Arabic symbol


Philosophers of  the Arabs


Welcome Who We Philosophers Research Discourse News Services




Modernism and the Scent of Gunpowder


Custom Search



News feed








By Dr. Abdel-Wahab El Messiri



The issue of modernization has lately been revisited frequently in the West, as well as in our part of the world, as it targets all realms of life: politics (democratization), economics (more privatization), education (modification of curricula to conform with modern Western standards and worldview), and so on and so forth. Some Western scholars have started to claim that Islam is inherently hostile to modernism; thus, some Arab and Muslim thinkers have stood up to defend Islam and to prove the contrary. They have provided the ultimate evidence to demonstrate that Islam does not inherently oppose modernism but actually welcomes it and is capable of adopting it, its methods and its values.

This dialogue assumes that the term “modernism” is a very well defined term with a specific meaning and significance, that modernism has no peculiar history, that its manifestations do not vary from one culture or era to another, and that there is only one definite “modernism.” We usually refer to Western lexicons in order to identify the exact meaning of any term, as well as its precise significance. However, after reading all the definitions and honestly and utterly accepting some or all of them, the problem at hand becomes how to translate “modernism” without testing or verifying such definitions and their conformity to reality-ours or the West’s-without studying the revisions that have been carried out in the name of modernism in the West, and without examining the history of the development of the phenomenon which is referred to by this term “modernism”.

Modernism, Nature and Man

Algerian Muslim cleric asked the French armies: “Why did they bring all those guns then?”

The term “modernization” is not an exceptional case of this rule, as there are so many definitions for the notion of modernism. Nevertheless, there is almost consensus that modernism is completely related to the thought of the Enlightenment movement that emanated from the notion that Man is the center and the sovereign of the universe. Hence, Man needs only to follow his own reason to study reality, or to manage society, or to differentiate between good and evil. Within this framework, science becomes the basis for thought, that is, the source of meaning and value, and technology turns into the basic mechanism for exploiting and reshaping nature so that Man can realize happiness and convenience.

This definition may appear, for some, to be comprehensive and ultimate or at least adequate. But if we examine the matter more precisely, we find that modernism is not merely the use of reason, science and technology; rather, it is the use of reason, science and technology separated from values, that is, value-free. Such is an important dimension of the Western modernist system. So, in a value-free world, all matters turn out to be equal; all matters become relative. Consequently, it is deemed difficult to judge anything and impossible to differentiate between good and evil, justice and injustice, the intrinsic and the relative, and finally between Man and nature or Man and matter.

At this point, a question is raised: How can conflicts be resolved or how can we settle disagreements that are part and parcel of human existence? For in the absence of absolute values that we may refer to, the individual human or the ethnic group turns into its own ultimate point of reference; thus, its interests are to be deemed as the norm and the contrary is the exception, that is, evil. This notion has led to the emergence of might and individual will as a mechanism to resolve conflicts and settle disputes.

This modernism that the Western world has embraced has caused the West to consider itself (but not Man or humanity) as the center of the world and to regard the world as usable material that should be utilized by the mightiest, the fittest and the most advanced. Therefore, the Western modernist system is in reality an imperialist, Darwinist one. This is the true definition of modernism as it was historically realized, unlike the definitions given it in Western lexicons. So it is the definition that enables us to read and analyze several “modern” phenomena.

The modern West used to assert itself as a humane civilization that designated Man as the center of the universe. Earlier in history, the Western societies were still socially and familially coherent, as the negative phenomena that can be now observed through the mass media had not yet emerged as a prevalent life style. Such negative phenomena were still mere isolated incidents but not yet regarded as significant patterns; thus, they were conveniently overlooked and dismissed as marginal. The reformist thinkers and intellectuals (liberals, Marxists and Islamists, among others), then, were all calling to catch up with the West, that is, to embrace Western modernism. At that time, there was no serious criticism or opposition to modernism; rather everybody celebrated its glories, and they were right in doing so since the form of modernism that they experienced was, by and large, great and benign.

Modernism and Guns

The colonial powers promoted and cooperated with feudalist, backward and exploitative sectors of the colonized societies and impeded modernization

Gradually, however, Western modernism started to reveal its Darwinist face as it mobilized and deployed its colonialist armies and armadas to colonize and devastate the green and the dry in Asia, Africa and the Americas. It turned these colonies into usable material, a source of raw material and cheap labor (slavery), as well as a permanently wide-open market for Western goods. It seems that the early reformist thinkers did not correlate Western modernism with Western imperialism, for when they visited the Western capitals they saw nothing but light and enlightenment, even as the Western cannons were shelling and annihilating our capitals, very modernly. Therefore, those who remained in their own countries were able to see the eruption of blazing fires, to hear the blast of the (modern) bombs, and to inhale the scent of gunpowder.

Some historical accounts relate that, during the colonial era, an Algerian Muslim cleric was told that the French armies had come to Algeria to spread modern Western civilization in that country. His comeback was cold, brief and significant: “Why did they bring all those guns then?” The Algerian cleric realized the correlation between Western modernism and imperialism from the beginning, as others realized it only later on.

The age of geographic discoveries and Renaissance (the seventeenth century) was also the age of exterminating millions of colonized peoples. Algerian leader Bin-Billa put it this way: “This modern industrial deity (idol) has assassinated a whole race (the red race) and mercilessly exploited another race (the black race) via kidnapping and enslaving millions of people. The victims of this consolidated colonial operation were nearly a hundred million human beings, considering that for each slave that was ‘maintained’ by the slave masters, nine slaves were slaughtered.” Bin-Billa then pointed to the Mexican Indians that were exterminated and to the millions of Algerians that were massacred during their frequent uprisings against the French colonization.

We may also add to this account the colonial opium wars against China; the waves of starvation that rocked India in the aftermath of implementing modern Western laws of land ownership; the First and Second World Wars that resulted in nearly 20 million and 50 million deaths, respectively; the victims of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and the victims of the infamous Gulag labor camps in the Soviet Union.

Mustafa Sa`id, the hero of Al-Tayyib Salih’s acclaimed novel The Season of Migrating North, epitomized the situation as he said, “I can hear the saber rattle of the Romans in Carthage and the gallops of Allenby’s horses in Jerusalem. The ships navigated the Nile carrying guns, not bread, the colonizers built railroads to basically transport soldiers, and established schools to teach us how to say ‘Yes, sir’ in their language.”

Colonization in the Arab and Muslim World

Several Western thinkers realized the dark aspects of Darwinist modernism

Thus, these colonial armies came in and divided the Arab and Muslim world, subjugating its peoples under all sorts of colonization: military colonization in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia, the Sudan, Iraq, Yemen, the Arab Gulf and Libya; settler colonization in Algeria; and a depopulating and settler colonization in Palestine. The colonial powers promoted and cooperated with feudal, backward and exploitative sectors of the colonized societies and impeded modernization. Hence, they shattered Muhammad Ali Pasha's enterprise in Egypt, the pioneering experiment of modernization and industrialization in the Arab world. Then they crushed Ahmad Orabi Pasha's populist revolution [for constitutional rights and independence] as the British “modern” forces intervened and supported the Khedive vis-à-vis the revolution, commencing a prolonged, repressive occupation of Egypt. Colonial powers concluded their occupation by establishing “modern” states that do not have any truly modern thing except the security and repression apparatus. Furthermore, a depopulating and colonial settler entity was planted within us by violence and aggression under the claims that Palestine is a land without people for a Jewish people returning back to the land of their ancestors, based on the biblical narrative!

Lately, Zionists and Americans have ironically demanded that the Palestinian Authority modernize its institutions. However, we know that Zionists refused from the beginning-as did other colonizers-to deal with the modern sectors of the Palestinian society, such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), political parties, and trade unions. (Actually, they assassinated a popular labor leader prior to 1948.) They preferred to collaborate with the more traditional sector in the Palestinian society, thinking that they might be more flexible and pragmatic, for they were assumed to be less aware of the dangers of the British-Zionist colonial aggression against them.

However, Zionists were disappointed in those traditionalists, too. As they had a dialogue with some traditional leaders (led by Sayyid Muhammad Rasheed Ridha), the Palestinians showed interest in modernizing their society. They had no reservation against inviting foreign expertise and investments provided that democratic principles prevailed (that is, free elections on the basis of one man, one vote) as the only means to achieve peace and equity.

Chaim Weitzman commented, “It is (a proposal) for peace of the graveyards.”‡ And he was quite right. For should the democratic ideals prevail in Palestine, the Zionist settlers would be a minority and they would never be able to determine the destiny of the Palestinians or to establish their own utterly Jewish state, which they insisted upon and were supported in by the greatest Western power.

One Israeli commentator noticed that the Zionist State is no more a democratic state, it is rather a demographic state (with a Jewish majority). Nevertheless, they now demand the modernization of the Arab political system and the Islamic education system. This particular modernization, in reality, means undermining the moral and cultural structures that solidify our coherence and ability to resist the military invasion and cultural penetration. Thus, one thinker described this sort of modernization as the “natural [biological] modernization” that attempts to modify us so as to acquiesce to the injustice imposed on us, to the exploitation that bleeds our energy, and to hinder our ways to revival.

Progress: Consumption and More Consumption

The negative consequences of the Darwinist modernism were not only detrimental to us, but also to all of mankind and the whole face of the Earth. This modernism put forward the notion of infinite “progress” as the ultimate end for Man. Progress, however, is always an attempt towards an objective that is not defined in the lexicons but monitored within and deduced from reality, that is, from the exploitation and utilization of the world for the interest of Western man. Thus, progress (in the West) is mainly measured by consumption, consumption, and more consumption. In other words, the consumption by Western man of vast natural resources.

Consequently, Western nations that form 20% of the world’s population consume 80% of the world’s natural resources. It is estimated that the consumption of the American people in the past century was greater than the consumption of mankind throughout history. Yet, as natural resources are definitely limited (and Western consumption is exceedingly unlimited), environmental crises are continuously exacerbated, and that will certainly doom us all. A recent study states that if Western style progress spreads all over the world, mankind will need six planets like our Earth to extract enough raw materials and two planets to dispose of the waste. Therefore, the Western Darwinist modernist enterprise is doomed to be unattainable, and the only beneficiaries of this enterprise are the West and some of the ruling elite in the developing countries. The Darwinist American piracy in Iraq is an expression of that perception within the ruling U.S. establishment regarding the world’s natural resources as it endeavors to dominate them in a world in which they are diminishing. The aim is to maintain the high consumption rates of Americans, the promise of the Darwinist modernism.

Apparently, the moral and material price of the Darwinist modernism is exorbitant. Let’s examine the material aspect first. Some studies address the notion of the “fixed natural capital,” that is, the natural elements that are neither renewable nor substitutable. Statistics show that if the real cost of any Western industrial project is calculated-considering the direct monetary revenue minus the loss from consuming the fixed natural capital-it will turn out that it is a losing project and that the Western industrial enterprise managed to last and to profit because all of mankind has paid the due price. However, Western man alone has reaped the spoils of modern industrialization. Thus, the excessive price of progress that was pleaded by the Darwinist imperialist modernism can be identified as the ozone layer damage, ocean contamination, the greenhouse effect of diminishing forests, nuclear wastes, air pollution, global warming, et cetera.

Western Attempts to Reject Darwinist Modernism

Darwinist modernism has had its toll on the social fabric and its governing norms. Among the various negative social phenomena are family disintegration; lack of social interaction; psychological diseases; a rising sense of alienation and isolation; the emergence of one-dimensional man; the reign of quantitative and bureaucratic paradigms over man; increasing rates of crime and violence (the prison industry is the fastest growing sector in the American economy); pornography (the material cost of production and moral cost of consumption); unnecessary merchandise that does not add knowledge or enhance imagination, but takes social time for production and consumption; inflation and “monsterization” of the state via its educational and security agencies; the vast growth of the pleasure, media and entertainment industry, its invasion of privacy, and its tremendous role in shaping man’s image, ambitions and dreams that are played out by unaccountable or elected industry operators; rising military expenses on weaponry and acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (for the first time in history, weaponry expenses surpassed food and clothing expenses); the emerging possibility of Earth’s destruction, suddenly (via nuclear inferno) or gradually (via pollution); and the anxiety caused by all that to modern Man. At this point, the material effects intermingle with the moral effects so that they are indistinguishable from each other.

Several Western thinkers have realized the dark aspects of Darwinist modernism. Phrases like the “crisis of modernism,” the “crisis of meaning,” and the “moral crisis” are frequent expressions in Western sociology and indicative of that growing perception of modernism. The Greens’ ideas against globalization and capitalism, the Frankfurt critical school, the new developmental theories regarding sustained development models, and the plea to develop a solidarity-based globalization are attempts to reject Darwinist modernism that threatens mankind, life on Earth and Man’s humanity. In his criticism of Darwinist modernism (prior to his embracing of Islam), Roger Guarudy said, “The battle of our era is against the myth of progress and growth a la West; it is a suicidal myth. It is also a battle against the ideology that separates between science and technology (the structure of means and ability) on the one hand, and wisdom (envisioning ultimate ends and the meaning of our life), on the other hand. Such an ideology is characteristic of asserting an extremist individualism that detaches Man from his human dimensions and of digging an eventual grave large enough to bury the whole world.”‡

He was certainly right, for Western style modernism commenced by claims of viewing Man as the focus of the world and ended with these words of Michel Foucault: “One can only encounter, with a philosophical sarcasm, any attempt to address Man, his realm and liberation…. For Man will fade out like a scratch on the beach sands erased by sea waves. The world began without Man and will end without Man as well. What has been lately confirmed is not the absence or death of God but rather the end of Man.”‡

The promise of Western modernism was to emphasize the centrality of Man in the universe. However, the historical realization of modernism is leading us swiftly towards the death of Man and the death of nature. The humane position towards the value-free Darwinist modernism is an essential part of this global revolution and of the attempt to review the anti-human concepts that have predominated modern civilization.

Therefore, it might be more feasible to unify all efforts and forces and to cooperate for the rebirth of the Arab-Islamic modernist enterprise as our specific contribution to the general human movement that attempts to transcend the value-free Darwinist modernism that is based on conflict, competition, infighting and escalating consumption so as to embark upon a humane modernism emanating from our common humanity. In other words, modernism should manage society in a different manner that does not regard Man as mere matter or detach itself from value. It needs to move within the framework of the value system and to view the pursuit of happiness not through the accumulation of wealth, pillaging nature, and exploiting Man, but rather through the adoption of human values, ideals of justice, solidarity, mutual dependence, and the balance between self and nature, which is for our good and the good of all humanity.

Please feel free to join our discussion forum "Is The Clash Inevitable?" to add your input.

* Dr. Abdel-Wahab El Messiri, Egyptian author and academic, Professor of Comparative Literature, `Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt

The Arabic original of this article, Al-Hadaathah wa Ra’ihat al-Barood, appeared in Al-Ahram daily on February 1, 2003. This English translation of the original is by Dr. Mazin A. Al-Najjar (drmazin1@

Although the Arabic uses the word hadaathah, which is usually translated as “modernity”, the editor has changed it to “modernism” throughout the text, for the context makes it apparent that the author means not only the condition of being modern but also the philosophy behind it.