A critical approach to modernism in the Arab world

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The essence of modernism comprises three historical processes. First, the process of freeing the individual from pre-modernism stereotypes. Second, releasing the mind from the chains that hold it down and activate its abilities to query, criticize, think, innovate and discover the truth and nature of things. The third process is related to organizing the social and human existence, and considering this the task of the individual and the group after they are already freed from pre-modernist ways of thinking. In this sense, modernism in Arab countries encountered structural obstacles that impeded, and still impedes, effective modernism from taking its natural course in these countries. As a result, modernism remained defective and incomplete in the whole Arab world.

One of the main obstacles in the way of modernism in the Arab world is that the present is brought under the pressure of the past. This is clearly demonstrated in the way the Islamic legacy hinders modernism. This past was considered by major segments of the elite, not to mention normal citizens, as the prime example of what we should adhere to in the present. That is to say, the past is the reference through which we pass judgments and assess the present.

There are many reasons that reinforce the past in the present and hamper all intellectual pursuits to formulate a model of modernism. One of these reasons is that regaining the past as a model is a form of psychological relief as well as a medium of salvation for some people. To put it clearly, we may say that we have experienced the past and tested it, so we see it as trustworthy and sacred, especially when it is related to religion. Thus, instead of accessing the unknown and uncertain world of modernism, we go hang on to the past and apply what has been formulated before us.

Another crucial factor that makes the past so effective is that most streams of thought along with renaissance intellectuals never agreed on determining the relative value of the past, but rather handled modernism from the past’s angle. This means that the past has become the legitimate reference for modernism.

Therefore, modernism was tinged with the attachment to the past and to its traditions. In other words, modernism has become dependent on the past, which may lead people to denying the intellectual, philosophical and scientific bases of its existence.

The Arab world depended on only one aspect of modernism to achieve progress. They built upon a movement called “partial modernism”, that is to say the modernism that concentrates on material aspects such as the economic, scientific and technological products, and ignores philosophical and moral values. We must bear in mind that the products of modernism are an integral part of its moral value and its source of knowledge. In fact those products are the embodiment of the practical application of its values.

There is a duality in our way of handling modernism, and until now, separating between modernism’s products and its scientific and philosophical components still dominates our viewpoint towards modernism and the West. As a consequence, we cannot recognize modernism as it really is and we cannot see the innovations occurring in the world because everything new, from our point of view, must have sources in our legacy and our past knowledge. Unfortunately, this is seen as an escape from the reality and an inability to understand mechanisms of our real world.

What is worse is that we were able to use modernism’s products in our battle to regain the model of the past. As if we want to deepen the gap of contradictions between the past and modernism to serve aims that refute modernism’s logic itself. For example, the Jihadists and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups use the high technology offered by modernism, like remote controlled bombs, explosive devices, and social media, in its fight to retake the past, or to be exact, reclaim a distorted image of the past.

This feeling of superiority over modernism poses another major obstacle in achieving it. Large segments of the elite believe that Arabs and Muslims are the predecessors and that the West are the successors. They refer to Islamic knowledge in the Middle Ages and how it contributed to modernizing Europe and achieving its renaissance. The elite’s attitude is ignoring an important question though: Why did Arab minds become idle and stop developing those contributions, while Europe managed to move ahead and establish a framework for research and innovation?

The tendency to deny what is new and never recognize it will lead us to live in an isolated world with our legacy and the limited resources of knowledge that we failed to develop. According to this tendency, most, if not all, ideas that are borrowed from others should have roots in our culture. This could be true only if we revised the past in order to develop it and created an opportunity for innovation to meet the new needs of our Arab societies.

Instead of being honest to ourselves about the truth of our conditions and the limits of our knowledge, we swam against the tide and glorified our past, ourselves and our knowledge even more. We learned only the practical use of the new sciences without probing deep into the nature of its existence. We stopped at how to make use of the products of this science or that one which we can import or buy without taking the pains to produce it or gaining the knowledge of making it ourselves.

Last but not least, the difficulties facing the individual’s character are also considered a very serious obstacle in the way of modernism. Our societies need individuals who seek to fulfill their ambitions and open their minds to innovation. Individuals who can criticize old knowledge and thoughts in order to confirm their validity and match those thoughts with methods of critical and scientific thinking. Yet, those individuals should develop their mental ability within the framework of the group they belong to.

The character we need to form is one which should be obsessed with curiosity, critical thinking and using the mind to understand and gain new knowledge. The character who criticizes the strict social and intellectual molds which impede thinking and creativity, yet not harming the group he or she belongs to, but his or her thoughts should be in harmony with their needs.

In my view, producing Arab and Islamic modernism is not impossible if we follow some basic principles. First, we must clear up the confusion between Arab culture and time. Second, we must minimize the influence of the past over our Arab culture through establishing a cultural base that supports perseverance and novelty, and this can be a starting point towards a new cultural era. Thirdly, we must achieve a prosperity of the individual through knowledge and enhancing his or her abilities of constructive criticism and innovation.

Abdel-Alim Mohamed is a counsellor at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.