Academic journal article Arena Journal

Intersections and Tensions between Civilizations and Modernities: The Case of Oman

Academic journal article Arena Journal

Intersections and Tensions between Civilizations and Modernities: The Case of Oman

Article excerpt

Oman, Civilizational History and Modernities in Tension: Some Theoretical Reflections

This essay is a reflection on the modernity of Oman. I want to look at Oman from the perspective of its 'modernity' as this provides a broader framework in which to contextualize its more recent history, especially in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring and its turbulent aftermath. While much attention has been paid to Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen, Oman is an overlooked and under-explored case.1 In much of the published research literature on it, Oman is conventionally viewed as a society that has recently been modernized after emerging from a period of isolation during the early part of the twentieth century. The standard argument in outline is that it has modernized quickly during the last forty years under the rule of the current Sultan Qaboos bin Sa'id, who has been an active modernizer. This modernization has entailed extensive infrastructural development including roads, health and education, the development of oil and natural gas resources, and tourism. It has also included the consolidation of the Omanian state and its boundaries after the Dhofar settlement, its position as an 'honest broker' in the diplomacy of the Arab world and international contexts, and more recent experiments in formal democratization, which has shifted its basis for authority from 'traditional' to 'posttraditional'. All of this has occurred in the context of Oman as a complex multi-religious society, even in terms of its relation with Islamic traditions, with its own internal regional differences. The assumption in this literature is that Oman is a 'young' society in modern terms.2

This essay explores this assumption from two perspectives. One perspective involves the versions of modernity that Oman is pursuing, and the tensions and strains that may occur between these versions, whilst the other perspective is a longer historical, civilizational one. It is the intersection of Oman's two 'histories' - the short term and the long term - that is the focus of this essay. From a more hermeneutically sensitive vantage point the issue here is one of competing images and programs of modernity that are constituted by but also creatively working against a longer-term context.3

Let's begin with the first perspective. The idea of Oman as a 'modern' society is not straightforward if modernity is understood as a category that is defined by various tensions. The emphasis on the short-term history that contrasts 'modernization' with tradition is as misleading as a single idea of what modernization refers to. This is especially the case when modernization is viewed as a synonym for development and global interconnectedness, which themselves are contrasted with underdevelopment and isolation. In contrast to modernization theses it can be argued that there are tensions, dissonances and contours, rather than 'developmental' patterns, through which particular modernities are reconstructed.4 In work elsewhere, I have argued that we can view these conflicts as instances of 'modernities in tension'.5 The formulation 'modernities in tension' places an emphasis not so much on the distinctiveness of its particular regions but more on the constituent social imaginaries through which a modernity can be identified. The literature of 'multiple modernities' tends to emphasize the different experiences of modernity in regional terms, for example, Japanese modernity, Indian modernity, Chinese modernity, Iranian modernity. Against a backdrop of over-inflated claims concerning a globalized 'modernity' or a 'European' or 'American' one-world civilization projected as a globalized entity, this body of literature argues that there is the creation of specific and competing regional modernities.6

In contrast to the modernization and multiple modernities literatures, the formulation 'modernities in tension' places the emphasis on the development and crystallization of distinct social imaginaries, each with its own long history, self-understanding, and imaginative and emotional, not only rational, dimensions. …

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