0 Is There Modernity Without Westernisation?
Is There Modernity Without Westernisation?

Opinion and Blogs

Is There Modernity Without Westernisation?

“If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see further into the future” – Madeleine Albright, then US foreign secretary, talking in February 1998 about bombing Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

I have just been reading Prof Mahmood Mamdani’s 2004 seminal work, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror. If there ever was a book we should not judge by its cover, this is it! For, if you judge Mamdani’s book by its cover and its long-winded title, you may not buy it, let alone read it. Well, long-winded titles are the fare of academics, aren’t they? You don’t know who gave birth to them.

I bought Mamdani’s book on a recent visit to Rwanda. In fact my Nigerian friend, a professor at the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), who had had the privilege of reading the book in manuscript form before publication in 2004, persuaded me to buy it, in a bookshop in Kigali. There are good Nigerians, you know – so please take note. This one gave me a gift of a lifetime by persuading me to buy this book.

Prof Mamdani is a Ugandan political scientist and anthropologist, and this is the first of his eight or so previous books that I have read. I am told that in 1996, one of his books, Citizen and Subject, was awarded the African Studies Association (USA) Herskovitz Prize for “the best book published on Africa in the English language”. That takes some doing, considering the wealth of literary material Africa has engendered, and the quality of writers the continent has given birth to or influenced.

This, however, is not a free advertisement for Prof Mamdani. But his Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror is a book everybody must read. It is simply eye-opening. Even stunning! I don’t know why I didn’t know about it until eight years after its publication.
Perhaps I had not met a good Nigerian yet! And I come from Ghana. And they know that we are rivals. Regional rivals. They are big, we are small, but we beat them at football. Is that why they won’t tell me to read Mamdani’s book, else we would beat them more at football? Thank you my Nigerian friends. With friends like you, I know I don’t need enemies. No wonder, any time they manage to beat us at football, they think they have won the World Cup! Well, they should wait till my son becomes Ghana’s next striker.  

So I owe a lot to my Nigerian friend at UNECA for leading me to Mamdani’s book, in which the Ugandan author kindly takes us to meet Madeleine Albright again. Mamdani recalls how the UN Security Council never authorised the use of force against Yugoslavia in the Kosovo War. And as the UN Charter prohibits the use of force except for self-defence, unless approved by the Security Council, NATO, which led the Kosovo intervention, never really claimed defence as its rationale. And as Mamdani puts it: “When Robin Cook, the British foreign secretary, told Madeleine Albright that he had ‘problems with our lawyers’ over using force against Yugoslavia without Security Council approval, Albright responded: ‘Get new lawyers!’”

And they say men are worse than women! With a woman like that, who needs a man? It is such arrogance exhibited by American officials, both men and women, that has landed the world in the current situation where one cannot pass through an airport terminal without some security official wanting to see the colour of our underpants. These days you must take off your shoes, belt, watch, gold chains, jacket, laptop. Haba!

During the reign of Bush and Blair when they really went berserk at airports, I was compelled to tell one lady security official who forced me into a body scanner at Heathrow’s Terminal 4, that one of these days they would ask us to take off our underpants so they could inspect our ding-dongs. And all because we want to travel in an airplane! The “roots of terror” is well documented in Mamdani’s book, and guess who begat those roots? Please read the book! Perhaps Albright and the hawkish characters who continue to occupy positions of power in America, will learn to spare the rest of us the agony of being asked at airports for a ding-dong inspection. It’s humiliating and dehumanising!

This is why I support Mamdani when he says in the very last paragraph of Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: “…The lesson of Vietnam was that the battle against nationalism could not be won as a military confrontation. America would need to recognise the legitimacy of nationalism in the era of imperialism and learn to live with it. Just as America learned to distinguish between nationalism and communism in Vietnam, so it will need to learn the difference between nationalism and terrorism in the post-9/11 world. To win the fight against terrorism requires accepting that the world has changed, that the old colonialism is no more and will not return, and that to occupy foreign places will be expensive, in lives and money. America cannot occupy the world. It has to learn to live in it.”

Such sound advice should guide President Barack Obama as he chooses his cabinet and top officials for his second term. Hawks are good for catching, and eating, prey. We cannot go back to the dangerous days of George W. Bush and his prime minister Tony Blair. We are all fed up with living in an insecure and terrified world engendered by the hawkishness of a few individuals who, while in office, think they own the world. No, the world belongs to all of us who live in it. And it is not a “prey”-ground for hawks masquerading as American, British or NATO officials!

Now let me turn to my main topic this month. In Good Muslim, Bad Muslim, Prof Mamdani cites Sayyib Qutb, the great Egyptian scholar, writer and thinker who was executed in 1966, allegedly on the instructions of President Abdel Nasser, as having “made a distinction between modernity and Westernisation, and calling for an embrace of modernity but a rejection of Westernisation”.

According to Mamdani: “Qutb also made a distinction between science and ideology, arguing that modernity is made up of two types of sciences, physical and philosophical. The pursuit of material progress and the mastery of practical sciences are a divine command and a ‘collective obligation’ on Muslims, Qutb argued. Modernisation through the natural sciences was fine, but not through Westernising philosophical sciences.”   
When I first read this, I tried to relate it to what has happened to Africa since the continent’s encounter with Europeans, starting from the mid-1400s when itinerant Portuguese sailors arrived on our shores, looking for adventure and whatever they could get. Incidentally, the descendants of those Europeans now call themselves “Westerners”. So, tell me, what do we call what has happened to Africa since that encounter? Is it modernity without Westernisation? Is it modernity with Westernisation? Or is it something in-between?

From discussions I had with some good people in Zimbabwe on a recent visit, they tried to convince me that other people, principally in Asia (the Chinese, Japanese, Malaysians, etc) have achieved modernity without Westernisation. But on second thoughts, I found it is not entirely true. How many millions of people have ditched their kimono in Japan for a Western suit and hate to go back to the kimono? Ditto China, ditto Malaysia. In essence, what they have achieved in Asia is modernity with Westernisation, but with a large helping of cultural preservation in the process.

It is something we haven’t been able to do in Africa, or don’t have the will to do. As such, our traditions and cultures are now in the process of being dangerously rolled over or even obliterated by Westernisation, which we foolishly see as modernity.

Imagine this: These days for a marriage in Africa (especially within the middle classes, who should know better) to be seen as a “marriage”, the couple must go through a Western-style wedding ceremony. In Ghana, my poor motherland, our traditional marriage rites, by which our fathers and mothers begat us, have now been shamefully reduced to a mere “engagement”. Marriage in Accra is when you go through a Western-style wedding! Otherwise, forget it! Aaah, where are our ancestors? May they have mercy on us!

So, the question begging for an answer is: Can Africa ever achieve modernity without being wiped out by Westernisation? This is the debate I am inviting all and sundry to engage in here, in the hallowed pages of New African. Let’s hear what you say.

  • Raphael Zuhnden

    Great article by all standards. I liked the part where you said that Asian countries have adapted a blend of modernisation and westernisation but are strict on the preservation of their cultural heritage. In Africa, some of these things can’t be said and it is so sad that as a continent we cannot appreciate everything we have and thereby try and do something with we have. Although I am also practicing modernity with westernisation, this great article by Baffour Ankomah has given me in-depth knowledge and an enlightenment into adapting and preserving some of my cultural and moral values so as to enrich the African heritage and become a NEW AFRICAN. Thanks

  • Japhet Mwaya

    Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the founding father of Tanzania, on the eve of the country’s independence back in 1961 said:” The worst sin that colonists have committed is to make Africans despise themselves.” This sin is, indeed,eating up Africa. African culture is dieing with the old generation. The younger generation in Africa is blindly embracing western culture in the name of modernization. A change of mindset is required in Africa to value ourselves, our cultures and whatever good we have. Actually what we call modernity is nothing but western culture. Modernization is all about valuing and glorifying our cultures.

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