How Western is Modernity

This article owes a BIG shout-out to Susanna Garside and her project on Islamic modernity. Without it, I would be clueless.


How Western is Modernity?


Modernity is all-encompassing and therefore frustratingly hard to define and write succinctly about. The philosopher Marshall Berman said that it was ‘an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world – and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything that we have, everything we know’. Shmuel Eisenstadt called the history of modernity a ‘story of continual constitution and reconstitution of a multiplicity of cultural programs’. Zygmunt Bauman suggests that ‘post-modernity’ stems from the realisation that that the long effort to accelerate the speed of movement has presently reached its ‘natural limit’. I like to think that this last one implies that the history of modernity corresponds to the development of ever-quicker modes of transportation. Maybe a convenient point to say that modernity started is the invention in 1804 of the first working steam locomotive. Gross simplification, I know.


Of course, all of this is very confusing, but we can tease out a general understanding of modernity as driven by technological progress of the sort that makes people’s modes of travelling, communicating and producing goods quicker. These advances in turn transform all things from small leisure gadgets to vast human living environments. They make these things ever more rationalized, effective, and sanitised: in a word, more modern.


Modernity is also heavily intermixed with values and thought systems. And for whatever reason, the values that are seen to be modern are Western values. Two (anecdotal) examples, I hope, might convey a sense of what I mean, even though plenty of similar examples exist in history.



1.     The modernisation efforts of Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran (r. 1925-1941) left the country with a highly centralised state structure, and improved industrialisation, sanitation, infrastructure (Trans-Iranian Railway) etc. But the Shah also insisted on the ‘modernisation’ of the people through secularisation and a more ‘Western’ dress code: banning tribal clothes and in 1936 the veil.

2.     Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, first president of Turkey, also led modernisation efforts, which included secularisation of the state, encouragement to dress in a ‘Western’ fashion, and even adopting a latin alphabet. I should also add: an emphasis on the emancipation of women and their participation in politics.


It is this encroachment on the culture that provoked a backlash to modernity, especially apparent in words like ‘westoxification’. Local culture and religious practices in Iran, for instance, were seen to be damaged by Western influences. But at this stage, the technological and the cultural aspects of modernity were understood as one whole: Western modernity. The theorist Daniel Lerner is an example of someone who held this view, stating that Islamic societies have to choose between ‘Mecca and mechanisation’.


Why can a society not just take the technology and leave behind the values? Well, it seems that the transformation of our surroundings inevitably spurs us to reconsider our view of the world, to find one guiding philosophy that will help us make sense and take advantage of the rapid changes. Technological progress consists in making use of the laws of nature to suit our purposes. Consequently, our perspective on these laws changes from a view where humans are at the mercy of nature, to one where they are, at least partly, the master of nature. This realisation can have implications for, say, religious and societal views no matter where. One might be prone to think: if we humans can bend nature to our will like this, why couldn’t we shape societies to end wars and reduce unhappiness?


This seems to be speculative (and it is in a way), but here I would like to draw attention to two Iranian intellectuals which seem to lend this point a little bit of empirical weight: Jalal Al-e Ahmad and Ali Shariati. Briefly put, these two published strong critiques of the Western influence on Iranian society. Their writings are tantamount to a downright denunciation of the west, frequently making use of metaphors drawn from the lexicon of diseases (like infection, intoxication etc.). However, covert in their writings we can detect a more nuanced approach to modernity, namely one that, although it definitely rejects the emulation of Western culture, does not demonstrate any aversion to the Western technological commodities per se, as long as they don’t annihilate traditional artisanal crafts. They thought that Iran should draw the benefits of railways and the like and therewith ‘modernise’ their ways of thinking, but do this in a way that built on their distinctly Iranian Islamic heritage.


One example of this is Al-Shariati’s book Fatima is Fatima, where he rejects both the image of the over-sexualised Western lipstick-sporting woman and the traditionally oppressed uneducated Iranian one. He proposes a third way that emulates Fatima, daughter of Mohammad, who represents the ideal woman from Shi’ite legends: chaste and pious, but assertive and independent. So while he sees that his society has to modernise, he rejects that this is synonymous with ‘westernise’. In fact, Al-Shariati sees one of the principal tasks of the modern Islamic woman as her emancipation from the corrupting Western influences. Furthermore, the undoing of the damage already caused on Iranian society by the promotion of high heels, lipstick and individualism must take a revolutionary character. The third way he promotes between local tradition and Western modernity is one example of what we might call revolutionary Islamic modernity.


More than anything, this piece is intended to provide some food for thought, but what can it teach us? While the idea of modernity may originally be a Western concept, this does not mean that other cultures can’t appropriate it as they se fit, as Al-Shariati’s example demonstrates. The point here is not that Al-Shariati is right about what Islamic modernity is and what it isn’t. It is simply to say that there is no fixed value system that belongs to modernity.

This article was Written by Ferdinand Valentin Mowinckel