In every age intellectuals shape and cling to one concept as the organizing principle for an understanding of the present and speculation about the future. From the end of the 1940s, as the colonial era drew to a close, the fashionable concept was "modernization" and its variants such as "development" and "progress"
But what constituted modernization wasn't quite clear. Nor after what model should nations aspire in their quest for progress and development.
In the 1970s, the Iranian capital Tehran was a favorite destination for intellectuals from all over the world who wished to test those ideas in a country which had the rare distinction of having never been either a colony or a colonizer, and yet, its leaders had adopted the gospel of modernization with some enthusiasm. For a journalist, the arrival of so many prominent intellectuals, among them people like Gunnar Myrdal, W.W. Rostow, G.K Galbraith, Raymond Aron, Henri Lefebvre, Carlo Schmidt, Talcot Parsons and David Apter, made Tehran the equivalent of a candy store for a child. I had the rare privilege of spending quality time with almost all the visitors both for formal interviews and informal conversations.
Their message was: Hurry up! Modernize!
The theme of modernization was taken up in a series of television debates in Tehran in which the best ways for the Middle East to "enter the modern world" were hotly discussed by intellectuals then fashionable in Iran.
What we didn't know at the time was the extent to which our "oriental" societies had already become modern by adopting some of the most controversial aspects of the Western model.
Traditions that had provided a moral compass for centuries were now dismissed as cumbersome if not a sure sign of backwardness. Old institutions such as tribes, guilds, Sufi orders, clerical hierarchies, and family networks that had counter-balanced the power of the state were dissolved or weakened, leaving power concentrated in a few hands at the center of government.
The aim was to "Westernize" as fast as possible even if that meant he destruction of the indigenous culture which now appeared atrophied or degenerate. For those who wanted the better of the two worlds, the ideal model was Japan -- a nation that was supposed to have "Westernized" while maintaining its traditional values and institutions.
What those admirers of Japan ignored was the way that the Japanese had "entered the modern world." They forgot that the modern, Westernized Japan they admired had been born in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and cradled by an American occupation force that was still nursing its baby decades later.
Thus, they ignored that modernization a la Japonais required a baptism of fire that few would desire after a moment of cool reasoning.
Another thing they ignored was that in our neck of the woods, that is to say the Middle East, the machinery of state had modernized itself by enhancing its powers and developing new modes of control, manipulation and repression. That, in turn, had led to the Westernization of part of traditional society that now used an essentially Western narrative in its struggle against the established order.
For example, the late Ayatollah Khomeini's discourse owed more to Lenin and Stalin than to the great Muslim philosophers and theologians of ages.
The seizure of power by mullahs in 1979 highlighted Iran's jump to "Westernization". The revolt was dubbed a "revolution", a Western concept for which we have no word in the Persian language. (They had to use the climatological term "enqelab," which means disturbance. The Arabs use it to mean a coup d'état.)
The mullahs organized a referendum, wrote a constitution, devised a Western-style flag, raised a Trotsky-style militia, and built a cult of personality around Khomeini modeled on that of Stalin in his time. The only traditional methods they used consisted of seizing hostages, stoning women to death and the mass killing of real or imagined opponents. The system they created owes more to George Orwell's "1984" than to Farabi's "Virtuous City" (Al- Madinat al-Fadilah). Four decades later, they run a racket that looks more like the Cosa Nostra than any traditional Islamic government, even the worst like that of the Sarbedaran in the medieval times.
However, it seems that "modernization" is spreading, winning our region.
That thought came to me the other night as I watched some two hours of several video footages from Syria and Iraq in a special showing in a London TV studio.
I saw a "modernized" Middle East with armies marching across scorched plains, soldiers and mercenaries cursing in a dozen different languages, the choir of cannons and the choreography of armored cars and tanks. I saw refugees and displaced-person camps, barbed wires, watch-towers, loudspeakers spreading the latest version of truth. There were minefields and grieving mothers, naked children, and victims of gas attacks and chemical weapons. The skies were dotted with warplanes dropping more bombs on Syria and Iraq than on Germany during the Second World War.
Yes, and there was a frame which showed the shattered body of a child alongside his teddy-bear toy, a Western-style image of tragedy. Meanwhile, we in exile light candles and observe a minute of silence in the public squares of Paris, London or New York. Even our grief has been Westernized.
A landscape of ruins, reminding one of Berlin, Warsaw or Leningrad in 1945 -- in other words very modern, very Western. This looked like Europe in 1918 or 1945, only magnified many times over thanks to the superior power of destruction we now have.
The footage from Syria and Iraq reminded me of documentaries made by Billy Wilder and Raoul Walsh in Western Europe in the wake of the Second World War and Pathé newsreels from Japan in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The footage from Syria and Iraq reminds of newsreels from Japan in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pictured above: Nagasaki, Japan on September 24, 1945, six weeks after the city was destroyed by an atomic bomb. (Image source: (U.S. Marine Corps/Wikimedia Commons)
We became modernized and Westernized long ago, often without realizing it. Iran became modernized when Khomeini organized the execution of at least 4,000 people in a weekend, something even the bloodthirsty Agha Muhammad Khan Qajar never imagined doing. Syria became modern when Hafez Al-Assad killed 20,000 people in Hama, something no Umayyad Caliph would imagine doing. And was it not a sign of Iraq's modernization when Saddam Hussein gassed 5,000 of his own citizen to death, a nightmare that would never cross Haroun al-Rashid's mind?
The results of generations of dreams of modernization and Westernization are in front of our eyes and, thanks to modern technology, immediately observable even in the remotest parts of the region. We, all of us, including rulers and ruled, intellectuals and common folk, rich and poor, have modernized our societies by creating Everest-high rubble and swarms of terrorized refugees. All we have kept from our traditions is that of denying our own responsibility, blaming it all on others.
Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran's premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article first appeared in Asharq Al Awsat and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.