The Rising East


Sunday, October 21, 2001

Remember 9-11-01

Modernization of Islam
must come from within

IN an intense, incisive essay, Fareed Zakaria addresses the question that has haunted Americans since September 11: "Why do they hate us?"

Zakaria, a Muslim raised in a secular family in India, sums up: "To dismiss the terrorists as insane is to delude ourselves. Bin Laden and his fellow fanatics are products of failed societies that breed their anger. America needs a plan that will not only defeat terror but reform the Arab world."

Writing in a recent issue of Newsweek, Zakaria asserts that many Arabs, in particular, "feel that they are under siege from the modern world and that the United States symbolizes this world." Those Muslims would like to share in modern prosperity but fear that their culture and especially their religion would be diminished in the process.

"America," the author argues, "must now devise a strategy to deal with this form of religious terrorism." He suggests a three-pronged approach. On the military front, the goal would be "the total destruction of al-Qaida," the subversive network led by Osama bin Laden. Politically, Zakaria wants to see the present international cooperation expanded "to make arrests, shut down safe houses, close bank accounts and share intelligence."

At the heart of this plan would be a cultural strategy: "The United States must help Islam enter the modern world." Zakaria concludes: "If the West can help Islam enter modernity in dignity and peace, it will have done more than achieve security. It will have changed the world."

Zakaria's proposal is noble and sensible. It would be costly, on the order of the Marshall Plan in which the United States spent billions to rebuild Western Europe after the devastation of World War II. That effort preserved European civilization and fended off the Russian army. A 21st-century Marshall Plan, if it produced the world envisioned by Zakaria, would be worth it.

The fundamental question, however, is whether the West and America are the right ones to give Islam a tutorial on how to modernize. The modernization of the West was stimulated from within, not from without. The Zakaria proposal would have the impetus to modernize Islam come from without, from the West, which could be a fatal mistake.

There are other non-Western nations, however, that have modernized by borrowing from the West, absorbing some, changing much to fit with an ancient culture, and rejecting that which would have overwhelmed the basic values of the nation. Japan is case in point, as would be Korea and Taiwan later.

Japan of 150 years ago saw the encroaching colonialism of Europe coming from the south through Southeast Asia, from the northwest through Siberia, and from the east by the Americans sailing across the Pacific. The Japanese, who had lived in a closed country for 250 years, decided that the only way to fend off the West was to modernize.

Beginning in 1868, the Japanese took on Western technology and swallowed it whole. They took on Western business corporations, political institutions and the press but changed them to fit Japanese ways. They rejected Western religions and philosophy and thus the core of Japan remained Japanese, hardly touched by the West.

Unhappily, Japan also sought to emulate Western colonialism, first in competing for empire, then in seeking to drive the West from Asia and to replace Western colonialism with its own empire. That led to world War II and utter defeat.

Even so, with the help of the Americans in the Occupation of 1945-1952, Japan got back on its feet and resumed its journey to modernization. The modern Japan of 2001 is the consequence of that largely successful voyage, a democratic, economically advanced and socially progressive nation.

South Korea, once freed from the shackles of Japanese colonialism and having survived the Korean War, has progressed from a severe authoritarian state to a democratic and economically advanced nation that is still thoroughly Korean. Taiwan has done much the same and is now nurturing its own identity that is neither Western nor Chinese but Taiwanese.

The Zakaria Doctrine has much to be said for it and doubtless America and the West could help to bring it about. But the real drive to modernize Islam at the same time Muslims are preserving their rich culture has probably got to come from inside.

Perhaps the Japanese could be enticed to draw on their experience to give quiet words of advice that would be better received by Muslims than would those from America and the West.

Richard Halloran is editorial director of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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