Modernity is a term that confuses many. Its root word, “modern,” refers to something that belongs to the present age, in contrast to things associated with the past. But, when applied to societies, modernity takes on more complex meanings. The most common of these is that modernity equals Westernization.
Viewed in the light of the historical experience of former colonial societies like ours, modernity, thus understood, automatically invites rejection. To accept it means continuing enslavement to colonial mentality, and the denial of an identity that we can call our own.
Stripped of its emotive connotations, however, modernity is nothing more than the societal forms produced by Western societies in the course of their own evolution. These represent solutions to the increasing complexity of the environments they faced. The big question is whether these solutions and social structures are applicable to the situations of non-Western societies like ours. If they are, under what conditions will they work? If they are not, is there a different path to modernity that we can take? What would an Asian modernity look like, for example?
These issues lie at the core of many existing theories of development. But, they significantly come to life when an opportunity to build a nation from the ground up presents itself. Such seems to be the promise of the recently signed Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro.
Muslim Mindanao appears to present an ideal case for an alternative modernity. Surely, the Bangsamoro can do better than mimic the dysfunctional institutions of mainstream Philippine society. The marginalization of its people has made them seek refuge in the familiarity of an indigenous culture that, for the most part, has remained intact. The religion of Islam itself seems to stand out as the “other” of the Western religious tradition.
Yet, one can’t help wondering how far a community conceived along ethnic and religious lines can proceed in carving a distinct future for itself—in a globalized world that, as a rule, assigns minimal value, if any, to such identities. What role, for example, would Islam play in the Bangsamoro entity, which, from all appearances, is supposed to be secular?
In the evolution of societies, the relationship between faith and politics has oscillated between Western-style secularism in which religion becomes a wholly private concern, and the Islamic state in which there is a fusion of these two domains. One great fear of non-Muslims who may find themselves living within the Bangsamoro territory is that of being subjected to the moral code and precepts of the Shari’a. Is this fear unwarranted?
Questions like these are of the utmost relevance to the issue of modernity. The German theorist Niklas Luhmann believed that what distinguishes modern society from all past societies is its primary basis of social differentiation. This, he argues, is drawn along functional, rather than along tribal or ethnic or hierarchical, lines. Modernity solves problems of complexity, but it also brings about new problems. Unless new social forms are invented, the shift to Western-style modernity seems inescapable, Luhmann wrote.
The transition to modern society highlights the gradual separation of social functions from one another—e.g., politics from religion, the economy from politics, science and law from religion, education from the family, etc. To appreciate this change, one only needs to look at how these functions were fused in traditional society, and how a person’s fate was determined at birth by his/her race or position in a preordained social hierarchy.
Modernity, of course, is far from being the ideal form of society. The fragmentation of societal functions and the corresponding compartmentalization of the self that it induces have been the subject of postmodern and critical reflection. Modernity’s drawbacks have likewise drawn considerable attention from the modern thinkers of the Catholic Church—notably Benedict XVI, who rued the untold consequences arising from the divorce between faith and reason.
But, from the side of the religious community, no one perhaps has articulated and inspired a more comprehensive plan to intervene in the processes of modern society than Turkey’s contemporary Islamic thinker and preacher, M. Fethullah Gulen. Even as he, like Benedict, recognizes the lines separating matters of state from matters of faith, he strongly believes that religion can fruitfully engage the modern world without being assimilated by its logic. He charts a middle path for Islam that neither rejects modernity out of hand nor blindly succumbs to its terms. The key, he says, lies in the fusion of universal human values and science in the education of the young, and the inculcation of love and tolerance for diversity through dialogues across cultures, faiths, and ideologies.
In just two decades, a global civic movement devoted to education and intercultural dialogue has arisen out of Gulen’s teachings, giving to Islam a face vastly different from that of the jihadist and fundamentalist strains with which this great religion has unfortunately been associated in recent years. That it has recently found itself at the receiving end of the Turkish government’s harsh rhetoric is lamentable, but in the light of the movement’s autonomy, perhaps not surprising. The initiatives of the Gulen movement could be a fertile source of ideas not just for the Bangsamoro project, but also for our own incoherent efforts at building a modern and inclusive society.
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