A few thoughts on modernity

First posted on my short-lived blog Tharwalizations. 

Many if not most of the main problems facing us in the region and hindering the process of change and modernization therein are psychological in nature. One such problem is the inability of our people to reconcile themselves with the necessity of making that crossover from the traditional to the modern. Instead, most seem to believe that they can keep one leg in each world thus maximizing their benefit, that is, they think that they can avail themselves of all those advantages that modernity has to offer while holding on as hard as they can to traditional values. 

Often, this dilemma boils down to a desire to get all the technology but change nothing of the customs, values and mannerisms. Some might go a little further and opt to adopt certain superficial aspects of modernity, such as the modern dress-code for both men and women, but while adhering to the selfsame value system that any run-of-mill Islamist will adhere to, such as arranged marriages and many of the usual restrictions on women, especially with regard to inheritance and chastity.

This inability to break with the past and move forward that has plagued our part of the world for the last century or so is precisely why our societies are now poised at the verge of a complete relapse into pre-modern modes of existence. We have not earned what modernity has to offer, because, one, we have not taken an active part in its making and, two, because we refuse to embrace it as a whole, on account of its “glaring” imperfections.

Indeed, modernity is not perfect, what human product is? But it also cannot be perfected by people who insist on remaining outside it,  who are not wholeheartedly committed to it, or who continue to look at it with a certain disdain, it being a “foreign” product and all that, and who continue to reject its essence: the insistence on individuality and individual rights.

Indeed, if people in our region can only accept that concept of individual rights, then, each one of them becomes free to create the particular mixture of modernity and traditionalism that best suits the quirks of his/her mind and soul. For a wholehearted embracing of modernity is not synonymous with a complete rejection of everything that traditional values have to offer. On the contrary, it simply gives the individual the right to construct the value system that best suits him/her and to act on that so long as the basic human rights of others are respected. This embedded ambivalence of modernity is what makes it better than traditional value systems with their claims to divine sanctions and inability to tolerate “heretical” views.

But this ambivalence is also modernity’s weak point, one that is often exploited by Islamists, and other fundamentalists, who would protest loudly against any infringements against their basic human rights, while simultaneously and quite knowingly preaching a message that, in effect, denies others their basic human rights.

Be that as it may, every system does have weak points, and the best way to protect the modern system from its main weak point is through vigilance. The temptation to resort to intimidation and establishing legal restrictions on basic freedoms, such as free speech and the freedom of assembly is nothing less than foolish as it will eventually serve to undermine the very system we are trying to protect.