Whither Modernization?

Modernity is one of the most delicate and critical issues facing us. A more important issue is the relationship between an imposed modernization and a genuine civilization. For the past 150 years, the West has undertaken the task of "modernizing" men with missionary zeal. Under the guise of "civilizing" nations, acquainting them with culture, they presented us with this "modernity" which they persisted in calling "ideal civilization". And it is regrettable that our “intellectuals” miserably failed to make us comprehend the difference between the two. Thanks to the intellectual-level of our pseudo-intellectuals! They should, surely, not be called intellectuals for a "genuine" intellectual is supposed to be “conscious of his/her own ‘humanistic’ status in a specific social and historical time and place. His/her self-awareness lays upon him/her the burden of responsibility. He/she responsibly, self-consciously leads his/her people in scientific, social and revolutionary action."

Whenever we embark upon the task of understanding the true nature of modernization vis-a-vis civilization, we must also be familiar with the term "assimiliation". This term is the root of all the predicament and constraints facing us. The term applies to the conduct of an individual who, intentionally or unintentionally, starts imitating the mannerisms of someone else. A person exhibiting this weakness forgets his own background, national character and culture or, if he remembers that at all, recalls them with contempt. Obsessively, he denies himself in order to transform his identity. It is like a crow that likes to be considered as a peacock by having put on feathers of the latter.

"Alienation" is another term having almost similar meaning as assimilation. It is the process of forgetting or becoming unfamiliar with or indifferent to one’s own self. This severe social and spiritual illness manifests itself in many different shapes and depends on many factors. For instance, one factor that alienates a human being is the tool with which he works. Don’t you think that modern men, especially in the industrial west, have become slaves to production units and as such have become alienated from their own true selves? Alienated, as a word, means being possessed by a "spirit" or a "Jinn". Alienation may become a serious mental ailment. It affects men through mechanical and dehumanized discipline. It may be caused by bureaucracy and technology as well.

Since we know the important jargons about our topic of modernization and civilization, let us pose the question: what form of alienation are the Muslims living in? It is, certainly, not mechanical, for we are not industrialized nations, and nor it is bureaucratic. Rather, what we are at grips with is something extremely unpleasant and dangerous – ‘cultural alienation’. What is culture? Culture includes a collection of intellectual, non-material artistic, historical, literary, religious and emotional expressions (in the form of signs, symbols, traditions, customs, relics, mores) of a nation that have accumulated in the course of its history and acquired unique form. These signify the pains, desires, temperaments, social characteristics, life patterns, social relations and economic structure of a nation. Thus, culture is the expression and super-structure of the real being of the society; it is actually the whole history of the society. But certain artificial factors may creep into a society that can wipe out any real culture and substitute a false culture suitable for different conditions and an altogether different historical stage, a different economy, a different background and a different political and social set-up. Thus, a foreign culture may alienate a nation. When it does, the indigenous intellectual no longer feels or perceives genuinely.

Six centuries ago, the great Muslim historian, philosopher, sociologist, Ibn-e-Khaldun, wrote, "Cultural slavery is far more harmful than mere political domination. Yet, in practice, they are inseparable." (Muqaddimah). Owing to centuries of colonial domination, we are, indeed, living in a period of cultural alienation. Western societies have been able to impose their philosophy, their way of thinking, their desires, their ideas, their tastes and their manners upon us to the extent that they have been able to force their symbols of civilization (technological innovations) into our countries that consume new products.

We are, currently, living in the technological era where machines are playing an ever-increasing role. Machines are developed for efficient and surplus production. Surplus products produced by the capitalist countries must, therefore, be consumed by the third world countries. Can these products actually be taken to the East, whose pattern of life does not need them, and force their consumption? Impossible! European factories produced an ever-increasing quantity of luxury goods and sought for them a market in poor, under-developed countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. (Today, they also produce arms and ammunitions, and we, in the third world countries, are buying these deadly weapons at an alarming rate in order to secure our borders against the imperialist-carved, hostile neighboring states!!!). It was out of question to expect the non-Europeans to use these products back in the 18th and the 19th centuries even if they were distributed free to attract attention. Because, by then, they had their own special native adornments. These women had no need for European cosmetics. In order to sell European goods, the European capitalists sought to change the non-European society. What part of non-Europeans should be changed first? The answer is their morale and thinking. And who could change these? The answer is the European intellectuals.

The Western capitalists, therefore, schemed. The project was: all the people of the world must become uniform. They must live alike, they must like alike, they must think alike (at least, the ones who shape their destiny). Is it possible? Apparently, not. Because, religion, history, culture, past civilization, education and tradition are the structured elements of a man’s personality and spirit. These elements differ from one society to another. But for the exploitation by the westerners, all of these have to become of the same pattern. What is this pattern? The pattern is provided by the West: it shows all non-Westerners how to think, how to dress, how to desire, how to grieve, how to build, how to establish their social relations, how to consume, how to express their views and finally how to like and above all what to like and how much to like. Soon it realized that a new culture called "modernization" was presented to the world.

Modernity was the best method of diverting the non-Western world, from whatever form and mold of thinking. The West realized that by tempting the inhabitants of the East with a compulsive desire for modernization, it would incite them to cooperate to deny their own past and destroy with their own hands the constituents of their unique culture, religion and personality. So, the temptation and longing for "modernization" prevailed all across the East – and to become modernized was regarded as becoming like the Europeans (or in today’s world, like the Americans).

Dr. Shariati writes, "Strictly speaking, ‘modernized’ means modernized in consumption. One who becomes modernized is one whose tastes now desire ‘modern’ items to satisfy his wants. In other words, he imports from Europe (or America) new forms of living and modern products… Non-Europeans are modernized for the sake of consumption." Westerners could not just tell others they were going to reshape their intellect, mind and personality for fear of arousing resistance. Therefore, the Europeans had to make non-Europeans equate "modernization" with "civilization", since every one has a desire for civilization. Who on earth does not desire to be called civilized? The non-European intellectuals now acted as a catalyst to fully transform his society to one of mere imitation and consumption. Since the non-Europeans could not produce the new goods, they became automatically dependent upon the technology, which produces for them and expects them to buy whatever it produces.

Thus, modernization means changing tradition, modes of consumption and material life from old to new. To make all the non-Westerners modernized, they had to overcome the influence of religion, since religion causes any society to feel a distinct individuality. So, native intellectuals began a movement against "fanaticism". As Franz Fanon said: "Europe intended to captivate non-Europeans by the machine. Can a human or society be enslaved by a machine or certain European product without taking away or depriving him of his personality?" No, it cannot. The personality must be wiped out first. They would deprive him of his personality. All the "I’s" must go. He must be forced to believe that he has less I.Q. than a westerner, that his past belongs to savagery, that there is "western superiority". This very way of thinking, which was introduced to the world to justify the need for modernizing the non-European nations, became the basis of thought for the non-Western elites as well. He can, therefore, see how did European nationalism influence the industrial revolution in the West.

Jean Paul Satre in the preface to Fanon’s book "The Wretched of the Earth" pointed out, "We would bring a group of African or Asian youth to Amsterdam, Paris, London for a few months; take them around, change their clothes and adornments, teach them etiquette and social manners as well as some fragment of language. In short, we would empty them of their own cultural values and then send them back to their own countries. They would no longer be the kind of person to speak their own mind; rather they would be our mouthpieces. We would cry the slogans of humanity and equality and then they would echo our voice in Africa and Asia, ‘- – manity’, ‘- – quality’." What a brilliant, albeit a devious, scheme! These were the philosophers, the Western think-tanks, who convinced our people to lay aside our orthodoxy, discard our religion, to get rid of native culture and become westernized from the tip of the toe to the top of the head! At numerous occasions, we have witnessed how our pseudo-scholars, the likes of Taha Hussain in Egypt, came out in the open and launched savage attacks on our culture, trying to legitimize the infiltration of the western values.

Is civilization a product that one can export or import from one place to another? Of course, not; but modernity can be. A certain society can be fully modernized within a very short period, by changing his mode of consumption. Likewise, an individual could also become thoroughly modernized, even more than the European (or American) himself. But it is not so simple to civilize an entire nation or a society. Civilization and culture are not European (or American) – made products, whose consumption alone makes one civilized. So, to confuse the two terms – modernity and civilization – a quasi-thinker and quasi-educated people were created by the West in our midst, not real thinkers or intellectuals. That is why, to our utter dismay and frustration, and obviously, to great pleasure of the West, often times we find these "created" native “intellectuals” playing his western-master’s voice. The quasi-thinker acted as an intermediary between the West and the East, between those who had surplus products and those who had to consume these. And while the non-Westerner is happy with the idea that he has been modernized (and civilized), the European/American capitalist and bourgeois laugh at their success in converting him into a consumer of their surplus production.

If these schemers fail because of the strong opposition from vigilant, native forces, the so-called reactionary elements, will that be the end of exploitation? I don’t think so. They will find newer ways to market their surplus products. They will talk about schemes that will be “win-win situation” (after all, who wants to be in the losing side?) for both the parties, which in fact would only widen the gap between the consumer and the producer of western goods.

How long would we let ourselves to be fooled and controlled by the West?


Above paper is based on Dr. Ali Shariati’s book "Modernization and Civilization" and excerpts from this paper were delivered at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles on November 30, 1984.