By Nezha sadik
By Nezha sadik
Rabat – Human history is replete with eras marked by painful struggle between tradition and modernity; that’s the struggle between adherence to religious doctrine and rationality and scientific progress of human kind.
In light of this fact, no-one should be surprised by the current growing pains being experienced throughout today’s Arab world and of all the uncertainties inherent in modernity. If there is an idea to trace, it should be of the French Historian Jacques Le Goff that the debate over modernity usually brings forward the conflict between a medieval mentality and rational allure. In many ways, we can be reminded of the social and philosophical upheaval which occurred in the Europe of the Middle Ages. Tradition and progressive thought have always shared a grudging, uneasy co-existence.
Change itself, in general terms, frightens people. Humans find comfort in our routines, in the day-to-day quality of our religious beliefs and of the technology which surrounds us. When a new idea is introduced, intended to propel us in a new direction or simply to induce questioning of accepted norms, the first instinct of a human being is to panic. Hence the ensuing conflict.
Europe during the Middle Ages witnessed a battle of sorts, between the political and social stranglehold the Christian church had over virtually the entire population and anyone they perceived to challenge that power. Science seemed to question everything and the Church declared war on what they saw as the greatest threat ever to their very existence. A reign of literal terror began. Scores of innocent women were tortured and burned at the stake as witches.
Families turned on each other and neighbors were encouraged to turn against people they’d known for generations to avoid suspicion themselves. Reason was abandoned en masse as the Church resorted to more and more desperate measures to avoid the inevitable march of human progress. Even the most loyal Christian followers knew they could fall under a cloud of irrational suspicion in a heartbeat. The culmination of that fear was the dreaded Inquisition, which grew to blanket Europe in paranoia and violence on an all-consuming scale. Rational thought had no place and wouldn’t be tolerated.
Similarly, in the Arab world of today, we are witnessing the birth of religious radicalism and its attempted dominance over, not only faithful followers of true Islam but, ultimately, the world, citing all non-Muslims as infidels who need either to convert or forfeit their lives. In Salafism, for example, we find an ultra-conservative religious movement within Sunni Islam.
Salafism advocates a return to the traditions of the so-called “devout ancestors,” while rejecting and cursing all that is new and modern. In doing so, it suppresses the voice of reason within the Arab world, leaving one single possibility for survival; that is the submission to fate. Instead of advancing the concept of hope in life, as well as dignity and tolerance under the umbrella of morality, instead of celebrating the ethics of community, this fundamental perspective embraces pessimism, weakness and fear and brings about horrible the politics of sin and guilt as consequences of non-adherence.
More dramatically, one can easily see how this medieval mentality is planting the seed of death in our souls instead of the celebration life. Every feeling or experience which results in pleasure or pride goes against this austere vision of Islam. Those raised in the belief that life is a transitional period leading ultimately to blissful eternity are told the very fact that immortality is blissful makes the belief immoral. They prefer to adopt the doctrine of asceticism, the idea that one can only attain a high spiritual and moral state through rigorous self-denial and extreme forbearance from the indulgence of appetites, even though said appetites are God-given. The idea that this belief should flourish whilst diminishing the pleasures of this world is something they defend with the dangerous fervor of a new convert.
More so, this radical religious paradigm, particularly among the religious groups submitting to its jurist doctrinal authority, holds that asceticism is the sole road leading to comfort and peace and that humans should accept this as divine wisdom. The role of religious stories plays a key role in the willingness of followers to acquiesce willingly to doctrinal authority. The more a tale distances itself from reality, the more it goes beyond all known human or natural powers, approaching hyperbolic fiction or something otherworldly, the more appeal it finds and the deeper it takes root. This explains, in part, how legendary consciousness prevailed for a time over realistic and historical knowledge during the Middle Ages.
Though on the surface it would appear that in the Arab world of today there have been clear developments in urbanism and technology, the Arab-Islamic reality remains vague and skeptical about modernity and modernization. Efforts to advocate modernity are well under way and have been very influential in different sectors such economics, politics and culture. These efforts, however, have not yet realized a philosophy of systematic and rational containment.
Under no circumstances, should one separate modernity and the course of history subject to specific laws and obligations. History is a penetrative force! Falling prey to the terminologies, whether modernity is suitable or not, useful or superfluous, is destructive and inharmonious. There is no evidence to prove the opposite; that the course of history should be subject to arbitrary or unscientific conclusions.
Moroccan philosopher Abdallah Laroui once said that “history should not -within any given context- submit to whims, coincidences and revelations [serving] the idea that history has one single path: the inevitability.” Properly arrived at conclusions, achieved with proper academic standards applied, are what legitimatize historical development, gives it stability and makes its continuity a rational idea.
The relevance of historical accuracy in the modern perspective should never be seen through a lens of absoluteness -absolute judgements- rather as a result of scientific conclusions. That is to say that science is not merely an act of reading or interpretation. It is, rather, an unending search for truth requiring rational thinking. Politics, at its core, is a human endeavor requiring agreement between different mentalities and interests via substantive debate and constant experimentation.
To bypass and rectify the possibility of historical obstruction, the Arab world must to acquire both the spirit and the thought of modernity and build upon its universal model. This requires absorbing the foundations of modern thought and the recognition of the positive impact of modern thought embodied perfectly in rational thinking, history, relativity and individualism. There also needs to be a distinction made between the ideology driving the change in the west, with all of its political manifestations, and European rational modern thought itself, or the distinction between ideology and methodology.
The concept of modernity couldn’t have been established unless there had been a geographical locale for it to gain clarification, independence, growth, maturity and crystallization. This conclusion is undebatable. Such an attitude or thought pattern derives mostly from the works and assumptions of historians who rely on role-specific concepts in the study of each event or phenomenon. It should always be a warning not to rush into generalizations, pre-judgments and ready-made ideological assumptions and ideas. Historians know most that modernity represents continuity and fits perfectly with the notion of an uninterrupted evolution of time.
According to Alain Touraine the separation of modernity and modernization is much easier to explain today. In the past it was common to believe that being a modern state was achieved simply by having the means of modernization. The two ideas were perfectly chained into a widespread assumption developed earlier in the west that there was one main, inseparable pattern to both modernity and modernization. This was a fundamental stance.
Today things have change, bringing about extremely fluid situations. It becomes more possible for a theoretically and methodical non-modern state to be more modern in actual applications than modern states. Respectively, Touraine’s ideas offer fresh insight into how modernity manifests, for instance, in the Arab world. Of course, one can easily observe how Arab states, in the era of globalization and technology, are witnessing radical social and political transformations towards modernization but not necessarily justifying the institutional presence of modernity.
The potential to modernize different social sectors including the legal system, administration, public policies, etc, are still driven by politics and doesn’t reflect a solid and clear pattern to modernity. Arab societies haven’t yet been oriented towards a true scientific or economic revolution and still don’t build upon observation and experimentation that acknowledges that religious reforms don’t correspond perfectly to the changes in the cultural sphere and are still subject to traditional modes of interpretation.
Even intellectually the changes taking place in the form of evolutionary thought don’t suggest an impressive or advantageous perception of rationality. The fact is that all the attempts and projects designed to institutionalize modernity in the Arab world were, and are still, doomed to failure and continue to be viewed as completely subordinate to the State’s authoritarian policies. In a more persuasive manner, we may claim that the current debate on modernity in the Arab societies is confined to the discussion of its obstacles in correspondence to the ideas suggested. It neglects, however, the fact that the main problem obstructing modernity can be traced primarily to the absence of a true political will or to how insidiously the state proceeds with modernization.
It didn’t happen overnight but modernity did eventually emerge victorious and ushered in a revolutionary time for Europe; a Europe of great voyages and exploration, growing mercantilism and stronger desires for expansion. Relying mostly on its inclusive rhetoric and the nobility of its ideas, modernity brought about great influence on European culture, science, economy and politics. It advocated freedom, human dignity and, most importantly, economic progress and prosperity, facilitating a move into urbanism and industrialization.
On a darker note, it also brought about a split in cultures, diffused notions of reality and, most dramatically, imperialist actions causing so much harm to other societies, including of the Arab world. Now that same modernist ideal is reflecting a history of ambiguities, contradictions and confrontations within the Arab people. It should be normal to hold to the idea that modernity faces a serious challenge, not only to the concepts of individualism, democracy and freedom, but also to the principle of experimental science leading to profitable changes in medicine, transportation and productivity. Interestingly, as it turns out, the force which drove colonial attitudes in the past has resulted in more skepticism as to the true aims of modernity and puts the idea of rationality into question in today’s Arab reality.
In conclusion, there is a two-side paradigm to trace within this ambiguous climate. First, modernity can’t grow out of the Arab societies’ soil amid the absence of a true political will. It is crystal clear that the ruling authorities still favor hesitation and work enormously to block all efforts attempting to politically, socially and intellectually liberate the people from autocracy and absolutism. Otherwise, the promotion of democracy, civil liberties and the sovereignty of the people would already have gained serious momentum.
Secondly, the common trend within societal mentalities is a direct result of a stubborn adherence to superstitious thinking in life and behavior instead of a willing commitment to rationality and science. Thus, it’s reasonable assume that modernity is not yet within reach in the Arab world and that no evidence to the contrary. That is not to say that we should willingly accept this conclusion as permanent or unalterable. There are current Arab thinkers and scholars making earnest efforts to proceed positively and determinedly along the path to true modernity, doggedly moving beyond the current obstacles restricting change to suggest a model of modernity that would offer a perfect with the right of all Arab people to live in dignity.
Translated by Abdallah Zbir. Edited by Constance Guindon
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent any institution or entity.
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