as universities, NGOs and international organizations. Its persistence is also due to the fact that in the period immediately following independence most Middle Eastern countries while fighting for emancipation and national dignity turned to the West as a model of modernity to emulate. Many theorists have argued that postcolonial countries stand little to no chance of escaping from the power of colonial narration, as they are products of and actors within the very structures that they seek to dismiss.11

Taking a different perspective, others have argued in favour of the productive potential of this postcolonial condition. Gayatri Spivak, for example, uses the idea of “catachresis” to describe the phenomenon whereby local intelligentsias, even after independence from colonialism, retain the social values instilled in them by the colonial state. Catachresis, meaning a misuse of a term, is used to explain the process by which colonial and postcolonial subjects reverse and displace Western modern concepts such as ‘sovereignty”, “nationhood” and ‘secularism” and turn them into their own. She says:

One might look at the larger Third World as diversely postcolonial, making catachrestic claims … the political claims over which battles are being fought are … nationhood, sovereignty, citizenship, secularism. Those claims are catachrestic claims in the sense that the so-called adequate narratives of the concept-metaphors were supposedly not written in the spaces that have decolonized themselves, but rather in the space of the colonizers.12

Far from suggesting that these Western models are unsuited to the postcolonial world, Spivak considers them as “productive and meaningful misuse”. Similarly, Michael Herzfeld, while pointing to the increasing development of a “homogenous language of culture and ethics” originating from the West and constituting what he calls the “global hierarchy of value”, also underlines its displacement as well as the persistence of specific identities and practices hidden within commonality.13

Modernity as Teleology

In the Middle East, as elsewhere in the world, modernity has long been synonymous with the idea of progress. In the wake of the twin revolutions (industrial and political) that reshaped the world from the late eighteenth century, the teleological impulse became a central feature of politics and society across the region. As outlined in Stephen Pascoe’s essay “Making the Middle East Modern”, various possible dates and events have been proposed in the historiography of the region. In any case, from the nineteenth century onwards, for Middle Eastern reformers and revolutionaries the notion of “being modern” has been intimately tied to the advancement of particular political and cultural goals, among them secularization, the emancipation of women, constitutionalism and so on. Ever since, the appeal to progress has been strategically invoked in support of proposals for social reform, technocratic development plans or calls for greater political liberties, among other ends.

In such states as Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and Syria, where Arab socialism was a central tenet during the middle decades of the twentieth century, the teleological rhetoric of modernization was particularly pronounced. In his contribution, Robert Pascoe shows how modernization was central to the building of Nasser ‘s mythology and how Egypt emerged as a model for the rest of the Arab world. In other countries, especially the so-called “rentier states” of the Gulf, being modern has equated more readily to being technologically developed. Political and other social reforms have been given less importance than technological and scientific ones. As John Rundell’s essay in this volume illustrates, in Oman the redistribution of state income from petrochemicals to citizens has in effect exchanged welfare for political participation.

Even where past incarnations of the modernist project have bequeathed sour legacies, the very malleability of modernity holds out the promise of redefinition. Invoking Habermas, Yoni Molad reminds us in his contribution to this volume that political modernity is an inherently “unfinished project” and therefore a potentially renewable one. In view of the despondency saturating most discussions of the region’s politics in the post–”Arab Spring” era, this capacity for renewal provides an important counter- narrative of possibility.

Modernity as Distinction

In his seminal work Distinction, Pierre Bourdieu shows how relation ships of power rely upon differentiating between social classes on the basis of acquired notions of taste, education and cultural consumption.14 Applying this framework to the present context, we can see the deployment of the concept of “modernity” in the Middle East as a strategy of distinction, one that works in several ways. During the peak of European colonialism, appealing to modernity was a method for asserting the “civilizational” superiority of the West, as European powers claimed their own cultures as the source of modernity. Secondly, certain countries in the region have likewise tended to see themselves as more modern than their neighbours. Modernity, thus invoked, is akin to a kind of international club, of which not all countries are equal members. Notions such as “culture”, “freedom”, ‘technology” and “democracy” are used as pointers on the “hierarchy of modernity” in a game that seeks to prove in the final analysis each country’s right to be part of a modern world of nations. In a third way — closer to Bourdieu’s original meaning of class differentiation — for Middle Eastern elites and professional middle classes, self-identification as “being modern” has been a crucial strategy of social distinction.15 Each generation defines its modernity in new terms, against parents on the one hand and contemporary social groups on the other, and in line with trends elsewhere in the world.

Modernity in Competition with Tradition

In academic writing and journalism, one often encounters the view that the Middle East is caught in a societal struggle between ‘the modern” and ‘the traditional”. This can be a useful distinction when set within a larger framework (see Paul James” essay ‘they Have Never Been Modern?” in this volume), but unfortunately it tends to be developed as a reductive and dualistic opposition. The modern worldview is understood as future oriented, while the traditional outlook is treated as conservative, rooted in the past, and inimical to change. In this Manichean dichotomy, the politics of the region are framed as a contest between the forces of progress and reaction. What such a distinction tends to overlook is, firstly, that a traditional formation is constantly coming into being and, secondly, that being traditional and being conscious of tradition are not the same thing — the very idea of a tradition-focused society, as distinct from being traditional, emerges out of the experience of modernity.16 However, this process does not occur in a single moment, once and for all time. Understandings of both “being modern” and “being traditional” are constantly reformulated in order to define and redefine what it means to live in the world.

In this way, it is more useful to comprehend the traditional and the modern not as singular opposing points of reality competing for social primacy but rather as different ontological formations among others that co-exist in the same world, with more or less tension between them. Virginie Rey’s essay, ‘traditionalizing the Modern: Tunisia’s Living Museums”, explores this very point in examining the shifting strategies of representation of traditional culture in twentieth-century Tunisian museums. It shows that in the museum (albeit a modern institution),17 the traditional and the modern have, over the past two centuries, been bound up with each other. Meanwhile, Cara Hinkson, in her analysis of Iranian Messianism, provides another example of how modern societies re- interpolate and instrumentalize ostensibly traditional elements for political ends. Modern epistemologies can be used not only to reappropriate the traditional but also to re-embed the modern within traditional understandings of social life.


In this volume, we attempt to continue the work begun by critical scholars of the Middle East in recent decades that has sought to redefine the presentation of the region. In place of the condescending paternalism of colonialism and its legacies, the narrow and self-interested Machiavellianism of international relations, or the xenophobic prejudices of mainstream popular culture, engaged scholars have consistently attempted to provide more complex and locally-connected readings of the societies of the region. Away from the monolithic images of authoritarian cultures moored in traditional fanaticism, there are other ways of understanding the region. In the current political climate, where the turning of events can be easily read to reinforce these images, the task of critical scholarly engagement is ever more crucial.

Europe is still to come to terms with its common entangled history with the Middle East and North Africa. More broadly, the governments of the Global North, obsessed by a very narrow kind of modernizing development that they have redefined as the ostensible global norm, project their own fears and loathings onto the region. The misunderstandings are many. The region from the Mashriq to the Maghreb is not stuck in a transitional stage to full modernity. Neither is it currently returning to pre-modern medieval ism, as if a stage in European history can be used as the mirror to understand contemporary developments. We are not seeing pre-modern barbarism in Syria and Iraq. It is not the case that modernity is to civilization as traditionalism is to barbarism. Modernity and pre-modernity are not opposites.

Understanding the real existing tensions in the Mashriq–Maghreb region requires stepping out of the usual equations drawn between modernity, civilization, progress and development. The Mashriq–Maghreb region is going through all the convulsions and contradictions that are affecting the globe as a whole, albeit in different ways in different places. In understanding these contradictions, where social life is being stretched across different ways of being — customary, traditional, modern and postmodern — it is not helpful either to use modernity as a singular epochal term or to take the easy way out and talk of “multiple modernities”. Rather, we need to define these intersecting ways of being, in their own terms, and examine in theory and practice how the tensions between them might be negotiated productively. This entails a slow process of engagement across the boundaries of difference.



1 With thanks to Christopher Wood and Cameron Logan, who were original contributors to the forum out of which a number of essays in this volume were developed, and to Ian Coller for his helpful reading of all the chapters.
2 D. Hirst, “Arabs Rejoin the World”, The Age, 22 February 2011.
3 S. Pascoe, “Overcoming the Arab Malaise: Reflections on Arab Modernity and Popular Uprising”, Arena Magazine, no. 112, 2011, pp. 36–40.
4 B. Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World, New York, Ballantine Books, 1996, p. 7.
5 C. Wise and P. James (eds), Being Arab: Arabism and the Politics of Recognition, Melbourne, Arena Publications, 2010.
6 B. Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993. See S. Cooper, “Regulating Hybrid Monsters: The Limits of Latour and Actor Network Theory”, Arena Journal, new series no. 29/30, 2008, pp. 305–30, for a critique of this position.
7 B. Lewis, “Sketches for a Historical Portrait”, in The Shaping of the Modern Middle East, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994, p. 3. See also Z. Lockman, Contending Visions of the Middle East: The History and Politics of Orientalism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010, pp. 96–9.
8 “Urbanists Can Never Afford to Be Apolitical: An Interview with Nezar al-Sayyad on Urbanization in the Middle East”, in Jadaliyya, 30 September 2013, accessed 1 October 2013.
9 F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II, New York, Harper & Row, 1972.
10 S. Kassir, Being Arab, London, Verso, 2006, p. 43.
11 B. Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflexions on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, London, Verso, 1983, pp. 163–85; C. Breckenridge and P. Van de Veer (eds), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993, p. 11; D. Chakrabarty, “Postcoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts?”, Representations, vol. 37, no. 4, 1992; P. F. De Moraes-Farias and K. Barber, Self-Assertion and Brokerage: Early Cultural Nationalism in West Africa, Birmingham, University of Birmingham, 1990.
12 G. Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, London, Routledge, 1993, p. 13.
13 M. Herzfeld, The Body Impolitic: Artisans and Artifice in the Global Hierarchy of Value, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2004, pp. 1–4.
14 P. Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critic of the Judgement of Taste, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1979.
15 K. Watenpaugh, Being Modern in the Middle East: Revolution, Nationalism, Colonialism, and the Arab Middle Class, Princeton, New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 2006; compare O. Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence, London, Faber and Faber, 2009.
16 See Herzfeld, The Body Impolitic, p.18.
17 T. Bennett, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, Abingdon, UK, Routledge, 1995.

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