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Arab Society and the Dialectic of Modernization

By Nezha Sadik

By Nezha Sadik

Rabat – Modernity is an intellectual movement and a vision of the world that co-exists within reason and seeks, in one way or another, enlightenment.

This suggests that the term modernity implies far more than the social, political and cultural changes, which definitely make up its core. Modernity is away of life! It is a universal patrimony. Modernity is not, as many of us may assume, a sociological, political or even a historical concept. It is beyond this limitation. Rather it is a unique form. I may say: a manifestation of civilization that contradicts tradition. In general, its subjects, concerns and suggestions contain what indicates to the idea of historical development or continuity; to what the French sociologist, philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard  refers to as “the change of mentality.”

With regard to the Arab world, these definitions; specifically or frequently associated with post modernism and post-structuralism, expose us to two crucial questions: why do Arabs not seriously try to constitute modernity? Was it sufficient enough to build upon modernizing attempts? I ask: is this failure due to objective or subjective factors?

Since the time the Titan fellow Prometheus was chained to a rock by the angry Zeus to the exact moment German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, declared modernity an “incomplete project”, intellectuals and researchers have worked tirelessly to have a precise determination of the concept modernity. From the era of legends and myths to the time of academic essays, all the attempts were, however, in vain. The answer is not yet within hands!  Yes, at the level of inquiry, the term modernity is clear and homogenous. All we need to do is to pose the question: what is modernity? In depth, modernity is a vague concept. It bears a heavy dose of non-homogeneity, contradiction, and relativity. This occurs at both the sociological and creative levels. Thus, it is difficult to limit the term to a particular mode or paradigm, or possess a comprehensive idea of what it really means or refers to. The concept has of the mercurial, unpredictable, and temperamental qualities not to fall prey to precision; to be locked within a singular apparatus of understanding.

In morphology, modernity derives from the word modern which is an originally Latin ablative singular of modus+ernus. A mode of some sort of reference to a way or method of thinking or acting and a suffix of time that in today’s lexical terminologies relates to what is present, recent or new. In Arabic language, the word modernity doesn’t differ semantically and contextually that much. Every possible meaning attaches to the idea of what is new. At the idiomatic level, we have different terminologies. Most philosophically concise is the definition given by the French rationalist philosopher André Lalande in his “Vocabulaire technique et critique de la philosophie” that “modernity is a cultural, civilizational and societal state that came as an expression of the emergence of industrial western societies in early 19th century. It was also an extension of the great efforts had been made in16th century Europe.”  This suggests that modernity owes its origin to the pattern of change that, since the Renaissance, had set the western societies on a different path of cultural, social, political, and economic development.

In a similarly persuasive way, others see it as a new view of the world, a view that aims at the dissociation of the past. Here, modernity should be understood, in part at least, against the background of what went before. In the words of the great German Friedrich Hegel, “modernity is the beautiful rise of the sun.”  Modernity is a phenomenon. It is something growing out of the radical changes in social and economic disciplines. It is all that can be detected at the level of the new habits, traditions and modes of life inhabiting the world. Yes, change is the essence of the idea modernity. What stands out initially, though, is the fact that modernity is a continuous and open-ended process. No span of time may measure its occurrence; that is to know when it started or when it ended or will end. No way it should settle within a once-and-for-all mission. Let us say: modernity is a dynamic principle. That is its core, that is its fabric.

In his definition of modernity, the late Algerian scholar and thinker Mohammed Arkoun distinguished between two types of modernity: “the physical modernity” which deals with the modernization of daily life, and “the rational modernity” which works on thought; that is the interest in the modernization of human’s view towards the world, the self and the other. This is in fact a practical distinction since modernity is a totalitarian or a holistic phenomenon witnessing the interaction of different dimensions, be it economical, social, political or intellectually academic. Not to mention that modernity is an entangled element living within a climate of cohesion between myth and reality. Each submerges in the other and vice versa.

Even the context wherein it emerges witnesses the interaction of multiple fields: modern state, modern technology, music, art, painting, rituals and the new ideas manifesting as public statements or cultural necessities. What is more unique is the idea that modernity detaches from any previous historical era. It rejects such an attitude. Again, modernity is a value and a criterion of thinking and work that lives in the spaciousness of thought. This is why Alain Touraine calls it “an amazing concept by which we can open all doors.”

Modernity aims to establish a sort of agreement, compatibility and congruence between scientific culture, disciplined society and free individuals relying most on the belief that rational laws have the ability to direct man towards abundance, prosperity, freedom and happiness. We know that some of the questions on the nature and the value of this great movement are still unanswerable. There are no ultimate judgments. Alain Tourain, the well-known French sociologist, proclaims that the classic conception of modernity is characterized by a kind of violence or aggression. Among the principles this conception builds upon are its rejection to the idea of compatibility with traditional forms, its desire to create a new world and new people, its call for the abandonment of the past and the Middle Ages, and its advocacy of rationality; of the tool that perfectly defends the centrality of work, order, productivity and exchange of laws and regulations.

The idea is to establish a legitimate rational authority and realize a responsible code of ethics so modernity can meet the rising expectations provoked by the early successes in European societies. Tourain claims that both the French revolution and British manufacturing led to the transfer of old ideas into real and effective practices which consequently resulted in a sort of nostalgia for being, and for the principle of unity of human beings and the natural world. In general, modernity is a structure. This is why we shouldn’t break it into fragments. Instead, we should look at it through its doorsteps and manifestations knowing that the contents and values it carries don’t necessarily generate from or trace to a single element.

Thus, modernity refers to a sort of a common societal will in a given time and place seeking to mainstream the models of events and the gains obtained in the past.  Within all European countries, modernity-like monotheistic religions and former social paternal systems-was imposed on the majority of the population by a limited group. Say: it was forced into the fabric of societies by a small group of intellectuals bringing about change and dynamism. Here, we find that what provoked change is the work of the intelligentsia. It doesn’t matter its pertinence. It doesn’t matter if its members were a group of politicians, clerics or militants… What matters most is the ability of this class to inspire, lead and direct.

Modernity seems to carry with it the idea of a breakthrough with the old attitudes and modes of thinking. This occurs at the levels of theory and practice as it managed to move human into new and unfamiliar worlds. However, this shift wasn’t realized straight away , rather grew out of a serious struggle with the old convictions and beliefs causing serious damage to the conscience. For instance, the transition from the Stone Age; the prehistoric period which lasted roughly about three million years, to the advent of metal working, was an absolutely radical and revolutionary act. At least this is how Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French anthropologist, among so many others view things. Now we can ask: Do the radical technological and social changes the Arab world witness today belong to the circle of modernization or to of modernity?

This text was written originally in Arabic by Nezha Sadik, the Manager of Public Relations at the academic institution Mominoun Without Borders.

Translated into English by Abdellah Zbir. Edited by Hinna Sheikh

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