How did modernization in Europe lead to imperial control in the Middle East? What was the relationship between European imperialism and the establishment of sectarian states?

With the emergence of European nation states, along with European dominance of the rest of the world, came the need for other countries to copy European methods of governance to compete with Europe and their neighbors. As Gelvin says, “They did this because those methods seemed to provide the most effective means to protect themselves and mobilize and harness the energies of their populations.”[1] The process by which non-European rulers copied the Western model of government is called defensive developmentalism. However, the process of defensive developmentalism was not only applied by the rulers of would-be nation states but imposed on them through European imperialism by ways of, “bullying and the direct colonization, occupation, or administration of non-European territories.”[2]

Defensive Developmentalism

As to whether defensive developmentalism impacted European countries or was impacted BY European countries, I feel that the relationship went both ways. An “either/or” statement would be something of a false dichotomy. While the process of defensive developmentalism attributed to the modernizing of the Middle East it also ensures the dominance of regional states by European nations. This relationship resulted in an almost self-defeating purpose for rulers in the Middle East who wished to modernize and “to protect themselves and mobilize and harness the energies of their populations”[3] because modernization efforts were dependent on European influence. Thus, by making their countries stronger, Middle Eastern rulers had to give power up to European nations. As Gelvin says, “Thus, to resist European military expansion, Middle Eastern rulers actually encouraged European economic expansion into, and the further peripheralization of, their domains.”[4]

Middle Eastern Empires, such as the Ottomans and the Safavids, were weakened by their own attempts to modernize with European assistance. However, it may be difficult to find some middle point where empire ended, and imperialism began, as the latter attributed to the demise of the former. Ronald Robinson’s definition of imperialism, provided in the text by Gelvin, identifies imperialism in part by the methods it consisted of.  

“Imperialism . . . is a process whereby agents of an expanding society gain inordinate influence or control over the vitals of weaker societies by . . . diplomacy, ideological suasion, conquest and rule, or by planting colonies of its own peoples abroad.”[5] 

As the autonomy of empires in the Middle East gave way to European influence, they destabilized. The Ottoman Empire, lauded as the ‘sick man of Europe’, was perceived by European nations as being in an enviable decline. When historians of the early modern era refer to the “Eastern Question” they are speaking of the desire of European powers to take over Ottoman territory. To use a metaphor, imagine the Ottoman Empire as a dying man in the desert and the European powers as the vultures circling above, waiting to feed.

Imperialism and Sectarianism

The further effects of European imperialism, and modernization, in the Middle East attributed to sectarianism which can be defined as, “a phenomenon whereby religious affiliation becomes the foundation for collective identity in a multireligious environment.”[6] Contrary to some current perceptions, sectarianism is not the result of immiscible belief systems that are inherently incapable of coexistence, but rather, sectarianism results when political agents use religious differences to advance a political agenda, often by fracturing political communities on religious lines.[7] An example of imperialism leading to sectarianism can be seen in the history of French controlled Alegria. In 1870 the French government issued a decree that granted citizenship to 40,000 Jews who lived in Algeria, while denying citizenship to Algerian Muslims. This hardened the religious differences between the Jewish and the Muslim populations leading to resentment and polarization.

“The results”, Gelvin describes, “were disastrous: In 1934, incited by anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda, elements of the Muslim community in the Algerian city of Constantine engaged in anti-Jewish riots, killing about two dozen Jews. In the wake of these riots, most Algerian Jews fled to European France.”[8]


Gelvin, James L. The Modern Middle East, 4th Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Sources Cited