Duly Noted – Modernization: Rage and Refusal.


The jihad against modern society reflects the inability to participate in it.

An insight emerges during the perusal of ideas that are marked for posting. Preferred topics land on the back burner because current affairs set new priorities. Once again, “urgencies” go to the front of the queue, and an Islam-related issue gets the nod. The repeated priority given to the theme tells us something. The unscheduled discussions of “Islam and modernity” suggest that in the back of our skull, we know that, albeit reluctantly, we are at war with Islam as represented by its radicals.

Islam and Islamists have grown into dominant topics. One reason is the nuclearization of the creed. Prophets with guns are dangerous: with nukes, they are a peril. An added reason for concern is that those that control the public discourse downplay the ghoul.

The expression “modern world”, Jihad’s target, needs attention. Many would say “West”. That would wrongly indicate that a phenomenon limited to a geographic area causes the outrage. True, the west of Europe has been the birthplace of the resented modern world. Nevertheless, the significance of that product is not limited to the place or its ways.

Indeed, the recovery of ancient knowledge lost to the European Middle Ages is, in part attributable to its transmission by savants located in Muslim ruled areas. Nevertheless, the ensuing culture that made discoveries, modern science, industry and general wealth possible comes from Europe. By utilizing the upward draft of these forces, the West – for centuries inferior to other civilizations – surpassed its contemporaries. Compared to pre-Renaissance Europe, these civilizations were stagnant, albeit on a higher level. Europe developed dynamism and growth. That expressed an ideal that pursued a better tomorrow instead of being content with a stable present and the conservation of existing achievements. In doing so, having lost its fear of change, Europe managed to widen the gap to its competitors. This process provided superior means of power that enabled it to impose its rule globally. Given the chance, other civilizations have also converted their superiority into conquest. Western expansion differs from these cases in that the projection of power became global and durable.

The West invented “progress” as an ideal and not as a feared foe as did the stagnant traditional civilizations. Thereby the west of Europe’s tentacles penetrated the world. Short of Coke and computers, inadvertently history’s most successful export product was created. Since it “worked”, in time progress became the goal of non-western cultures including Eastern Europe. Those societies whose cultures facilitated “learning from the enemy” fared well. By emulating, they could become modern without being of the “West”. The phrasing indicates that absorbing what worked for others did not result in the loss of national identity. One may add that, often, the primary motivation for imitation has not been the virtues of the social order and liberty but the military power of modern systems.

This process continues in the present. Its participants are converging causing global trends, lifestyles, businesses, products and aspirations. Even more important is that the developmental gap – the variance between the pioneers and the late starters – is narrowing. Quite naturally, the old monopoly of the West is lost because some non-western nations have caught up.

The opportunity to absorb the defining elements of a successful model has not been universally exploited. In Europe, Russia proved a bad cultural learner. That shortcoming produced Lenin and Stalin. Most notably, Islam’s world ailed from an inability to accept the preconditions of the access to modernization and its values.

In part, the barrier was historical. Islam defined success in terms of power. Its encounters with other cultures have tended to be collisions. The record regarding Europe shows a fluctuating pattern. Muslim expansion provoked the Crusades. Although they failed, they left behind a hostile rallying point for rejectionists. Overall, regardless of the now claimed victim status, armed Islam was on the offensive. To its misfortune, represented by the Turks (that are not Arabs but their conquerors), by the time southern Europe was subjugated, modernization began to strengthen the West. After the difficult subjugation of much of Hungary – then a major power in central Europe- the advance stopped before “the gates of Vienna”. A century earlier, the story would have had a different ending. 

From 1491, respectively from 1526-1689, the systems under the turban of the Prophet lost their original advantage. Not having adapted the technology and social order of their foes, the Sultans were losing ground. This went on until after the WWI. Then the defeat of the Ottoman Empire (along with the Habsburgs, the Hohenzollern and the Romanovs) forced the rethinking of truncated Turkey. Through Turkey’s secularization, the reform of Atatürk separated her fate from the remaining Muslim world. (The recent election of Erdogan’s “moderate Islamists” could reverse this.)

Atatürk’s reforms assumed that the country’s weakness demands a renewal. In its way stood the Caliphate that tied the state and Islam together. The father of modern Turkey saw in Islam a value system that had prevented modernization in the past and would do so in the future.

The failure of decolonized Muslim states to close the “developmental gap” regardless of their oil-wealth supports Atatürk’s contention. It is also at the root of Muslim hostility toward modernity. Admittedly, a “sour grapes” frustration contributes to this rejection. Additionally, the inability to cope through participation is caused, besides the signals from Islam, by the fear of losing its soul and identity. Islamism is a radical response to a pre-programmed failure that would be impossible without it. The antidote of wanting something that is feared, misunderstood and rejected, is to articulate two pretentions.

One is that the conspiracy of the unbelievers is the cause of all perceived deficiencies. The other asserts that Islam, as a religion, a culture and a way of life is, regardless of its material backwardness, morally superior to other models. This primacy is tied to the correct application of the faith. The result leads to a fanaticism that precludes the selective adaptation of new and alien ways. Standing for God against evil (there is even a “Party of God”) assures the believer of the Deity’s protection so that ultimate victory is guaranteed. Whether the assertion is correct or false, it explains the inability to adjust to and to join the modern world.

Dogmatically, only the enemies of God can doubt the “final victory”. It means that the modern world that has morally lost its way does not have to be, no, it may not be, encountered by sharing in it. The proper response to backwardness and collective weakness is, therefore, not development but the destruction of the satanic structure of the unbelievers.  The ultimate success of destroying what cannot be participated in implies a new global order. It will, in their opinion, according to Allah’s command, provide for the unity and equality of mankind.

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