Does Progress Presuppose Westernization?

Transcript of a debate in which I participated for my Islamic Philosophy and Theology class. This was just the position I took – and not necessarily, or at least wholly, a part of my convictions.

I am taking the position that progress does, in fact, entail westernization. In order to understand my position, I must assert something vital: Progress being defined in terms of Westernization does not make it either a good or bad thing – my argument does not revolve around this distinction. I am here to prove that progress is equivocal to westernization, and not that this is equivocation is either positive or negative

Now, onto the crux of my argument – which is to prove that progress is equivocal to modernization and modernization, in turn, is equivocal to westernization – thus in order to progress it is necessary to westernize
Alright, so, let’s first see how progression and modernity or modernization match up: So, what is modernity? It’s a general reference term to the modern period which spans the 16th century up until the 19th. During this period we see the rise of certain political ideas such as the importance of individual liberties, capitalism, as a result, the emergence of the nation state, technology and science taking on a greater role, industrialization and as a result rapid urbanization, as well as the transformation of war – all a result of this dictatorship of reason – meaning a result of when complete cold human reason, logic and the like are put upon a pedestal above all else – where religion once dominated, reason came to dominate (Gellner, Benedict Anderson).

This is essentially how the modern era is defined; it held such periods as the renaissance and the enlightenment, as well as several revolutions (Russian, French) – all names indicative of change for the better, or progression as we have discussed in the past, we see the distinction between the modern and the medieval; how scholars, as well as specialists in other fields, ran from anything associated with the Medieval period, referred to still as the Dark Ages – even today there is this negative connotation with the word “Medieval.” 
Thus, there was this movement forward, so to speak – a progression defined in terms of creating ways to live life better – in both the public and private realms – so, what’s better for the individual, what’s better for the community, the arts, politics, etc

Alright, so, think about what we define as “progress” today – what words, concepts, ideas and such come to mind? Let’s think of governance, what defines good governance? A good government which provides for its people, fair distribution of resources (education, health, welfare, etc), which is able to protect its citizenry, able to sustain stability within its politics and its economy, one which is able to, essentially, protect against violence in a given territory. Good governance is also made possible through an effective bureaucracy – an apparatus which assists the state in its governance.

Democracy as a system of governance is pretty popular – Liberal Democracy is another step, albeit less accepted. However the general discourse, scholastic and populist, holds that democracy is, essentially awesome. A government which upholds the so-called universally accepted human rights and liberties is considered a good government .

We can safely say that there is a Western dominance in the world – the greatest powers for the past couple of centuries have been Western nations such as Britain, France, and, more recently, the United States of America. The West is what it is given the impact of the modern era. Given the hegemonic dominance of the West, it dictates world morality and ethics – there are standards which exist for determining right and wrong, standards put in place by the dominant culture — what we consider good today, is largely reflective of the impact of the West – it’s values, it’s mores, etc.

The greatest consolidating factor of all these values and ideas has been the Nation State which has not only allowed for these ideas and values to persist but assisted in their creation. So the nation state is both the creator as well as the most powerful product of the modern era. Of course, it’s imperative that I mention here that the previous ideas of good governance are not, obviously, exclusive to the West – it’s about how these ideas have manifested themselves. Many, if not most, of the underlying principles are similar to other cultures, however the manifestations of these are what is different.

Anyway, I could go on forever about modernity – but to sum up my points, modernity is specific to Western culture – it defined over 400 years of intellectual, political, artistic, social thought. This thought has come to define what we today identify as the West. Through imperialism and colonialism, as well as less violent and coercive means, the Western nations were able to assert these particular ideas elsewhere in the world – so what we have today is the hegemony of these ideas, and these ideas which were considered progressive are what define progress – thus, to progress is to modernize and modernization is westernization – hence progress requires westernization.

As my colleague will argue progress and modernization do not belong only to the West. This is true – Islam can have its own modernity if we are defining modernity as something which is different than what came before. However, that’s an extremely broad understanding of modernity and we need to understand it as how it is and not how it can, possibly, maybe, who knows be.

Professor Wael Hallaq, in Can the Shari’ah be Restored, says most poignantly: Modernity is not only technology and science, Hollywood, McDonald’s, and Calvin Klein jeans but also: psychology, an ethic, a set of values, an epistemology, and, in short, a state of mind and a way of life. Modernity is here to stay, at least for a long time to come.

Like prof. Hallaq says – modernity is a way of life, and for Muslims Islam is a way of life. Islam flourished under a completely different type of modernity – it was modern as it brought something new to the Arabs, just as the enlightenment brought Europe out of the Dark Ages, Islam brought the Arabs out of jahiliyya.

So, it is, in and of itself, a modern paradigm – however it encountered another modern paradigm a couple of hundred of years ago, and this “other” modern paradigm was able to penetrate Islam’s culture. The core of Islamic civilization was its culture which allowed for the flourishing of education, social welfare, governance, communal living, relationships, justice and the like – there was a decentralized but connected culture in which God was God and government was government – there was no modern state with its all encompassing penetrative capabilities – meaning, there was no omnipotent omniscient state. That job was left up to God. The modernity which dominates today was the paradigmatic shift in European thought and life – this has created a culture antithetical not to Islam in and of itself, but rather the culture – the state of mind – which allowed Islam and Islamic civilizations to flourish.

Just a really good example of my point: Japan –A country which modernized, rapidly industrialized and today is a first world state – however, while it is doing well on the political and economic levels, if we look at the domestic situation we’ll find a broken culture of sorts – much of Japan’s traditional culture was left behind, with only private and superficial remnants remaining – at least in the urban areas.

We are now living in the post-modern period; a period of reevaluation – which is allowing us to look back on what modernity has brought us and what’s worked and what hasn’t.

So, that is progress. That is modernity. And that is westernization. Progress entails modernization which entails Westernization – and it’s up to you to decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.

Quote from Hallaq:

The question that today’s Muslims must answer is to what extent they are willing to subscribe to modernity and to adopt its products. To reject it completely is obviously out of the question: modernity, we have said, is not merely a material phenomenon but primarily one that effected a systematic restructuring of psychology and epistemology, among many other things. Accordingly, if they were to adopt of it what suits them, what is to be adopted? If commercial, corporate, and other business laws are to be adopted, as they have and as they must, can Muslims do so while escaping the snares of usurious interest?66 If they are to join the other nations in signing human rights charters and conventions, as they have, can they, or are they willing to, enact religious laws that grant theirreligious minorities an equal status? If the education of women has become an essential feature of their society, can the religious law forge for the Muslim woman a commensurate status compatible with her new role in society? If this status were to be accorded, can this law, while maintaining its intellectual and religious integrity, deal with the implications and consequences of this new role? And if all this were to take place, how are the revealed texts to be interpreted?

One thought on “Does Progress Presuppose Westernization?

  1. Pingback: That’s Not Why Hatezs Gon’ Hate, bro « Aristotle's Lackey: Sana Saeed

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