Culture and Modernity: a Middle Eastern Example
Orientalists, as far as many scholars are concerned, tend to have a reductionist perspective about the non-Western other often portrayed as homogeneous, uncivilized and pre-modern. In the case of the post 1989 Muslim world, according to Khiabany, Islam is a defining feature of the Islamic world which is united by its Islamic culture and history and demonstrates its incompatibility with modernity (Khiabany, 2007, 108). The first question one can rightly ask is why is this Islamic anti-modern aspect of the Muslim world was not an issue prior to 1989? This question, as much as it is simple, demonstrates the weakness of the mentioned reductionist claims. Muslim states in the former USSR had no cultural barriers preventing them from being part of the communist godless modernity. Why would such a culture and religion constitute a barrier for the Muslim world to embrace modernity à la Western, knowing that the Judaeo-Christian capitalist West has more in common with Islam than the godless communist East!
The Iranian case study brought forward by Khiabany is a very important one because it examines the farthest Islamist culture can reach, which is being in power. It also examines if this culture is indeed anti-modern. In this example, the Islamic Republic's political system itself is founded based on a mixture of modern and traditional monarchical and republican systems (Khiabany, 2007, 114). Some aspects of Iranian laws, like the law on temporary marriage (Mut'a or pleasure marriage that can be a contract from 1 hour to many years) is viewed by Sunni neighbors as legalized prostitution (Ibid). Iran's sophisticated media, although controlled, its animated features, movies and sports do not seem to relate to traditional Islamic media known as Tabligh –or mission media (Khiabany, 2007, 118). Tabligh is the same as Da'wa which is a form of Islamic public communication concerned with guidance and can be compared to missionary work in Christianity to a certain extent.
It is hard to say that tradition is incompatible with modernity. We saw in the example of Iran how a traditional conservative state incorporated many modern principles in its political system (Constitution, elections, parliament, minorities etc..). We saw how this traditional state legalized prostitution giving it a traditional name (temporary marriage), and we also saw the advance in media and communications that the Khiabany detailed in his article. Modernity does not look the same in all cultural contexts. Modernity varies from one culture to the other. Every culture has the right to modernize respecting its particular socio-cultural norms and practices. In my opinion, the only aspect of modernity that should be adopted by all cultures is the respect of basic human rights as declared universally.
Khiabany, Gholam. 2007. "Is there an Islamic communication? The persistence of 'tradition' and the lure of modernity." Critical Arts: A South-North Journal Of Cultural & Media Studies 21, no. 1: 106-124. Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed May 3, 2016).