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Modernization or Westernization: The Muslim World vs. the Rest

By Farhat-Holzman, Laina | Comparative Civilizations Review, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Modernization or Westernization: The Muslim World vs. the Rest


Farhat-Holzman, Laina, Comparative Civilizations Review


The 20th century has been a time of rapid transformation, a continuation of a process begun in the West with the Scientific Revolution, Industrial Revolution, Religious Revolution, and Political Revolution. Other once-powerful empires, such as China, India, Ottoman Turkey, and Safavid Persia, had fallen into decline, while the West burgeoned.

By the dawn of the 20th century, the states in decline all became aware of their condition and the danger it posed to them. All have experimented with various aspects of modernization: modernizing monarchies, dictatorships, Marxism, and Fascism. Some have modernized without democracy - such as China and Singapore. The majority of Muslim states, however, have not succeeded even in economic development, which their Asian counterparts have. At this time, without the cushion of an oil economy, these Muslim societies appear headed for dysfunctional, if not failed states. The direst of these is Yemen, which is not only chaotic and dysfunctional but is also facing a population explosion accompanied by severe lack of water.

In this paper, I propose to explore the avenues selected by modernizing countries and explore why some have been successful while other choices have failed to bring these societies into the world system. Westernization (the world system) cannot happen without modernization preceding it.

Defining the Terms

Modernization has been a global process that we can observe in most of the major cities of the world, regardless of culture. Samuel Huntington says: "Modernization involves industrialization, urbanization, increasing levels of literacy, education, wealth, and social mobilization, and more complex and diversified occupational structures. These common elements may be present, even though the institutions that created them are not. Modernization can be borrowed or bought." But to create and sustain it, one must look to Westernization, "which created the tremendous expansion of scientific and engineering knowledge beginning in the eighteenth century that made it possible for humans to control and shape their environment in totally unprecedented ways." [Huntington, p. 68]

Most Muslim-majority countries have automobiles, skyscrapers, television, airlines, and young people dressed in blue jeans, bopping to the latest hip-hop or other commercial Western music. But while listening to Western pop music on their earphones, they may also be listening to a fiery Jihadi sermon that will persuade them to volunteer as a suicide bomber. They are modern, but not Western.

Furthermore, what one sees in the big cities may not be what we would find in the countryside or in the millions of villages in what we still call "the lesser developed world." They are neither modern nor Western. A perfect example of this situation, of course, is Afghanistan, a model of unending misery. Kabul and Herat are seemingly modern cities, but the rest of Afghanistan is trapped in the very feudal dark ages.

Westernization is an entire complex of practices and values that have shaped the West over the 2,500 years from ancient Athens to today. These practices cannot be replicated overnight. Modernization may be seen as a civilization that emerged because of Westernization; however, a country may be modernized without being Westernized.

Toby E. Huff notes that the Scientific Revolution did not take root in any of the other great civilizations of the 17th century (Ottoman, Moghul, Persian, or Chinese). This revolution was exclusively the product of our Classical legacy, Roman law, Latin language, and Christianity (church law and a system of contracts). [Huff, p. 3]

Huntington adds the importance of rule of law, law that also constrains the exercise of arbitrary power of rulers. Social pluralism is also the product of Europe's particular geography, which has always provided for rival power centers, unlike the great empires of Asia. Representative bodies (parliaments), individualism and a certain restlessness and curiosity distinguishes the descendants of the Indo-European peoples, [see Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel; Ricardo Duchesne The Uniqueness of Western Civilization; and the work of a geographer, Barry Cunliffe, Europe Between the Oceans, 9000 BC-AD WOO.

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