SMOKERS’ CORNER: MODERN MISGIVINGS

Published October 24, 2021
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

In Daniel Defoe’s classic 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe, a British merchant, Robinson Crusoe, is the only survivor of a shipwreck. He is marooned on an island where he survives by harnessing the island’s resources with tools that he collects from the wreckage of the ship. Over the course of time, he saves the life of an escaped prisoner of a “primitive” tribe, names him Friday and teaches him the ways of the “civilised world.”

In 1967, the French novelist Michel Tournier published The Other Island. The novel is a retelling of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. In this version, the marooned Crusoe stops trying to harness the resources of the island with tools after he fails to convince Friday about the prowess of the modern world. Friday makes Crusoe realise the wisdom of living with nature; Crusoe discards his clothes and tools and starts to worship the sun. 

Both the novels operate in different, in fact opposing, eras. Defoe’s Crusoe is an active member of 18th century Europe when the Age of Enlightenment was in ascendence, promising a world empowered by reason, science and industrialisation. Europe was also witnessing the continuing reformation of Christianity, with many of its idioms and ideas being reshaped to accomodate an emerging need for economic, scientific and social progress. It was the birth of what came to be known as ‘modernity.’ 

Tournier’s Crusoe, on the other hand, is a European who becomes disillusioned by the outcomes of modernity. He rejects these as being destructive and exploitative, and embraces what modernity declares to be superstitious and irrational. 

When utopian rhetoric is the only alternative to tackle society’s evils, it is convenient to blame Westernisation for social issues

Tournier wrote his version during a period when a cultural rebellion against modernity had begun to take root in the West. This reaction evolved and became the so-called ‘postmodernist thought’. Tournier’s Crusoe was basically a hippie who had rejected the materialism of modernity and adopted ‘nature worship.’ 

Modernity was censured by the postmodernists for being a destructive idea that devastated nature and societies in the name of progress. But soon, postmodernism too began to come under increasing criticism for overtly romanticising pre-modern pasts in which, supposedly, societies lived in harmony with nature and were delightfully spiritual and esoteric.

However, the fact is, these pasts were ravaged by continuous bouts of plagues, famines and religious wars. People had much shorter life spans. They were also under the thumb of tyrants, clerics and landed elites. 

Modernity — as it began to be expressed after the 18th century — and postmodernism — as it began to develop in the second half of the 20th century — were both largely Western ideas. Yet, it is interesting to note that in many non-Western regions, modernisation is often treated as a synonym of ‘Westernisation,’ but postmodernism escapes this relation. 

Since postmodernism celebrated ‘indigenous ideas’ of spirituality and ‘ancient Eastern sciences,’ and thought them to be as valid as the modern sciences, those unable to come to terms with modernity often appreciated such notions. They did not see postmodernist ideas as part of Westernisation, when clearly, they were. For example, on various occasions during the second half of the Cold War, the modern West invested heavily in infusing postmodernist ideas in non-Western regions that the West felt were being threatened by communism. This too was Westernisation of sorts ­— even though in this case indigenous faiths and customs were glorified as a deterrent to ‘godless communism’. 

But is modernisation and Westernisation the same thing? Modernisation rapidly evolved as a universal outlook, developing ‘metanarratives’ about economic and social progress which could be introduced and applied universally. But postmodernists saw it as a hegemonic Western concept. Indeed, it was/is as hegemonic as Muslim thought that dominated the world during the Golden Age of Islam (8th-13th centuries). During this period, the Muslim world was excelling in the fields of science, economics, philosophy and culture. A lot of these were being informed by ancient Greek philosophy. But there is hardly any evidence of a caliph complaining about ‘Hellenisation’. 

Modernisation is often associated with Westernisation because it emerged in the West. The great 19th century Muslim thinker Sir Syed Ahmad Khan lamented that Muslims were shunning new knowledge introduced by the British in India, whereas Muslims from centuries ago had no qualms about accepting Greek ideas. They reshaped them in such a manner that Europe — which had collapsed into a long period of superstition and myopia — began to adopt various ideas that had emerged in the Muslim ‘East.’ These, Syed wrote, aided the Europeans to enjoy a Renaissance’ which eventually evolved into becoming the Age of Enlightenment. 

Again, there is no evidence to suggest that European societies were complaining about the Islamisation of Europe, even though the then powerful Church was far from happy because the new ideas were threatening their political agency. In various Muslim countries, including Pakistan, conservative rulers and religious groups, often take a postmodernist stance against modernisation or modernity. They explain it as Westernisation that was threatening their regions’ traditions and cultures. 

But the irony is that such reactions too are part of Westernisation. As mentioned earlier, they are largely derived from Western postmodernist ideas. Secondly, like postmodernism, the reactions are invested more in the criticism of modernisation rather than in offering any effective alternative, other than the romanticisation of a largely imagined past when supposedly all was well.

This is particularly true of the current PM of Pakistan and various religious outfits of the country. But they do this by avoiding any mention of the outstanding work done in the fields of science, philosophy and the arts during Islam’s golden age. This is because many of these works do not relate well with the imagined and/or utopian retellings of a pristine ancient past that they are always promising to reconstruct. 

The Chinese are still Chinese, the South Koreans are still Korean and the Japanese are still Japanese despite adopting modernisation and Westernisation. They have excelled in fields — such as economics and science — whose modern variants had been shaped by Western ideas.

On the other hand, the social issues that get blamed on Westernisation are human issues that were even present in the distant past when the West was in no condition to dominate.

Blaming Westernisation in this context is either about failing to offer an alternative because the alternatives are nothing more than utopian rhetoric, or worse, a means to safeguard power not gained through popular consent. It can also be an easy way to explain away issues which one has no real understanding of. 

Published in Dawn, EOS, October 24th, 2021

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