ExEAS Teaching Unit
The Middle East and Asia:
Revolutions in Comparative Perspective
Sherri West
Department of History
Brookdale Community College


This unit examines revolutionary change in 20th century Asia and the Middle East with a view to answering a central question: How can we compare 20th century revolutions in these areas, from their origins to their outcomes? The revolutions in Turkey, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt and Iran are featured, with a focus on key leaders and groups, motivations, ideologies, specific goals and strategies used, and the impact of these revolutions over time. Using a variety of primary and secondary sources, as well as visual references, instructors and students will find background information, topical questions, a range of assignments, and specific ways to use the “Asian Revolutions in the 20th Century" website materials in the classroom. The topics focus on revolutionary leaders and their goals, the nature of revolution in Asia and in the Middle East, the role of groups and outside interests, the strategies employed by revolutionaries, and the impact of revolution over time. This unit can be used in a classroom setting and as part of online instruction. Options for expanding this unit are provided, including suggestions for comparisons with other regions of the world, additional assignments, and resources for instructors and students.

Themes and Goals

The following are the goals of this unit:

  • To develop an understanding of the reasons behind the revolutions in Asia and the Middle East in the 20th century. The revolutions in Turkey, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, and Iran are covered.
  • To understand the role played by key leaders in 20th century revolutions. Mao Zedong of China, Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam, Gandhi of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Nasser of Egypt, Ataturk of Turkey, and Khomeini of Iran are featured.
  • To compare the strategies and ideologies that guided these revolutions.
  • To examine the legacy of the leaders and revolutions for the present day.
  • To understand the role that outsiders played in the course of and in the outcome of the revolutions.
  • To examine the impact of culture and history on revolutions in Asia and in the Middle East.

Audiences and Uses

This material will be useful to secondary and undergraduate instructors and students in a variety of settings:

  • Survey courses in World History, AP History
  • Political Science classes, particularly Comparative Political Systems
  • Survey courses on Asia or the Middle East
  • Research resources at the secondary and undergraduate level

This unit is designed to be used with the online resources found in the “Asian Revolutions in the 20th Century" website, specifically the page titled What is Revolution? and the pages on Mao, Gandhi, Ho Chi Minh, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

Key Questions

The questions below are designed to provide instructors and students with possible topic questions that can be used in general class discussions, to guide student reading in required text readings, and as study guide questions that can be answered in writing or in group settings.

  • How did the historical forces of imperialism, nationalism, communism, fascism, modernization, and world war influence revolution in 20th century Asia and the Middle East?
  • What are the characteristics of revolutionary leader(s)? Are the leaders of revolutions in Asia and the Middle East more similar than different in terms of background, education, key influences on their lives, beliefs, tactics, goals? Based on your study, is there a “model" or “ideal" 20th century revolutionary leader?
  • Are there unique features of revolution in Asia as compared to those in the Middle East ?
  • How have traditional beliefs, customs, notions of leadership, and organizations been used in the service of revolutions?
  • Identify the specific goals of each revolution, and the degree to which these goals were realized.
  • What roles have elites, religious groups, women, the military, educational institutions or authorities, or ideologies like communism or fascism played in revolutions in Asia and the Middle East ?
  • How did revolutionary leaders and groups mobilize popular support? Were some leaders more popular than others? If so, among whom were they popular?
  • Were the revolutions in Asia and the Middle East mass movements, that is, involving people from different social groups, or were the revolutions led by various elites? Did mass participation aid or hinder the outcome of the revolution?
  • Which key strategies did revolutionary leaders and groups use, and how would you evaluate their success?
  • If you were an aspiring revolutionary leader, which of the revolutions examined in this unit would you choose as the best model, and why?
  • Is the assumption that revolutions in Asia have been more successful than those in the Middle East supported by historical evidence?
  • After revolution, did revolutionary leaders remain to lead their nation, and, if so, how did the nature of their leadership change?
  • After examining the essay What is Revolution?, which describes different types of revolutions, how would you characterize the revolutions or revolutionary leaders that you are studying? Be prepared to defend your views.
  • How did power shift in the revolutions that you examined, and do those power shifts still exist in the societies to this day?
  • Can you label today’s instability, conflict, and change in the Middle East and Asia as revolutionary? Will the 21st century be as revolutionary as the 20th?
  • What influence did counterrevolutionary forces, or those opposed to the revolutions you are studying, have in the revolutions you are studying?
Instructor’s Introduction: Revolutions in the 20th century Middle East

Revolutions in the Middle East were a product of the growth of nationalism, imperialism, efforts to westernize and modernize Middle Eastern societies, and the declining power of the Ottoman Empire in the Arab region. World War I led to the end of the Ottoman Empire , leaving an enormous political vacuum only temporarily filled by the mandates created by France and Great Britain . In addition, Jewish nationalism, or Zionism, created further impetus for change in the region, and the interwar years saw the historical roots of the current Arab-Israeli Conflict. Modernizing movements in Turkey and Persia (soon to be called Iran), along with Arab nationalism, created momentum for revolution along with the backlash that was waged by those opposed to such rapid changes. The continued presence of European powers, the discovery of rich oil deposits, and the specific national aspirations of the new states in the Middle East contributed to the instability. The years following World War II saw the creation of the state of Israel , the rise of Arab Socialism in Egypt and surrounding states, Palestinian nationalism with its demand for an independent nation, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which resulted in the rise of political Islam. In addition, growing reliance by the West on oil, and the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War, would make the Middle East a central site for foreign intervention. All of these developments bred the desire for rapid change countered by the longing for the stability of traditional cultures. While Asia experienced many of the same influences that created revolution in the Middle East , the role played by oil, the Arab-Israeli crisis, and the rise of political Islam have been unique features that continue to make for a revolutionary Middle East.

Further Explanation of Terms Highlighted Above

Please note that while Wikipedia articles are generally reliable, they are written and regularly changed by volunteers, and therefore should be used with some caution.

Nationalism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nationalism (Note that as of April 2008, the neutrality and factual accuracy of this Wikipedia entry are disputed.)
Imperialism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Imperialism (Note that as of February 2008, the neutrality of this Wikipedia entry is disputed.)
Ottoman Empire: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ottoman_empire
Zionism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zionism (Note that as of April 2008, the neutrality of this Wikipedia entry is disputed.)
Arab Nationalism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_nationalism
Arab Socialism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Socialism
Iranian Revolution: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranian_Revolution
Political Islam/Islamism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamism
Cold War: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cold_War

Online Resources

A. Imperialism and Nationalism


Imperialism, Internet Modern History Sourcebook ( Fordham University) http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/modsbook34.html#Imperialism

Links to primary sources and background information on imperialism. Note: some links from this site no longer work.

Imperialism, Wikipedia

Contains many good cross-references to entries related to imperialism.


Nationalism, Internet Modern History Sourcebook ( Fordham University)

Note: some links from this site no longer work.

Nationalism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Includes philosophical and political definitions and discussions.

Nationalism, Wikipedia

 An overview of nationalist theory, practice, and history. Includes links and citations of additional resources.

The Nationalism Project, Eric Zuelow, University of Wisconsin-Madison

A collection of articles, essays, bibliographies, links and other materials.

B. The Middle East and Islamic Culture


 Al-Khazina is an interactive database for the study of Islamic Culture, particularly in the early centuries. Under the Resources Link, there is an extensive list of websites with geographical, historical, current newspapers in English and country studies on the Middle East and North Africa . Note: some links from this site no longer work.

The Perry Casteneda Library Map Collection

Features a good set of maps for the Middle East . Maps of Asia are also available.

C. Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt

See Sample Student Assignments and Activities for suggestions for using these resources in the classroom.


Gamel Abdel Nasser, Wikipedia

A concise biography of Nasser with cross-references.

A Country Study: Egypt , Library of Congress

Scroll down to “ Nasser ’s Legacy" for good basic background for students and instructors. The country study also includes articles on events in Nasser ’s life, including his role in the Arab-Israeli dispute and his role as a key Middle Eastern revolutionary leader.

Speeches, Writing, and Other Primary Sources:

Denouncement of the Proposal for a Canal Users’ Association, Internet Modern History Sourcebook (Fordham University)

Speech by President Nasser of the United Arab Republic, September 15, 1956, on the Suez Canal Crisis.

Political Testimony: The Struggle for Renaissance

A translation of Nasser ’s last speech, given on 23 July 1970 .

Statement by President Nasser to Arab Trade Unionists (1967)

Photos and Artistic Representations:

D. Kemal Atatürk of Turkey

See Sample Student Assignments and Activities for suggestions for using these resources in the classroom.


Kemal Atatürk, Wikipedia

Biography of Atatürk, complete with cross-references.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

Scroll down to the “Encyclopedia" entry for a biographical sketch from the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia.

A Country Study: Turkey , Library of Congress

See the sections “ Ottoman Empire " and “Atatürk and the Turkish Nation" for background information on the Ottoman Empire , its disintegration, and the rise of the modernists like Atatürk. Good resource for basic historical developments.

Speeches, Writing, and Other Primary Sources:

Address to Turkish Youth (1927)

On The Tenth Anniversary of the Foundation of the Republic

A speech delivered by Atatürk in 1933. Includes a photo.

“M. Kemal Atatürk: In His Own Words"

A collection of quotes by Atatürk. The rest of this website sponsored by the Washington D.C.-based Atatürk Society of America includes articles, editorials, and letters written by Ataturk supporters. These resources may be useful for examining the legacy of revolutionary leaders. Note that the biographical materials on this site are strongly biased and should be used with caution.

E. Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran

See Sample Student Assignments and Activities for suggestions for using these resources in the classroom.


Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini, The Time 100

A biography of Khomeini that appeared in Time Magazine’s 100 most important people of the 20th century, including photos and links to other articles.

Speeches, Writing, and Other Primary Sources:

The Uprising of Khurdad 15, Internet Modern History Sourcebook (Fordham University)

Khomeini’s speech on the eve of the Revolution in 1979.

Photographs and Artistic Representations:


Individual photos of Khomeini are available from these two websites.

Other Resources:

On This Day: February 1, 1979 , British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

Includes a video clip, article, and timeline of key events surrounding the Ayatollah’s return to Iran in 1979.

Creating an Islamic Republic: Recalling the 1979 Iranian Revolution Through its Propaganda Posters, Cissie Hill, Hoover Institution Archives

An essay on Iranian propaganda posters, illustrated by vivid examples from the Hoover Institution’s collection.

Sample Student Assignments and Activities

A. Revolutionary Leaders – A Comparative Study

Objective: To introduce several revolutionary leaders and make comparisons concerning revolutionary leadership, beliefs, and outcomes.

Assign individuals or small groups to choose one of the revolutionary leaders listed in the “Online Resources" section above or in the rest of the “Asian Revolutions in the Twentieth Century website." Ask students to look at the biographical information, at pictures or video, and to read one primary source that summarizes the leader’s beliefs. (This part of the assignment is to be completed prior to class discussion.)

In class, ask each student/group to make a 5-minute presentation, answering the questions below using material found in this unit or on the rest of the “Asian Revolutions" website. Students can present in groups or they can assume the role of the leader or a news correspondent (using pictures of the leader, or perhaps even video clips).

  1. What made your personality a revolutionary leader?
  2. What were the leader’s key beliefs? Include a short quote or two to illustrate the leader’s important ideas.
  3. How did your leader succeed and fail? How do you feel about this leader?

Limit each presentation to 5 minutes. Follow the presentations with a general discussion (either in class or online) based on the following questions:

  1. What is similar about the revolutionary leaders? What is different about them?
  2. How do you account for these similarities and differences?
  3. How difficult was it to start a revolution in Asia ? In the Middle East ? What accounts for the differences between the two regions?
  4. Which leader(s) had the most innovative ideas? The best ideas? The worst?
  5. What do you admire about these leaders? What do you dislike about them?
  6. Which leaders had the greatest influence on their society? Their region? The world?

B. Document Comparison

Use this exercise for a short writing assignment, class discussion, or online teaching.

Objective: To help students analyze primary source readings from two or three of the leaders featured on the “Asian Revolutions in the Twentieth Century" website with a view to comparing and understanding the leaders’ views.

Ask students to look for a specific issue, such as nationalism, communism, the role of U.S. policy, or the role of women. For example, find a reference from one of Nasser ’s writings or speeches on nationalism, and then find one from Gandhi on the same topic. After the students identify each leader’s key views on nationalism, ask them to describe how these views are similar and different. From this basic comparison, lead a general discussion on the selected issue (e.g., the role of nationalism in revolutions), adding examples of revolutionary leaders in other parts of the world or during other periods (e.g., contrasting the role of nationalism in the 20th century with 18th- or 19th-century revolutions).

C. Revolutionary News

Use this exercise for a short writing assignment, class discussion, or online teaching.

Objective: To spotlight key events in different revolutions with a view to comparing the events and analyzing their significance.

Using the biographical essays for each of the leaders on the “Asian Revolutions in the 20th Century" website, take the role of a newspaper reporter covering the most important event in the life of the revolution. In a “you are there" format, write a 2-3 page news article explaining the event and providing analysis.

Post these stories to a course website or have students present them orally as a means of covering several revolutions within the same class. For example, students researching Mao might focus on some aspect of the Long March, perhaps when Mao reaches Yan’an in 1935, while another student could write on Gandhi’s Salt March, a third on Khomeini’s return to Iran (using the BBC video presented above), a fourth on Castro’s return to Cuba in 1956, or Mandela’s refusal to be freed from prison in the late 1980s. After the presentations, ask students what role these events played in their respective revolutions, what similarities/differences there were among them, and what role specific regional and historical factors played in contributing to the outcome. For example, could Gandhi’s Salt March have worked in China or in South Africa?

D. “Playing" with Revolution

Use this exercise for a longer, research-based writing assignment or an in-class exercise/simulation.

Objective: To examine revolution and its impact through the creative mechanism of writing a play based on the revolutions/revolutionary leaders found on the “Asian Revolutions in the 20th Century" website.

This exercise is modeled after imagined encounters such as “The Meeting," a fictional meeting between Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (Jeff Stetson, The Meeting. Dramatists Play Service: New York , 1998). Assign students a revolutionary leader and ask them to research the leader’s life, times, and views, using the “Asian Revolutions" website and other sources. Then ask students to work on a group project, such as the creation of a play. The main theme of the play could be something as simple as a “meeting of the minds," where students represent the leader’s views in a conference of revolutionary leaders, to something more challenging like the creation of actual dialogue and the performing of the play as part of the overall assignment. A good example of the latter is “Qianlong Meets Macartney: Collision of Two World Views," John Watt, in Education About Asia, Volume 5, Number 3, Winter 2000 (http://www.aasianst.org/EAA/watt.htm).

E. Manual of Revolution

Use this exercise for a research-based writing assignment, oral presentation, or group exercise.

Objective: For students to research the tactics used by revolutionary leaders and to understand the comparisons among the leaders.

Using the “Asian Revolutions in the 20th Century" website and other resources, individual students or small groups are responsible for writing guide on how to conduct a successful revolution. Ask students to use historical examples of 20th century revolutionary leaders in the Middle East and Asia , or expand the assignment to include 20th century revolutionary leaders from all regions. Have students post their manuals to a course website or develop PowerPoint-style presentations for group analysis and discussion. The instructor should facilitate the discussion, evaluating “what worked," “what did not work," and why, and identifying how tactics influenced the outcome of the revolutions. For example, compare Mao’s guerrilla tactics, Gandhi’s nonviolent action, Mandela’s actions while imprisoned, Khomeini’s religious entreaties, and Atatürk’s westernization. Each student or group should write a Manual for Revolution based on the leader or revolution. Then, have all students read the manuals and discuss the merits and demerits of each.

F. Selling Revolution

Use this exercise for a visually based class presentation or in online teaching.

Objective: To investigate the propaganda aspects of revolution by looking at posters, art, slogans, and speeches or symbols used in the revolution.

Assign each student/group either a particular revolution or a type of representation (such as flags, costumes, or slogans). Ask them to find examples and research the role played by each in the revolution. The class or online postings will consist of a “show-and-tell," with a view to comparing the value of and the impact of the propaganda on the outcome of revolution. Music can also be included, with the lyrics of revolutionary songs used as one of the features compared.

G. Picturing Revolution

Objective: To analyze the role played by photos, videos, real-time documentaries, and news programs in the outcome of revolutions in the 20th century.

Assign students the task of finding a classic photo or other visual image of the leader of revolution (Alberto Korda’s famous image of Che Guevara http://www.adammarelliphoto.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/AlbertoKorda-Guerrillero-Heroico-V1-1960.jpg comes to mind, but there are many examples), to understand the role it played at the time, and, if appropriate, the legacy of the image today. This assignment could be done in one class, as an addition to a lecture/discussion of revolution, or assigned for extra-credit.

H. Putting an End to Revolution

Use this activity for a written assignment, class discussion, research paper, or role-playing exercise.

Objective: To investigate the role of groups or forces that oppose revolution.

Assign students the role of certain groups within a particular revolution, or key groups from different revolutions, including outside groups or countries. Ask students to investigate the role of these groups and to evaluate their impact on the success of the revolution. Examples include a discussion of the role of the CIA in the Iranian Revolution from 1953-1979 or a comparison of the role of the Soviet Union in Egypt during Nasser ’s time with the role of the United States in Vietnam. Counterrevolutionary forces within a revolution, such as the Guomindang or Nationalists in China, or religious groups in Turkey or Vietnam , would be interesting subjects of study and would add a dimension of complexity to the study of revolution in a particular country or period of time.

I. Specific Revolutions Compared

Objective: To provide comparative suggestions for linking different examples of revolution.

Some examples for comparison:

  • Two 20th century modernizing revolutions, such as the revolution in Atatürk’s Turkey with Lenin’s Russia, or Sukarno’s Indonesia with Nasser ’s Egypt .
  • Nasser ’s Arab Socialism with Ho Chi Minh’s communism.
  • Mao’s violent action with Gandhi’s nonviolent action. A good example of a written unit for grades 9-12 is the published teaching unit “Mao and Gandhi," by Donald James Johnson and Jean Elliott Johnson (National Center for History in the School and the Asia Society, 1999).