Saturday, June 14, 2008

A Question of Defining Modernity

By Yousef Gamal El Din

To travel to Qatar after being away from the Gulf for three years was exciting to say the least. There were bound to be similarities to neighboring Saudi Arabia, a country where I had spent roughly 18 years of my life. Amidst the impressive construction of luxurious hotels and business towers lies the question of defining modernity for a country that has opened its borders to business.

Anthony Gidden suggests that modernity is defined by Western conception of democracy, free-market economy and popular participation. The ethnocentric nature of this definition is problematic, and other scholars argue that modernity is simply using a given social system as a measurement standard to compare to other social systems. Dirkheim’s conception of the modernization theory, in tandem with the views promulgated by Giddens later on, perceives Western modernity as a development solution for all countries around the world. The lack of consideration for context has in turn led to further revisions of the theory.

The pressures imposed on countries from Western understandings of modernity are extensive. With a strong emphasis on personal gratification, hedonism and pleasant escapism in popular culture, indigenous Arab movements in the Middle East are at risk of losing out in what Samuel Huntington coins as the inevitable clash of civilization. This feeling of loss and interference is a sensitive issue to many people in the Arab world and hence often a source of tension. The task of maintaining an identity, to be seen as the primary responsibility of the state, is far from easy, especially with the overdependence on using wealth to "purchase" development with a Western-centric focus.

In any case, it will be fascinating to see how the people of Qatar find the balance.

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