Civilization and Modernization
Dr. Ali Shariati
Debate on the question of who is civilized and who
is modernized are best discussed in light of Islamic doctrine,
particularly as a matter concerning individuals of the educated classes
of Islamic societies upon whom lie the burden of responsibility and
leadership of the Umma. A more important issue is the relationship
between an imposed modernization and genuine civilization. Unfortunately
modernity has been imposed on us, the non-European nations , in the
guise of civilization.
Before any further discussion I should like to define certain terms:
What does "cultural alienation" mean? We know alienation, indicates a condition in which one does not perceive himself as he is, but rather perceives something else in his place. What is culture? However defined, culture includes a collection of intellectual, non-material artistic, historical, literary, religious and emotional expressions (e.g. signs, traditions, customs) of a nation which have accumulated in the course of it's history and acquired unique form.
When I feel my own religion, literature, emotion, needs and pains through my own culture, I feel my own self, the very social and historical self, the source from which this culture has originated. But certain artificial factors, probably of a dubious nature, creep into a society which have an alien spirit and are a product of a different past, a different society (different both socially and economically). These artificial factors wipe out any real culture and substitute a false culture suitable for different conditions and an altogether different historical stage, a different economy, and a different political and social setup. Then when I wish to feel my own real self, I find myself conceiving another society's culture instead of my own and bemoaning troubles not mine at all. I then find myself harboring aspirations, ideals and anguishes legitimately belonging to social, economic and political conditions of societies other than mine.
My conception of myself are not as I actually am in reality, but as "they" are; that is I am alienated. Is it not ridiculous to have, in a society with so much starvation and general feelings, desires and behavior resembling those of present day Americans, English or French. In this way non-European societies become alienated by European societies: their intellectuals no longer feel Eastern, groan like an Eastern person or aspire to be Eastern people. The intellectual does not suffer because of his own social problems, rather he conceives of the pain, sufferings, feelings and needs of an European in the final stage of capitalistic and materialistic success and enjoyment. Thus, today the most painful disorder possible sweeps non-European countries, the psychological disorder of non-Europeans who posses a unique character and yet deny it. They hold in mind something alien. They conceive of someone else and imitate him blindly.
These non-European countries, say 200 years ago, would have lacked today's Western Civilization, but each and every one of them had it's own authentic and solid civilization. For instance, if I had gone to a country like India or an African country, I would know that they had their own unique tastes and buildings. They composed their own unique poetry, pertinent to their culture, and relevant to their lives. They had their own unique social manner, own religion. All they had was their own. They were not sick, poor they were, but poverty is something different from sickness.
But today, western societies have been able to impose their philosophy, their way of thinking, their desires, their ideas, their tastes and their manners upon non-Europeans countries to the same extent that they have been able to force their symbols of civilization (technological innovations) into these countries which consume new products and gadgets; countries which can never adjust themselves to European manners, longing, tastes and ways of thinking.
We started putting together different parts and elements to build a modern but formless society with no aim or goal. In the distorted result we find parts from everywhere, some native, some European, some old-fashioned and some modern creating a shapeless, aimless confusion, and in the result creating a shapeless ,aimless society as well. Such societies are non-European societies which, during the last century, have been able to get their construction materials from the West, in the name of civilization.
What is the origin of the emergence of this "mosaic" civilization in non-European countries which have no special shape and no fixed goal? The machine emerged and developed during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in Europe in the hands of the capitalists and the rich. The machine has the characteristic of the need for constant increase in production when it is working. This is the machines coercion. Therefore, to avoid stock-piling, it must also progressively create the necessity of continuous consumption. However people's consumption does not increase at the same rate as does production. So what is to be done about excess production or surplus? New fields of consumption must be provided. European countries populations do nor exceed 40 to 60 million. The frantic production rate, rising constantly, exceeds the desires of people to consume. Thus since the machine has compulsively produced excess goods, it must step over it's national boundary, consequently the surplus goods had to go to Asia and Africa.
Can these products actually be taken to the East, whose pattern of life does not require them, and force their consumption? Impossible! When you enter an Asian society you notice that the Asian's clothing is made by his wife or in a native workshop. They wear traditional garments. There is no demand here for the products of factories which make machines, or "high fashion" clothes, or the "modern" fabrics of Europe.
An African or Asian woman had no need for European cosmetics and no need for trinkets to beautify herself and dress up. She already had her own cosmetics, her own materials and make-up. She would use them and all would admire her. Nor would she feel any need for change.
As a result of her attitude, the capitalist's merchandise remained unsold. People with this way of thinking, with unique necessities and tastes, who have their own lifestyle and produce their own necessities, were not the type of people who would consume the products of 18th century capitalists. So what to do? The problem was to make people in Asia and Africa consumers of European products. Their societies must be structured so they would buy European products. That meant changing a nation literally. They had to change the nation, and they had to transform a man in order to change his clothing, his consumption pattern, his adornment, his abode and his city. What part of him to change first? His morale and his thinking. It was the business of the enlightened European intellectuals to plan a special method of perverting the mind, the taste and lifestyle of the non-European. This was the project: all the people of the world must become uniform. They must live alike. They must think alike.
What structural elements go into the personality and spirit of a man and nation? Religion, history, culture, past civilization, education and tradition. All of these mentioned are the structural elements of a man's personality and spirit and, in it's general term, a nation. These elements differ from one society to another. They result in one form in Europe, another in Asia and in Africa. They all have to become the same. The differences in thinking and spirits of the nations must be destroyed in order for men to become uniform. They must conform, wherever they are, to a single pattern. What is this pattern? The pattern is provided by Europe: it shows all Easterners, Asians, Africans, how to think, how to dress, how to desire, how to grieve, how to build their houses, how to establish their social relations, how to consume , how to express their view, and finally how to like and what to like. Soon it is realized that a new culture called "modernization" was presented to the whole world.
The Europeans realized that by tempting the inhabitant of the East with a compulsive desire for "modernization", he would cooperate with them to deny his own past and desecrate and destroy with his own hands the constituents of his own unique culture, religion and personality. So the temptation and longing for "modernization" prevailed all across the Far East, Middle East, Near East and in Islamic and Black countries and to become modernized was regarded as becoming like the Europeans.
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 new forms of living and modern products, and he does not use new types of products and a lifestyle developed from his own original and national past. Non-Europeans are modernized for the sake of consumption. Westerners, however, could not just tell others they were going to reshape their intellect, mind and personality for fear of awakening resistance. Therefore, the Europeans had to make non-Europeans equate "modernization" with "civilization" to impose the new consumption pattern upon them, since everyone has a desire for civilization. "Modernization" was defined as "civilization" and thus people cooperated with the European plans to modernize. Since the non-Europeans could not produce the new products, they became automatically dependant upon the technology which produces for them and expects them to buy whatever it produces.
Modernization is changing traditions, mode of consumption and material life from old to new. To make all the non-Europeans modernized, they first had to overcome the influence of religion, since religion causes any society to feel a distinctive individuality. Religion postulates an exalted intellectuality to which everyone relates intellectually. If this intellect is crushed and humiliated, the one who identifies himself with it feels also crushed and humiliated. So native intellectuals began a movement against "fanaticism". As Franz Fanon says: "Europe intended to captivate the non-European 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 can not. The personality must be wiped out first.
They would deprive him of his personality. He must be dispossessed of all the "I's" he feels within. He must be forced to believe himself related to a humbler civilization, a humbler social order, and accept that European civilization, Western civilization and the Western race are superior. Africa must believe that an African is a savage, so that he is tempted to become "civilized" and put himself readily into the hands of the Europeans who will determine his fate. The poor man does not realize that he is being modernized instead of civilized. That is why we see that all of a sudden in the 18th and 19th centuries the Africans were described as savages and cannibals. Those Africans who dealt with the Islamic civilization for centuries were never known as cannibals. Suddenly the Black African becomes a cannibal, has a special smell, has a special race. The grey part of his brain does not work, and the forepart of his brain, like the Asian's, is shorter compared to the Westerner's!
Then we see that a new culture was built on a basis of "Western superiority" and "the superiority of it's civilization and it's people". They made us and the world believe that the European was exceptionally talented mentally and technically, whereas the Easterner had strange emotional and Gnostic talents and the negro was only good for dancing, singing, painting and sculpture.
Then 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-European elites as well! Modernization in what? In consumption, not in mind. In the name of civilization, the campaign for modernization was carried on, and then for more than 100 years, the non-European societies themselves strove to become modernized under the leadership of their sophisticated intellectuals.
Let us consider the genesis and composition of this class of intellectuals. Jean Paul Sartre in the preface to "The Wretched of the Earth" points 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, "humanity," "equality."
These were the persons who convinced people to lay aside their orthodoxy, discard their religion, get rid of native culture (as these had kept them behind the modern European societies) and become Westernized from the tip of the toe to the top of their head!
How is it possible to become Europeanized through export and exchange? Is civilization a product that one can export and import from one place to another? Of course not ;but modernity is the collection of modern products which can be imported by a society within a period of 1,2 or 5 years. A certain society can be completely modernized within a few years. Likewise an individual could also become thoroughly modernized, even modernized than the European himself. You can change his mode of consumption and he becomes modernized. That is exactly what the Europeans were expecting.
But it is not so simple to civilize a nation or society. Civilization and culture are not European-made products whose ownership makes anyone civilized. But they made us believe that all modernization nonsense was a manifestation of civilization! And we eagerly threw away everything we had, even our social prestige, morality and intellect, to become thirsty suckers of what Europe was eager to trickle into our mouths. This is what modernity really means.
Thus a being was created devoid of any background, alienated from his history and religion, and a stranger to whatever his race, his history and his forefathers had built in this world; alienated from his own human characteristics, a second-hand personality whose mode of consumption had been changed, whose mind has been changed, who had lost his old precious thoughts, his glorious past and intellectual qualities and has now become empty within. As Jean Paul Sartre puts it: "In these societies an "assimilate" - meaning a quasi-thinker and quasi-educated person - was created, not a real thinker or intellectual."
A real intellectual is one who knows his society, is aware of it's problems, can determine it's fate, is knowledgeable about it's past and who can decide for himself. These quasi-intellectuals, however, succeeded in influencing the people.
In Europe and America, when people go to a place where jazz is being played and they don't like it, they just say so bluntly, and loudly. But in Eastern countries no one can be brave enough to say "Jazz is bad and I do not like it." Why? Because they have not left him enough personality and human value to let him choose the color of his dress and the flavor of his food. As Fanon says: "In order for Eastern countries to be the followers of Europe and imitate her like a monkey, they should have proven to the non-Europeans that they do not posses the same quality of human values as the Europeans do. They should have belittled their history, literature, religion and art to make them alienated from all of it. We can see that the Europeans did just that."
They have created a people who do not know their own culture, but still are ready to despise it. They know nothing about Islam but say bad things about it. They do not understand their history but are ready to condemn it. On the other hand, without reservation they admire all that is imported from Europe. Consequently a being was created who, first became alienated from his religion, culture, history and background, and then came to despise them. He was convinced he was inferior to the European. And when such a belief took root in him, he tried and wished to refute himself, to sever his connections with all the objects attached to him and somehow make himself like a European, who was not despised and looked down upon, and at least be able to say, "Thank God I am not an Easterner since I modernized myself sufficiently to reach the level of a European."
And while the non-European is happy with the idea that he has been modernized, the European capitalist and bourgeois laugh at their success in converting him into a consumer of their surplus production!