Muslim World Study Tour: Tradition and Modernity

So I have been conspicuously silent for the past month as I have been on a whirlwind one month adventure and study tour of parts of the Muslim world. I undertook a study exchange with Associate Professor Halim Rane (the academic at Griffith with whom I am currently doing research assistant work ) and 10 other students to Malaysia, Turkey, Spain and Morocco. We were fortunate enough to meet with extremely powerful and important figures in each of the countries, such as the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and the Chair of Foreign Relations of the AKP (Turkey), Erol Adayilmaz. We also met with professors, chief editors and journalists of major newspapers and religious figures within each of the countries. Here are some of my findings relating to tradition and modernity….

In Malaysia there is a harmony between East and West, a country with ‘moderate’ Islam influenced by a positive colonial experience. As the first location we visited, we

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Graffiti along a waterway in Kuala Lumpur

noticed  a battle between the old Malaya of small towns, colonial buildings and tight-knit neighbourhoods and the new Malaysia of city metropolises, dense high-rise apartment living and hard capitalism. As a country debating its place as either an Islamic state (as the former PM assures us it is) or a secular nation (as some of my Chinese-Malaysian friends argue), I feel that Malaysia is battling for its place between traditional culture and modern thought. Along with this battle is a battle between ethnicities, where old ethnic tensions are still very real and present between ethnic Malays (bumiputra) and Chinese and Indian Malaysians (this despite everyone in official positions saying things to the contrary). It’s interesting that terms like “Chinese Malay” or “Indian Malay” even exist really, as surely they are all simply Malaysians? As a consequence of this tension, one very apparent cultural sensitivity it was important that we as observers had knowledge of was the historical and

View from the top of the Petronas Twin Towers in KL.

View from the top of the Petronas Twin Towers in KL.

contemporary tensions between ethnicities – decades of “affirmative action” policies privileging the bumiputra with extra rights over other ethnicities and a history of government being controlled by Malays and business by the Chinese. It was an interesting first stop for us,  perhaps as it turned out to be one of the most conservative

societies, yet also the least traditional (I found it very hard to spot what the real Malaysia was, behind those shiny buildings and city streets like anywhere else in the modern world).

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View from my room in Istanbul.

Turkey, on the other hand, represented the epitome of the gentle balance between tradition and modernity to me. The city of Istanbul is a weave of historic (very historic) traditional sites and modern, upscale department stores, high rise buildings, and successful capitalism. The relationship between tradition and modernity is very physically obvious – the old city walls of Roman Byzantium, the luxurious ruins of Ottoman palaces and the centuries-old mosques and cathedrals cover the western side, while re-appropriated old buildings vy for space alongside big brands and retail on the winding pebbled streets of the new side, and the Asian side contains everything from major international banking bases to small-time fish markets and industry. As a secular country with a deeply-ingrained religious history, it is culturally complex. Although not as conservative as Malaysia, there are still some cultural sensitivities and social issues in major need of an upheaval (one particularly archaic law states that if a rapist agrees to marry their victim, he is not punished by law).

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The old side of Istanbul, a view from Süleymaniye Mosque.

Overall though I thoroughly enjoyed Turkey and I particularly liked hearing the azan (call to prayer) ring out through the streets five times a day from the Blue Mosque, which was very close to where we were staying. It was a haunting reminder of the centuries of tradition that envelope the country, despite the recent and very successful modernisation of the country. It seems that there is a real respect and care for tradition and their past – particularly regarding the Ottoman empire – which I greatly admire and wish Australia likewise had more respect for our history.

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View of Granada from the Alhambra.

In Spain I was struck by the amount of industrial-revolution-era buildings standing as erect ghosts on a barren landscape. Covered in graffiti of emaciated faces, tags and scrawling writing, these abandoned buildings served as a reminder of the modernising process, which it seems Spain hasn’t fully come out the other side. Or maybe it did come out, but has reverted back to a less-successful, more modest past. Stalled between ancient palaces, converted mosques, ruined cities and shiny glass buildings full of brand names, bustling businesses and an internationalised society, Spain seemed like it occupied a delicate no-mans-land. I think I had assumed that as Spain = Europe, and Europe = modern and well-off, that Spain would also = modern and well-off. And compared to some places, it is. But the balance

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View of Cordoba.

between tradition and modernity seemed marred by economic distress here. Thankfully, Spain, like Turkey, has a great deal of interest in maintaining its historic past that was once repressed and dismissed by the Christian rulers of the past few centuries. Now, a great deal of time and effort has gone into recognising, restoring and rediscovering Spain’s Islamic past. Considering Islam ruled Spain from the 8th-15th Century, it is not a minor part of Spain’s past. In fact, much of Spanish traditions, parts of language and architecture can be attributed to this Islamic history. It made me thankful that Spain has seen fit to invest in its history and past (even just for touristic benefit) when it is evidently struggling economically and in modern society.

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Old facades in Rabat.

The fight between tradition and modernity became apparent in Morocco through talking with Professor Abdelhaj Moudden of the School of Governance and Economics (EGE). The history of secularism (an effect of modernity) is really only 100 years old in Morocco. The history of secularism and modernity is so short that the sciences are regarded as imports and because of that the modern sciences don’t have historic legitimacy. The professor stated that one argument of many fundamentalists in the country (and also an argument that has a very valid point, in my opinion), is why study Marx, Weber and the likes but not Morocco and Islam’s own historic, political and philosophical figures. Asides from modern science and thought, the balance between tradition and modernity is visible in every street, city and small town in Morocco. I loved that when I traveled through the Moroccan countryside across the Atlas Mountains, I would see abandoned farm houses and buildings that were gently becoming earth once more – they were simply made of mud and stones, so over time as buildings were abandoned they simply returned to the land. Unfortunately, modernity has brought new, harder and more durable materials, which means that now when buildings are abandoned as families pack up and head to regional centers and cities, they leave a trail of waste, rubbish and

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Quaint house in the middle Atlas Mountains.

pollution. I found this a good metaphor for tradition and modernity in Morocco, and I am worried that modernity really isn’t what every country needs or wants. It seems that you can’t have both tradition and modernity, most of the time. The unfortunate reality seems to mean that you forfeit one for the other, and quite frankly, I’m not sure if it is worth it.

Keep tuned – 5 more blogs are on their way! 🙂 These blog pieces are part of my assessment for the course.

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