Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Modernizing our way of thinking

Turning Un-Japanese
Donald Richie has been living in Japan for half a century. The American writer, translator and film scholar has spent most of that time explaining Japan to the English-speaking world. But lately he's found himself, somewhat disconcertingly, in an entirely new role—as an interpreter of Japan to the Japanese.
The Tokyo university students who attend his lectures on the great postwar filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu no longer understand the world portrayed in the 1953 classic "Tokyo Story." They don't know anything about the family system because the family system doesn't exist anymore," says Richie. "So I have to reconstruct it for them." They can still understand the traditional, intricately polite version of Japanese used in the movies, but that language sounds alien, as if it comes from a "vanished" world, he says...What I have found, instead, is another prosperous and modern Western country with some interesting quirks—an Asian nation that would not feel out of place if it were suddenly dropped inside the borders of Europe.
From signs in English to immigrant store owners to the culture of entrepreneurship, what we see here is a society that has been willing to modernize and adapt to the changing times to become a prosperous nation.

Thank God cultures change over time, for if they did not, the United States would still subjugate their woman, have slavery, and work on weekends. Sure, there are great elements of culture that are lost in the process, but for the most part, modernization has improved our lives. We don't have to worry about being arrested for not going to church on Sunday or for drawing negative pictures of Bush (what's that clicking in my phone?) Our standard of living is growing. Aside from the glaring inequalities in our society, we are much better off than most of the world.

Japan was once a warrior nation, withdrawn in itself with an over zealous notion of honor. Indeed, the culture had some very brutal notions of honor, from hari kari to kamakazees, who were the first suicide bombers. (That's right, folks! It isn't a Muslim invention!) But, you know what? Japan discarded that brutal violence and chose to modernize itself for progress.

Why can't the Muslim world do the same?

This is the struggle the Muslim world faces as it confronts the modern world. It isn't Westernization that is the problem - it is modernization. All societies struggle with it. One only has to look at the rabid Christian right in this country to find it exists everywhere. Remember, too, the Christian Church also opposed democracy, secularism, and modernity until the 18th century. Reason and freedom of thought were deemed to be putting man as the equal of God. Had a cartoon depicted Jesus in a profane manner, the artist would have been thrown in jail. Most of us have grown up a bit since then.

See, with Islam, the problem with freedom of thought began during the Sunni/Shia schism. For a time, there was a period of chaos called fitna. Throughout the long history of occupation that the Arab world has struggled through, rulers would make up interpretations of the Quran to subjugate their masses, which is how the fundamentalist disdain for Reason took root. For many traditionalist Muslims, individualism opens the door to selfishness, a denial of God, and, once again, fitna.

In a way, this idea makes some sense. Socrates rightfully predicted that excessive individualism would lead to the downfall of Athenian democracy. Without a sense of community, a society cannot hold itself together. However, extremist views are called that for a reason. There can be no progress without individual thought. Modernization requires secularization, but secularization does not mean a denial of God. Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.

For the record, in Japan, modernization began with economic reforms, namely the unification of currency, banking, stock exchanges, and modern economic institutions. Without the basic structures in place, democracy cannot work correctly. Unfortunately, the Arab world is having democracy shoved down its throat before it has the institutions to sustain it.

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