Event ReportsPublished on Apr 26, 2017
Crisis in Middle East result of “failed modernisation”: Historian Prof. Susser

Noting that the last 200 years of modern Middle Eastern history have culminated into the existing crisis throughout the Arab world, famed historian Prof. Asher Susser, identified “failed modernisation” as a result of the interaction between the West and the Middle East as the main reason for the crisis.

Prof. Susser, one of Israel’s’ leading experts on the region and Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern History at Tel Aviv University, was speaking at Observer Research Foundation in Delhi on the topic of “Rapidly Changing Middle East” on March 29. The presentation was moderated by Britta Petersen, Senior Fellow, ORF.

Prof. Susser, who published a monograph on “The Rise of Hamas and the Crisis of Secularism in the Arab World” delved deep into the history of the Middle East and the various factors that shape its complex polity today. According to him, this failure to successfully modernise has been characterised by three main deficits -- a deficit in political freedom, a deficit in first world education and a deficit in gender equality. The first two are important instruments in evolving an economy and boosting technological innovations -- the Arab World is devoid of both.

Prof. Susser also talked about the high rate of marginalisation of women in education and employment, which means that only half the population contributes towards economic growth. The low level of employment among women leads to bigger families, consequently leading to poor performing economies with rapidly growing population. These deficits lead to the crisis that the Middle East is currently facing. Even without the war in Syria, population pressure will therefore remain high and the region will continue to produce high levels of refugees.

Prof. Susser identified the failure of Arabism as one of the reasons of this failure. Giving a short overview of the history of the Middle East, he recalled the years 1950-60, the period after World War II, which led to the independence of Arab states. This was the time when Arab nationalism was at its peak. It was termed Nasserism after the president of Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasserism was based upon three tenets; Arab unity, Arab socialism and a strong alliance with the Soviet Union in the Cold War. The Palestinians saw in Abdel Nasser a “Messiah” who would turn Palestine and the Arabs into strong world powers. Nasserism, in theory, also proposed to create a platform for a secular state that would unite people, based on language and not religion. Hence, it accepted Christians, Muslims and Jews who spoke Arabic as one.

However, Prof. Susser went to explain that soon after the Six-Day-War (between Israel and the Arab states Egypt, Jordan and Syria) in 1967, Arabism turned out as a false Messiah and rendered Nasserism a political failure. It exposed Arabism as a mere facade to promote a tendency of states to presume their independent interests, their individual raisons-d’etats. Two hundred years of secular and eastern reforms, Prof. Susser said, have led the Middle East nowhere.

As a result, many Arabs now believe that the only solution to their crisis is Islamic politics that is “extremely divisive”. The return of Islam as the cohesive dictat has already and will further increase the divide between Sunni and Shia- and absolutely exclude Non- Muslims from the society, according to Prof. Susser. Given this context, the Middle East remains the “Arab world” only in a technical sense; there is now an emergence of the “New Middle East” where powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel are becoming key players of the region, he said.

For Israel, this means it has to deal with Arab weakness rather than Arab strength. According to Prof. Susser, the establishment of Israel in 1948 was a significant event that led to several changes within the region. He expounded upon how this was a weak establishment as Israel’s founding fathers, after having won the War of Independence (1947-49) were “a pessimistic lot”. The war was difficult and the Jews were still recovering from the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, whilst the Arab states underwent a rapid process of revolution and modernisation.

This was the time when Israel went nuclear. At that time, there was a belief that Israel would not be able to sustain the consequences of this action and thus, power would shift to the Arabs. He pointed out the irony of these beliefs by showing how the contrary has happened. Prof. Susser concluded by stating that although Israel today has to deal with the rise and increasing threat of a power like Iran and a proliferation of non-state actors, but it does not have to deal with Arab strength anymore, only with Arab weakness.

This report was prepared by Saumia Bhatnagar, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.