Dispassionating the debate about Modernization and Westernization

Since the end of the 19th century, the controversy about whether Islam is adaptable with modernization or not, excited the minds of different thinkers and aroused varied feelings and passions. All over the Ottoman Empire, from Tunisia (Khereddine) in the West to Egypt (Tahtawi) and Istanbul (Dhia Go Kalp) eastward, the debate resurrected the old theme concerning the couple Reason and Religion –” longly analysed and commented by the medieval philosophers -, while projecting it under the light of the modernity, with its crucial challenges: industry, technology, sciences, on the one hand; and Western cultural values to which great revolutions in Europe and America contributed, on the other hand. Furthermore, confronted with the West as a conquering civilization, the Arabs under the Ottoman rule (as well as the Turkish elite) felt that they were facing a decisive turn in their history. Whence, the similar questions about the future and the different answers the thinkers gave, with that common feature that may be summed up in the following position: We accept modernization, because to refuse it is equal to rejecting the future and even the survival. Yet, modernization is not necessarily synonymous of Westernization. That’s why the Arab and Turkish thinkers of what is today labelled “Nahdha” –” renaissance –” endeavoured to find the basis for receiving the new advantages of the modernization inside the cultural values of the Islamic civilization. The approach was very resembling to that of the first Arab philosophers, who, confronted with the Greek texts –” to some extent expressing the polytheism of the ancient Greeks -, had to find a common ground with them. A ground they deemed necessary for the rapid evolution of Islam itself. That’s why the most important problem that occupied them was to bridge a relation of complementarity between Reason and Religion.

It seems that today, after a whole century of the most interesting- because the most influencing- adventure of the human mind, the Arabs and the Muslims have not yet resolved all the problems put to them by the rapid development of the Western civilization. In this context, the contributions to the current debate of Western scholars, is not to be neglected, at least because we know to which extent some of them may be influent on the policymakers. However, if some of those thinkers revealed to be almost infatuating the media, because they introduced controversial or provocative notions –” such as the clash of civilizations-, some others –” with no less important thesis –” had not had the impact they deserve. Maybe their “mistake” consisted in dispassionating a debate overwhelmed by passions, on both sides.

Among those scholars, I mention today Mr Deepak Lal, the James S. Coleman Professor of International Development Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who in a contribution to The Independent Review (v. V, n.1, Summer 2000), tried to answer the hard question (which is the title of his paper): Does Modernization Require Westernization?

For Lal, ” there is no need for the non-Western world to accept the cosmological beliefs promoted by Gregory the Great’s papal revolution of the sixth century.” Otherwise, it is not necessary for the Muslim world to restructure itself around the cultural values of the West, in order to get what Joseph Needham called ” a packet of change”, which he deemed responsible for the “European miracle” of modern economic growth.

In a complete opposition to the views of Samuel Huntington, Bernard Lewis, F.A. Hayek, and others, Lal thinks that if economic success is in the West based on the cultural heritage of individualism, there may be as many conceptions of individualism as there are cultures in the world. True, the Western notion is distinct. It is what the anthropologist Louis Dumont called ” in-wordly”, to distinguish it from the “out-wordly” Hindu notion. Yet, the Sinic civilization ” did not even have this ‘out-wordly’ individualism of the Hindus and the Greeks”, though we can observe that the Confucian framework did not impede development. Yet, it did not facilitate it either. For Japan, for example, deviations from its Confucian past explain its extraordinary economic success. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, have succeeded far better than Brazil or Mexico, even if the latter have a Christian heritage.

Thus, there is no need for peoples with different cultures to import the course of the Western individualism as a ” change package” in order to succeed. The Christian narrative that evolved from the St. Augustine’s “City of God”, through the Enlightenment, to Marxism, to Freudianism, to Eco-fundamentalism, though it moulded the Western mind, has as many chances to be implanted in the Muslim world as a banana tree to grow in Alaska. Anyway, the current Western notion of self, states Lal, has led to incoherence, discomfort, and sometimes to social chaos: ” The family as most civilizations have known it became sick in the West as people reverted to the ‘family’ practices of their hunter-gatherer ancestors”.

And when he asks: Is there any necessary link between democracy and development? Deepak Lal reminds us of Alexis de Tocqueville who wrote in his Ancient regime: “It is true that in the long run liberty always leads those who know how to keep it to comfort, well- being, often to riches. But there are times when it impedes the attainment of such goods; and other times when despotism alone can momentarily guarantee their enjoyment. Men who take up liberty for its material rewards, then, have never kept it for long (…) Who seeks in liberty something other than itself is born to be a slave.”

Thereupon, once freedom is acknowledged as a value in itself, Lal states that ” it is by no means that democracy will be viable in many climes”, because precisely of the differences in conceptions and cultures and habits between the countries. Otherwise, there is no need to clash just because the West and other countries have different views of freedom and democracy. Lal denies that democracy is necessary for prosperity. He says: ” Because democracy is not necessary for prosperity, countries can prosper by allowing economic freedom while maintaining their ancient habits, favouring various modes of maintaining social order over political systems based on individual political liberty.”

This is obviously a thought clashing with Huntington’s and many others, who hold a Western-centric view of democracy and freedom.

Yet, if the words of de Tocqueville have a sense, it is that there is nothing more important than liberty in this world. It is for freedom that men accept willingly to die. This is precisely the very cause for which they should be allowed to choose freely where to belong and why to live.

There is another point clashing with Huntington. For Lal, in effect, Islam is not a potential enemy. It is even much closer to Christianity than Judaism. He says:

“Christianity has a number of distinctive features, shared with its Semitic cousin Islam but not entirely with its parent Judaism, that are not found in any of the other great Eurasian religions. The most important is its universality. Neither the Jews, the Hindus, nor the members of the Sinic civilizations had religions claiming to be universal. You could not choose to be a Hindu, a Chinese, or a Jew; you were born as one. Hence, unlike Christianity and Islam, those religions did not proselytize.”

Thus, we should talk of two different cultures evolving side by side, rather than opposing each other. With hindsight, can we even dissociate the evolution of both civilizations? What each one owes to the other is, as we know, a matter of an interesting debate between historians and thinkers.

Finally, I would like to make two remarks:

The rise of the West was not only mediated by the Catholic Church, as seems to think Mr. Deepak Lal. It would have been merely impossible to imagine it without the rise of Islam, at least until the 12th century. It is since that century that the West started its arousal, helped by the works of Muslim philosophers and scientists. Before it, I am not sure that we may talk about any arousal in Europe.

The second point is that the success of the “European miracle” happened in complete dissociation with the Church. I am not only referring to Max Weber, but also to what Mr. Lal considered as the “updating of the Christian narrative”: Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud.

Thus, at some point of the Western development, we would talk about epistemological break up rather than about paradoxal continuation of the “Christian narrative” obsessed by St. Augustine’s “City of God”.

This is, I think, another great difference with what happened in the Muslim world, which remains quite attached to the “Islamic narrative”, if I may say.