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Tradition, Modernity and Development - Part 2

Thus we must concede that the incompatibility of modern civilization with our tradition-bound civilization is one of the most important causes of the crisis in our society. What is to be done? Should we insist on remaining immersed in our tradition, or should we melt fully into Western civilization? Or is there another way of removing this contradiction, or at least taming and channeling it such that it does not lead to our destruction and the unraveling of our social fabric and historical identity?

Many traditionalists continue to defend their heritage against modernity, often thinking of this heritage as being divine, assuming that they can bring order to their lives by shutting the doors to Western values and civilization, and by relying on tradition. But this ill-fated rigidity has not achieved their aims, a fact evident in Western civilization's success in exporting much of its values to unprepared tradition-bound societies that have lacked the capability to understand the West. Thus, traditionalists have been left with no choice but to retreat progressively, without providing society with the tools to appraise Western civilization properly.

Then there are those who believe that this crisis can be solved by a complete and uncritical adopting of modern values. Modernity, to them, counts as the highest achievement of humankind to date, as they prescribe that all obstacles for its embrace be removed, tradition being viewed as the biggest obstacle in the process of modernization. They advise that we prepare the way for the new civilization by stepping on our past heritage. But sadly, many who have been entranced by the admittedly awesome accomplishments of the West, those who have represented the essence of what became known in our society as intellectualism, have not only not solved the problem, but made it worse.

First, the shallowness of their view, the debate being merely glossed over, has postponed the emergence of a real debate about the relationship between modernity and tradition. Second, dispensing with deeply rooted traditions, they have proved incapable of achieving anything of significance. They have never found a place in the hearts of a people who have become habituated to tradition; they have not spoken a language comprehensible to the people, and thus have died in isolation, their words never gaining common currency. Or even worse, in order to survive they wrapped themselves around autocratic rulers, often becoming the tools of Western colonialism in their own countries.

In real life, neither religious decrees and mere wishful thinking can prevent the advance of Western culture, nor can memoranda and doctrines uproot tradition. Human life is always changing, sometimes unconsciously and uncontrollably. The important thing is to see through which perspective we can maintain an instrumental presence in the process of change, so that instead of being at their mercy, we can confront circumstances with awareness and intelligence.

Alongside these two imagined solutions, there are reform-minded thinkers, in the developing world. While there is hope that this movement may be more successful, thus far it, too, has been beleaguered by the crisis that we face. This is because reformists rest on two fundamentals: one, a return to the self and reviving our historical-cultural identity, and two, a positive encounter with the achievements of human civilization, while being aware of the hegemonic and colonial legacy of the West. Not only is there no unity of vision about the 'self' that they want to return to, but also they cannot agree on precisely those aspects of the West that we must absorb and internalize. Thus reformists must be viewed as keen and aware pioneers who have tried to confront their society's woes courageously to rid it of degrading conditions.

Our past has been eventful, but our future remains uncertain. We are adrift in a world dominated by Western culture, politics, economics, and military might, and confront the idea of development which is a tested form of progress in the West. We must decide once and for all where we stand in relation to the West and how Western values are related to development, so that we can attain development without losing our national identity or becoming dissolved in the West.

Development, like many other contemporary concepts, has its roots in the West. Here is how I define it:

to establish widespread welfare on the basis of the values and criteria of Western civilization. Do we not divide the world into the two camps of 'developed'-meaning built on Western values-and 'undeveloped'? Do we not think of those countries as 'developing' that are trying to modernize their way of life by emulating the West? It is here that the relationship between tradition and modernity comes into focus.

Development is a Western concept, based on Western civilization. Without knowing it we cannot know development, let alone make decisions about it or reject it. So, I believe that debating about development is premature before focusing on its underpinnings.

There are those who claim that nations are doomed to remain backward, even to perish, unless they meet all of development's demands. Modernization, they say, is necessary to achieve development.

The above judgment is true if we see the West as the ultimate human civilization that is impossible to supersede in the future, but there are those who see the West as the latest but not the ultimate human civilization, which like all other human artifacts, is tentative and susceptible to decay. Of course, this does not mean denying development or surrendering to the views of regressive traditionalists; it means rejecting the prescriptions of those who prescribe complete and rapid Westernization. While the prescriptions of thinkers usually differ from those of the power elite, development will be achieved more fully if policy making is attuned ,to the prescriptions of rational thought, not itself a constraint on thinking.

Our role as thinkers is to realize that even if development means repeating the Western experience, we still have to fathom its basic tenets and their implications. This represents the most important calling for real intellectualism and thinking. The truth of the matter is that without rationality, real development will be impossible to attain.

First, development is not a mechanical process that can be achieved in the absence of rational human beings. And second, a society that is devoid of rational thinking will lose its balance as soon as it encounters problems, and it is amply clear that human difficulties cannot be solved through reliance on force, strict laws, and the decrees of politicians, even though difficulties might be submerged by these means for a while. The sad experience of the 'Westoxicated' and the tradition-bound is before us, and we must learn from their mistakes so we do not repeat them.

Modern civilization is the important reality of our age and has brought many monumental benefits to humanity. But its faults are many as well, and these faults are not limited to Westerners' political and economic atrocities outside their geographic borders. The West faces serious internal crises in its economy, society, and in its thinking. For those of us living outside the West, if we do not feel overwhelmed and taken in by the West, we will at least be better judges of the disasters brought about by Western colonialism for non-Westerners.

Western civilization is a human construct, and thus tentative and prone to decay, unless someone claims unrealistically that with the dawn of modern civilization, the fountain of human curiosity and creativity has dried up. Civilization is an answer to the curiosity of humans who never stop questioning their world. The ever-changing needs of humans compel them to fulfill these needs, and civilization is the answer to the questions one faces. Of course, there are important questions and needs history that spur the emergence of civilizations, and these questions are themselves affected by the time and place in which they arise. That is why civilizations change and there is no such thing as an ultimate and eternal civilization. For as long as there are humans, so will be their curiosity and needs. With each question that is answered and each need that is fulfilled, humans are confronted with new questions and needs.

Each civilization remains standing until it can harness its inner power to offer answers to human questions and to fulfill human needs, but civilization, similar to all secular things, is limited. When it depletes its natural strength and cannot find answers to new questions, slowly the exuberance of followers of this civilization will vanish, and that is how civilizations decay and perish.

Western civilization has encountered great crises, and by relying on its natural strengths, it has been able to pass through them, beginning in the nineteenth century and culminating in the two world wars of the twentieth century. But the liberal and capitalist West managed to confront and outlive its socialist opponent through adjusting its institutions. Precipitated by its own internal weaknesses, socialism's demise dazzled the world. It is nonetheless clear that the West is faced with other deep crises, crises that have arisen out of questioning the core values of the West, evident in a decrease in confidence in its capabilities and permanence. These questions are now more pressing and pertinent than ever. Thus, objections to the moral and philosophical bases of the West are more common today.

It is true that the inability of the culture of the Middle Ages to offer answers to human curiosity and needs, and resorting to physical and psychological force to suppress those questions and needs, led to an intellectual and social explosion which caused the rule of the Church and feudal overlords to crumble. But it would be naive to think of these conscious questions and needs as the sole cause of the emergence of modern civilization. These questions and needs emerged amid motivations which were outside the realm of logic and rationality.

First, the harsh restrictions imposed by the Church and feudalism were instrumental in bringing about a reaction in the opposite direction. The Church had given its practices a sacred facade such that its excesses led Westerners not only to overturn the extant social order, but to doubt the whole validity of religion and spirituality.

At the same time, hedonism and greed played a great role in the birth and rise of modern civilization, which has trampled on higher truths and spirituality.

Was the role of the bourgeoisie any less significant to the development of modernity than that of the intellectual founders of the movement? What drove the bourgeois class was certainly not a restless search for truth and justice, and the rescue of these two ends from the excesses of the Church and feudalism, but the will to acquire wealth.

Adapted from the book: "Islam, Dialogue and Civil Society" by: "Sayyid Mohammad Khatami"

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