My oldest son, Seth, recently went on a business trip to Germany. As many travelers do, he suffered some culture shock on returning: the obesity of so many Americans, TVs blaring in airports, disorderly freeway traffic. Of course, Germany is part of the West, but the differences between Western societies are notable. How much greater then are the differences between the West and the Muslim world?
I’ve just read Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Seen Through Islamic Eyes by Tamim Ansary, with whom I used to attend the Writer’s Workshop in San Francisco. An Afghan-American, he offers a highly accessible approach to Muslim history. One point in particular struck me. A nineteenth-century Iranian prime minister, Amir Kabir, began a modernization program. As Tamim notes, “By ‘modernize,’ he meant ‘industrialize.’”
Today, much of the Muslim world has embraced some level of industrialization while rejecting modernity, which is seen to cause more problems than it solves. Industrialization itself brings any society a new quotient of the good, the bad and the ugly. Material progress follows for some. That’s good. But as Tamim points out, craftsmen lose jobs and poverty spreads. For a society rooted in communal values—unlike the West’s and particularly America’s penchant for individualism—that’s bad.
Industrialization also has its ugly side. In the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new technology applied to manufacturing. Then the telegraph and telephone started a revolution in communications. Today, smart phones and the Internet represent hallmarks of post-industrial society. People everywhere communicate with people everywhere else. Images and ideas that may be uplifting or unsettling pervade all societies.
Social conservatives find this form of modernity disturbing. Islamists use technology while abhorring the licentiousness—witness online porn—and materialism it often promotes. They respond to the free exchange of communication with repression. Their Christian conservative counterparts in the U.S. share that reaction. They rail against attacks on “family values” abetted by technology that promotes the unfettered exchange of ideas. Yet they use that same technology to communicate their own messages.
The iron fist of those who know exactly how God wants us to live will not put the genie back in the bottle. But unlimited freedom of expression comes with a price. As James Fallows writes in the April 2011 Atlantic (“Learning to Love the [Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable] New Media”), societies may become more pulverized as “people withdraw into their own separate information spheres.” Individualism will run wild.
The good, the bad and the ugly make up human nature. Technology does not create these traits but magnifies them. Supporters of the free flow of ideas take the right approach. In doing so, however, they also face an ongoing struggle with ideas they find abhorrent and even an existential threat.
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