Decolonial Translation Group



Modernity and the Smell of Gunpowder

Dr. Abed el-Wahab el-Missiri


The West (as well as the Arab world) has been showing an increasing interest in modernizing various sectors in our societies: political (such as democracy); economic (more privatization); and educational (transforming curricula to match new western standards). Yet, Western scholars have suggested there is an intrinsic conflict between Islam and modernity, while many Arab and Muslim intellectuals, have shown, using irrefutable evidence, that such conflict doesn’t exist. On the contrary, Islam has been influenced by modernity; it can easily embrace Western methodological and epistemological principles and make them its own.

Such a debate assumes there is a consensus around a precise and specific concept of modernity. It also implies modernity is a-historical and its implications do not vary from one location to another or one period to another; in other words, modernity is a singular process. We usually use a Western dictionary to determine the precise meaning of a concept. Once we have understood all its definitions, and have accurately determined the single or multiple meaning(s) that apply, we are confronted with a challenging task. How do we translate these terms without undertaking an investigation that would determine whether these definitions are empirically applicable in the real world (whether it is our own or the Western world)? How do we account for the semantic evolution of a term in the West; or take into consideration the history of the process the term refers to? The concept of modernity is not an exception to this rule. There are many definitions for modernity, but the consensus is that the term is closely associated with the enlightenment. It assumes, the subject is sovereign and its locus is the center of the cosmos. All the subject needs to apprehend reality, administer society, and distinguish between good and evil, is reason. From this perspective, science is the source of knowledge, meaning and value. Technology is utilized to subdue nature, in order to attend to people’s needs and help achieve their happiness.

This definition seems general enough and self-sufficient.  If we investigate the matter in more depth however, we would discover that modernity is not simply based on reason, science and technology; it utilizes them, but as value-free concepts. This is an essential dimension of Western modernity. The dilemma in a value-free world is that all matters are equivalent and everything is relative. In such a context, making a judgment is a complicated matter and the distinction between good and evil, what is essential and what is relative, the subject and nature, or the subject and matter, is a conundrum. Consequently, how do we deal with the question of conflict and disagreement? How do we resolve such basic questions? With the absence of normativity, the ethnic affiliation of the individual is the only point of reference to engage with such questions. What is in the interest of the ethnic group is consequently good, and what is not, is bad. This conjuncture means that the individual’s will and force are the sole tools to resolve divergences.

The Western World adopted this version of modernity in which the West (not the human kind or the human being) appears to be the center of interest. The regions located at the periphery of the West serve its own interest, since the West is more advanced and more powerful than the Rest. Therefore, Western modernity is in reality a form of Darwinian imperialism. The historical formation of modernity, unlike its abstract definition in the dictionary, reflects its true nature and provides a comprehensive analytical framework for the examination of modern phenomena. Western modernity used to present itself as a humane civilization with the individual at its center. Western families and more generally, Western societies used to be cohesive. Anomies in the West, which is a frequent matter nowadays, used to be marginal and even exceptional in the early stages. It was therefore easy to ignore them. That’s why Arab reformers (with liberal, Marxian or Muslim tendencies) were advocating for the reduction of the gap with the West (i.e. embracing Western modernity). There were no critical voices to oppose modernity (an understandable fact), since it had a positive image to a large extent during that period.

The Darwinian face became gradually more visible, as western modernity started sending its armies to destroy our fertile and also less fertile lands. Our countries became the source of cheap raw materials, while our markets were flooded with Western commodities. The first generation of reformist intellectuals was unable to see the connection between Western modernity and Western imperialism. When they visited Western capitals all they could witness were the lights and the enlightenment, while Western cannons were busy destroying our countries. Those who stayed home saw the flames, heard the sounds of the bombs and smelled the gunpowder.

According to one history book, when an Algerian elderly was told that the French armies were sent to spread Western civilization, his reaction was brief, stern, and direct. If that was truly the case, he observed, why did they bring so much gunpowder with them. This old man identified the intrinsic relationship between Western modernity and imperialism since its inception. Many others reached the same conclusions later on. The era of geographic discoveries and enlightenment (seventeenth century) was also an era that witnessed the massacre of millions. The leader Ben Bella remarked that the modern industrial god assassinated a whole ethnic group (the Amerindians), the native inhabitants of the Americas. Several millions of the strongest individuals of another ethnic group (Africans) were stolen and enslaved. The victims of this enterprise are estimated to a hundred million, since for each enslaved African who reached the final destination another nine were killed. In addition, Ben Bella mentions the genocide of the Mexican people; the mass killing of millions in Algeria throughout their struggle against French colonialism. Add to that the opium war against China and the starvation of the Indian population because of the application of modern Western property rights. Moreover, two World Wars cost humanity twenty and fifty millions people, respectively. Finally atomic bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima and many died in the Soviet Gulag. The hero of Tayyeb Saleh’s wonderful novel, Season of Migration to the North, summarized the situation perfectly well when he said, “In that court I hear the rattle of swords in Carthage and the clatter of the hooves of Allenby’s horses desecrating the ground of Jerusalem. The ships at first sailed down the Nile carrying guns not bread, and the railways were originally set-up to transport troops; the schools were started so as to teach us how to say “Yes”1 in their language.”

The colonial army subjugated the Arabo-Muslim worlds and imposed all forms of colonialism on their populations: military colonialism in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, Iraq, and Libya; settlers’ colonialism in Algeria and finally settlers’ colonialism combined with an occupation in Palestine. The colonial power was the ally of conservative and reactionary groups in these societies. It attempted to undermine the process of modernization in the Arab world by destroying the reformist attempts of Muhammad Ali, who is often considered the first modernizer outside the Western world. These western armies then repressed Ourabi’s popular revolt, then they helped and assisted Khidio. Finally, they established modern states that don’t bear any resemblance with modernity except for the intelligence services and the repressive forces. In the end, the West implanted at the heart of the Arab World, with the power of the gun, a group of settlers. They claimed that Palestine is a land without people and therefore, as Jewish people, and according to the Talmudic narrative, they are simply returning to their ancestor’s land.

Americans and Zionists are requesting the modernization of the Palestinian authority, yet the common knowledge is that Zionists, like other colonial forces, have refused in the past to deal with modern institutions such as trade unions and political parties (they have even undertaken the assassination of a trade unionist leader before 1948). Instead, they preferred to work with traditional groups within Palestinian society, assuming they would be more flexibile and willing to collaborate, such groups don’t comprehend the Zionist and British colonial projects. They were disappointed however, when they began their negotiation with traditional personalities (led by Sheik Rachid Rida) and found that Palestinians strived to modernize their society, and were not opposed to foreign capitals or skills as long as democratic principles were applied (i.e. fair elections would be organized and each citizen would have one vote since this is the only way to build peace). Haim Wiseman observed that the Palestinian proposal would be the equivalent of the peace of a cemetery; and he was right. He knew that the acceptance of democratic principles in Palestine would mean that settlers become a minority without the means to control the lives of Palestinians. In such an event, settlers wouldn’t be able to establish a Jewish nation, a crucial point for them as well as for the democratic and modern West. A Jewish leader observed that the Zionist entity is not a democratic, but rather a demographic nation (i.e. a nation with a Jewish majority). Today, Zionists are requesting the modernization of the Arab political, as well as the Islamic educational systems. But such a call for modernization is meant to undermine the values and cultures that give us the resolve to resist their military and cultural invasions. A commentator pointed out that such an endeavor represents a normal modernization; one that justifies exploitation and imposes a hegemonic system upon us.

Negative implications of Darwinian modernity don’t affect only us; they have an impact on the entire human species. Such modernity proposes a never-ending progress as an ultimate end for humanity. Progress however should have an aim, something that dictionaries failed to mention. In reality, we know that in order to serve the interest of the Western individual, the aim of progress is to exploit the whole world, relentlessly. In the end the sole indicator for progress has been consumption… and more consumption. More specifically, it is been the Western consumption of presumed endless natural resources. Today, only twenty percent of the world’s population consumes eighty percent of its resources; and what the American population has consumed in the past century is equivalent to what the human kind has consumed throughout its entire history. Yet, natural resources are limited, and that has provoked an environmental crisis, which might lead to our own demise. A study has shown that if every society had a pattern of consumption similar to the Western one, we would need six globes to provide for our needs and two globes to stack our waste. This means that the Western Darwinian project is an impossible one since it benefits only the Western world and the political elite in the third world. The Americans have understood that reality, and their Darwinian violence against Iraq is the result. The American administration’s aspiration to control Iraqi resources emanate from a desire to provide high standards of living to American citizens. That’s the promise of Darwinian modernity to them.

It is now clear that the implementation of Darwinian modernity is possible only at an extremely high price. Let’s look at its material aspect first. Some research has demonstrated the importance of fixed natural capital, which refers to all natural elements that cannot be replaced with time. A study has shown that the actual cost of any Western industrial project represents in reality a loss. The study explains that western industrialization was able to generate profit and demonstrate some consistency only because it did so at the expense of the entire human species. Therefore, the Western subject is in reality the only one to benefit from such projects. This means that Darwinian or imperial modernity are possible only at a high price: depletion of the ozone layer; pollution of oceans; desertification due to the destruction of forests; nuclear waste; pollution of the air; heating up of the atmospheric layer.

Moreover, Darwinian modernity has had an impact on the social texture and political systems. Let’s enumerate some of the negative impacts it had on society: destruction of the family; decrease in communication between people; psychological problems; increase in feelings of strangeness, isolation and exile; appearance of a unidimensional man; imposition of quantitative and bureaucratic values over people; increase in violence and crime (the penitentiary industrial complex is among one the fast developing industries in the United States); pornography (the material cost of its production in addition to the emotional costs that its consumption ensue); expansion of the state apparatus and its hegemony over people, through securitarian and pedagogical mechanisms; expansion of the media and pleasure industries which invaded the privacy of citizens as well as shaped their  personalities, goals, and dreams, while those who control these industries are not elected constituencies nor do they take responsibility for their actions; the increase in military and WMD expenditure (for the first time in human history, we spend more on weapons than we do on food and clothing); the possibility of destroying the globe either instantly (using nuclear weapons) or gradually (through environmental pollution). These processes provoked considerable anxiety among modern human beings; it reached a point where psychological and material implications are converging toward each other to the extent that the distinction between the two is becoming irrelevant.

Many Western intellectuals have understood the dark side of Darwinian modernity. Expressions such as “crisis of modernity,” “crisis of meaning,” and “crisis of value,” are some of the recurring statements in the social sciences; they demonstrate that there is a gradual and better understanding of what is happening. There have been various responses to a Darwinian modernity, which is threatening the wellbeing of the people and the sanity of the individual: organizing against globalization and savage capitalism, reviving the Frankfurt School philosophy, embracing environmental thinking, proposing a new developmentalism that encourages sustainability, and implementing a globalization with a human face. Roger Garaudy has noted, before his conversion to Islam, that the struggle of our era is a struggle against the myth of development; if that development follows a Western model, then the myth is suicidal. For him, it’s also a struggle against an ideology that separates science and technology (the organization of means and skills) on the one hand, and on the other, wisdom (thinking about ends and the meaning of life). This ideology imposes a radical individualism that separates the individual from his humanity and in the end creates a tomb, big enough to burry the whole world.

Garaudy’s assessment is accurate since Western modernity initially suggested that the individual is the center of interest, but it ended with Michel Foucault’s statements: “To all those who still wish to talk about man, about his reign or his liberation”… “we can answer only with a philosophical laugh;”… “man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.”…the world began without him and will end without him too. ”the turning point from a long way off, it is not so much the absence or the death of God that is affirmed as the end of man.”2

Western modernity affirmed that man is the center of interest. Instead, what has happened historically has been the quick demise of humanity as well as nature. The humane response to the value-free and Darwinian modernity has been to rethink the concepts that have been deployed against individuals.

It is time for everyone to unite and help build an Arab and Muslim modernity. This endeavor should be part of a global effort to counter a Darwinian modernity rooted in struggle, completion, fighting, and increased consumption, in addition to being value-free. In order to build an alternative and humane modernity, there is a need to reconnect with the concept of value, and to transcend the materialist dimension of the individual. In addition, we need a model based on collective humanity and a different relationship to society. Such a modernity would revolve around a notion of value that aims to realize happiness without necessarily increasing one’s wealth or depleting natural resources. Instead one could reach this goal by embracing human values such as justice, solidarity, forgiveness, and balance (with oneself and nature). That enterprise is necessary for our own wellbeing and for the wellbeing of the entire humanity.  

Allah is omniscient...


Published in al-Ahram, February 1st, 2003

Translated by Yasser Munif




1 Salih, Tayeb (1991). Season of Migration to the North (second edition), trans. Denys Johnson-Davis. Heinemann. Pp 94-5.

2 Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences, Vintage Books Edition. 1994. pp. 343- 387.