Can Turkey, Egypt become “modern?”

The ongoing contestations, protests and debates in Egypt, Turkey between the people and the leaders  is being framed as one of clash of modernity vs. traditionalism. Enough ink has been spilled trying to explain how the Islamists (read those who believe there is space for Islam in the public sphere) are harmful, retrograde and generally bad for the country in question. While this fear of Islamists have some validity- in extreme cases such as the Taliban, on the whole, I believe this apprehension and fear about the “wave of Islamization,” in Egypt, Turkey is incorrect, exaggerated and at times blatantly wrong.

Mr.Morsi, President of Egypt
Mr.Morsi, President of Egypt

The government’s repression and tackling of protestors is quite another issue, and I will not get into that here. My point is to analyze the discourse surrounding the participation of Islamist parties in the public sphere. I believe that there is an exaggerated fear of these elements and also an Orientalist understanding of politics, that may well fall short of the kind of thinking needed to understand the role of Islam in the public sphere.  

Some background

The debate about modernity and secularism is particularly important as various developments in the Muslim world are re-defining “modernity,” but this is not the definition of modernity that fits the western mould, as well-known Anthropologist and scholar of Islam, Talal Asad points out. The Arab Spring uprisings are an example of the kind of modernity that is bringing to power regimes which the western powers see as “pre-modern”. Egypt, Tunisia stand as examples of such developments, which are considered by many analysts and a few academics as NOT representative of modernity.turkey-country

The classical definition of modernity and Secularism has the implicit notion of separation of Religion and Politics, but this does not neatly fit into the definition of how politics and life in general is conducted in many parts of the world. Asad points out that project of modernity in the Muslim world (and one can argue in many societies which are non-Muslim as well) that secularism and modernity should not be seen as exclusionary terms.

“Deprivatization of religion process depends on how religion becomes public. If it furthers democracy, as it did in Poland or promotes debate around liberal values, then it is entirely consistent with modernization,” says Talal Asad in Formations of the Secular[i]. Taking a cue from this, it seems that for Asad, modernity is not problematic, in so far as it is willing to embrace various versions of secularism and also makes space for religion in a manner which does not radically shift or distort societal balances.

“Modernity is a project or a series of projects that some of those in power seek to achieve…” and we forget that the notion of modernity in the west emerged at a time in history and there is an attempt from the Western powers to impose it on other societies. This is the reason there are so many problems in other parts of the world,” he adds. The fact that Asad believes that there cannot be one definition of Modernity, or Secularism or even Religion complicates matters for him and hence this can be a hegemonic discourse. This is often played out in discourses of belonging, national security and other areas impacting the state.

Elsewhere, Asad points out that he is very ambivalent and almost leery of the idea of modernity[1], since it presupposes just one form of modernity. In the introductory chapter of Formations of the Secular, he says:” Thus, although in France both the highly centralized state and its citizens are secular, in Britain the state is linked to the Established church and its inhabitants are largely nonreligious, and in America the population is largely religious but the federal state is secular…consequently, although the secularism in these three countries have much in common, the mediating character of the modern imaginary in each of them differs significantly.”

So, how is one to define Modernity? Doesn’t this view of modernity make it almost impossible to talk about Modernity or Secularism, in an objective sense? Perhaps not. Asad points out that: “The modern nation as an imagined constructed is mediated through imagined constructs, “says Asad in the introductory chapter[2]. One of the main symbols used is that of Secularism, as all other identities and symbols are relegated to secondary importance. The mediating character of religious symbols varies in each society, he goes on to say and this is quite different even within the Western world. Take the US, France and Britain. While the US still has a significant population which believes in fundamentalist ideals and tries to influence polity, France is at a different spectrum and with its Laicite, is quite insular in its approach to religion in the public sphere.

But it is key to remember that there are constant negotiations going on in every society and no society is ever static. While the French are adamantly nationalistic and define Secular in a very rigid way, they still have Catholic Schools in which one can cover oneself (Veil) as one chooses. It’s a mistake to think of secular and religious in binary term, there are lots of cross-cultural connections and transmutations of concepts, modes of behavior and organization. Let’s now look at the notion of civil society and modernity, as being understood specifically in Turkey and Egypt.

 

Notions of civil society and modernity in Egypt

Among the several assumptions about the Middle East and North Africa are that “civil society,” must flourish in order for democratic institutions to take root. While this assumption has been challenged on several grounds, both religious and cultural, the fact remains that there are vibrant pockets of civil society – the sort of networks and alliances that make governance and accountability possible in many parts of the region.

Steven Cook recently wrote about the “Islamization,” of the newly formed democracies in an insightful article for the Atlantic, in which he says :Egypt’s Muslim Brothers and Tunisia’s Ennahda have not declared alcohol forbidden, forced women to don the hijab, or instituted hudud punishments (i.e., specific punishments for specific crimes set forth in the Qur’an or hadiths). It was big news in Egypt several weeks ago when the Le Roi Hotel in the Red Sea resort of Hurghada poured out all its alcohol and established a female-only floor and swimming pool, but only because there have been so few incidents along these lines — observers tend to forget that what was Cairo’s Grand Nile Tower (formerly the Hyatt) went dry well before anyone ever contemplated Hosni Mubarak’s ignominious fall.” He clarifies what he means by “Islamized,” by adding: “By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, Islamist elites create an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.” Implicit in this line of reasoning is that this is somehow bad, evil and inimical to the interests of minorities, although, there is very little proof to that effect.

As a proof to show that the country is Islamizing, he cites a new amendment to the December 2012 constitution: “Al-Azhar is an encompassing independent Islamic institution, with exclusive autonomy over its own affairs, responsible for preaching Islam, theology, and the Arabic language in Egypt and the world. Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law.” While this may seem true, it is a fact that given the strange relationship of the Ulema ( religious scholars at Al-Azhar) and the ruling establishment, over the centuries, there has been a tension built in – one that neither gives them absolute say, nor authority. One must only remember that Mubarak quite literally managed Al-Azhar on his own terms and before him Sadat coopted the Ulema. If the country’s constitution says that Shari’ah is the source of law, doesn’t it make sense that the scholars of the most well-known university be consulted?

 

Turkey’s case:

Speaking of Turkey’s reform efforts in Education, Steven Cook, in the same article, mentions :In March 2012, for example, the AKP paved the way for graduates of imam-hatip (preacher) schools to enter the bureaucracy by making it easier for them to matriculate at Turkey’s universities — a traditional feeder for public servants. In the context of Turkish politics and the Republic’s history of aggressive laicisme, the change was controversial. Turkey’s preacher schools are, as their name implies, intended to train prayer leaders for Turkey’s 82,693 mosques and, as such, about half the curriculum is devoted to religious subjects while the remainder of the curriculum coincides with what the Ministry of National Education prescribes for non-religious high school students.” What he does not mention is that these schools were severely repressed by the state, during the Ataturk era and today form one of the examples of every local community’s efforts to educate its youngsters. Students in Imam hatip schools get both religious and secular education and learn to become constructive members of society. There is again, nothing inherently wrong with this, as Cook and several other secularists assume. If anything, this move to help the graduates of these schools enter the public service is an effort to integrate these graduates, who often are poor and come from modest backgrounds.

As Fazlur Rahman, the late scholar of Islam has astutely pointed out: “The great sign of hope is the restlessness and remarkable upward mobility of intellectual life in the new educational adventure of Islam in Turkey. This is an inherent quality of the Turkish character and accrues directly from the circumstance that Turkey is starting over with a clean slate after a deliberate and extended experiment with pure secular Westernization[ii].”

One must not forget that the economy grew tremendously under Mr.Erdogan and the religious resurgence seems to be a reaction to the decades of repression by the state. It is the will of people that is being demonstrated, through the elected representatives. Here is an article from The Economist, that points to the economic growth that came under Mr.Erdogan and the need for further stability in the country. It points out: “A key selling-point for Recep Tayyip Erdogan to voters is Turkey’s economic performance. After a volatile 1990s and a huge bust in 2001, his Justice and Development (AK) government has presided over steady high growth and modest inflation. In 2010 and 2011 the economy grew by a China-like 9%, leading to serious fears of overheating.” Despite, this there are serious concerns about the AKP and Mr.Erdogan’s religious leanings. Criticism of the ruling party often seems to be from a political or ideological stance, often not taking into account the historical progress of the country, and the social and religious conditions that have shaped it.

Here is an egregious example of bashing of Mr.Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey. While the writer fails to acknowledge that the Turkish economy grew rapidly under his leadership, he goes on to say that the has nothing to show, but the growth of the economy – as if economic miracles happen in vacuum, without any planning or critical evaluation of the direction in which the country should head.

There are very many credible and respect scholars who have made the claim that the notions of modernity, religion and secularism are all western constructs, that emerged in the West in a specific context, under very specific time-periods and they have become a lens for the western world to look at the world. It is wrong to assume that every civilization and country should abide by these and imposing this on others is akin to hegemony. Jose Casanova, Peter Berger, Talal Asad have all made similar (if not the exact same arguments) in their books and there is good reason to believe this is the case.

 

 

What is to be done?

In conclusion, what H.A.R. Gibb, the great Orientalist scholar said about the Muslim religious leaders of medieval times, can be said equally about their secular opponents, in contemporary times: ““Modernism is, therefore, predominantly a movement of thought among educated laymen, if we leave aside the neo-Hanbalite Manar-modernists. But how is its theological content to be assessed or defined? It seldom finds direct expression in books or articles, and though, it may be reflected in the arguments and polemics of the Ulema against the spread of Secularism, we may be sure that, in the invariable habit of preachers and polemists, they exaggerate, misrepresent and distort the opinion and activities of which they disapprove[iii].”

Perhaps, journalists, analysts and students should read a bit more about the processes of modernization, the critiques of the same and also sensitize themselves to the various debates in the field before passing any judgments. While it is true that modernity is a difficult, painful and often destructive process, it need not be so. Turkey and Egypt are in a unique position to define for the Muslim world what modernity in the 21st century looks like. And I believe they should do it on their own terms – not on terms defined by others.



[i] Asad, Talal. 2003, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity,Stanford, California: Stanford University Press

[ii] Rahman, Fazlur. 1982. Islam and Modernity. Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

[iii] Gibb, H.A.R. 1947. Modern Trends in Islam, New York. Octagon Books. Pp.49.

Is this the beginning of the end for the traditional University system ?

Source:http://higheredmanagement.net/2012/07/22/this-weeks-found-and-interesting-july-22-2012/moocs-2/
Source:http://higheredmanagement.net/2012/07/22/this-weeks-found-and-interesting-july-22-2012/moocs-2/

I am actually registered in two courses on a website which is part of the  “Massive Open Online Courses,” ( MOOC) system so called because they are free and online – and offered by some of the best-known universities in the world . With Stanford University, Duke university and others joining in,  a class-room of 90,000 people is not unheard of. With this scale, a free education and certification at the end of the process, does this mean the end of traditional university as we know it? I would argue that this is not the case and the good old university system, with its brick and mortar  infrastructure will still remain. Here are a few reasons why.

Firstly, the University system as we know it today, is very old – more than a thousand years old, with Al-Azhar University dating back to 988 A.D. Common sense dictates that if something has survived so long, it is for a good reason, and is unlikely to be discarded so fast. Especially, such a complex institution as the University.

Secondly, the learning model that online courses offer is not amenable to learning for all levels of students, and also the quality of interaction and learning is suspect. While each one of us learns differently, the general notion of learning i.e., by critically reflecting, asking questions and discussing and debating with others does not really exist online as it does in a real life classroom setting. This gives the traditional system an edge, that is not present in the online model.

Thirdly, will this online education be as recognized as the “regular,” education? The credibility of a degree from Phoenix University is not the same as that from a regular university, many would argue.

But, there is also the counter argument that the world of education is shifting. The way that all of us are getting information,  knowledge and ideas is increasingly shifting to an online base. This is a result of the online, information revolution, which is in some ways global ( barring those remote places which don’t have internet access).

So, no matter whether we believe in it or not, the MOOCS are here to stay. Will the market shake up their model and remove them from the scene, like any other start-up, or will they evolve into more stable forms? We may not know for sure, but what we do know is that there are thousands and thousands of students signing up for these courses and that is a fact we should not ignore, when debating about their success.

 

 

MENASA ?

The Acronym dictionary defines MENASA as – Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

When you google it, MENSA throws up. Not a very smart acronym, this one. But try harder, and you will find the definition for it.

A new acronym. A fad. A smart ( and pretentious) way to club together groups of countries ? Well, that depends on the way one looks at it. But to me, this makes sense.

According to a few important reports that came out recently, this region will define the future of the world – the key argument being one of demographics and also resources. The one that i read in some depth is the one by the management consulting firm Mc Kinsey. If one observes the ongoings in the MENA region, with the Arab Spring, this seems like a far-stretched argument.

But let’s take the long-term view. Social change takes decades, not months and weeks ( often the time-span that traditional media uses as a frame of reference).

The arguments for MENASA can be summed up as :

A recent report by Mc Kinsey pointed to the demographics as well as the wealth of human resources in the region – which are full of entrepreneurial zeal ( refer:http://www.menasaforum.ae/partners/official/files/Perspectives%20on%20MENASA.PDF).

The region is set to generate nine per cent of the world’s total growth in gross domestic product in the next 10 years, up from its current five per cent share. And during this period it is slated to achieve real growth rates of six to seven per cent. The western economies have stopped growing or are experiencing deceleration, while the economies of MENASA continue to grow.

McKinsey estimates cumulative financial inflows from hydrocarbon exports in these countries could exceed $9trn by 2020.

India, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey account for 92 per cent of the region’s population.

We also see that the widespread use of English in India, Pakistan and Egypt and French in Morocco, coupled with these countries’ significant pool of skilled people and the relatively low labour costs, make them attractive destinations for companies looking to outsource support functions and value-added services such as legal and accounting services. This is already happening in a big way and will continue to grow in the years to come.

But isn’t all of this fantastical thinking, in the absence of democratic institutions and also recourse to law and strong contractual systems ? This is a valid argument, especially when one reads of businesses suffering due to lack of transparency as well as red-tapism and corruption.

But with the growth in economies and greater demand for transparency and better systems, things are bound to change. In India, there is the Right to Information Act ( RTI), which is being implemented in several states, and has made the government more accountable.

Similarly, the Arab spring is bound to bring in better systems, which are more robust and responsive to the citizen’s needs.

I am inclined to believe that this region is where the action is. Despite the funny acronym, there is reason to believe that this is where the future lies.