Stephen Rosenfeld's column of Jan. 5 discusses the "darker forces of Islan" -- a phrase reiterated by adminstration spokesman Hodding Carter. I believe Mr. Rosenfeld overstates the case against Islam as an opponent of modernization, and overlooks points of far greater significance in dealing with non-Western cultures.
Theological differences between Islam and Judeo-Christian thought are not, in my view, insurmountable. Problems exist in the introduction of technology to an Islamic culture. An example is the average Muslim's unswerving faith in predestination, which leads him to believe implicitly that all things that happen or that will happen are the will of Allah. This belief stands in obvious contrast to Western Calvinistic notions of free will, upon which many of our assumptions of social change tend to be based.
But the essential difference lies in the intensity with which Islamic beliefs are embraced, even by the seemingly secular, pleasure-seeking, "swinging" Arab sheiks of whom we read from time to time. While its believers tend to be basically quite conservative in philosophical outlook, Islam, as a theology, is not particularly opposed to modernization and change. It just doesn't deal very directly with the porblem, unless one chooses to infer (as some believers do) that Allah covered all possible bases of human behavior quite explicitly and exhaustively when he gave the Koran to Mohammed.
From this I would not infer that traditional societies cannot be brought to what we of the West would call modern styles of operation in a relatively untroubled manner. The basic model of effective technology transfer is straightforwar: 1) finding out what local people do; 2) determining how the contemplated technology is likely to interfere with tradition; 3) searching for a common denominator between what the host poeple do and what the modernizing technology demands.
When Khomeini demands "a ruler who would cut off the hand of his own son if he steals," he is reflecting traditional punishment values of the region which are reaffirmed in the Koran, but which, in practice, preceded it. Khomeini's critical demand, however, is for honest and moral behavior in government, not more hand cutting, and that is the kind of point where the modernizing technologist should be working to introduce his change.
Now that we technologists of the West have recognized that the building of a dam might affect the affairs of the snail darter, I hope that we can soon be ready to examine routinely what the cultural and social impact of building, say, a steel mill in Isfahan (a Russian project, I might add, showing we are not alone in insensitivity) might be on a culture that has traditionally been organized to make hand-crafted brass products, ivory miniature paintings and marvelous rugs.
The key obstacles to the modernization process, in my experience, lie not in religion but in a host of traditional values and styles of behavior. I think it important to note that those places where Islam has found the most fertile soil are places (with the possible exception of Indonesia) where life and survival have always been difficult. Even in the days of Arab or Persian grandeur, floods, plagues, Mongol invasions or something would come along to remind people that success is transient, at best. To deal with such adversity, people have tended to give the extended family, tribe and village priority over the individual.Experience has taught them that it is through tribe and village that the individual will have any chance at all of surviving. With this form of social organization comes a set of strict rules with respect to roles, relationships and responsibilities.
When technology or modernization disrupts these relationships, problems occur. Islam happens to be a theology that existis side by side with this form of social organization, but it is not the cause of it. Indeed, there are scholars who will argue that in Saudi Arabia, for example, the most deeply held and cherished values of that society derive from customs that long preceded the arrival of Islam.
As the West now interacts with certain Islamic nations, a number of problems become increasingly apparent. They have what we know we need (natural resources, particularly oil, and strategically important real estate), while we have what we think they need (technology). But they are not always totally convinced that they need it or, more importantly, that they should pay some of the costs of acquiring it. The most painful costs involve the changes in values, assumptions and forms of social organization -- things that they believe to be divinely ordained and that have served them well over many millenniums.
The paradox is most clearly stated in the current Saudi Arabian five-year development plan in which it is said, in effect, that they would like to acquire many of the goods and conveniences of the technological world without giveing up any of their Arab and Islamic traditions and values. There's the rub, since few people on either the side of tradition or the side of modernization have given much hard thought to whether or how this can be done.
Technology often makes people act in ways at considerable variance with what they are accustomed to doing in their own culture. This can produce anxieties and resentments that, unless anticipated and skillfully managed, will almost inevitable produce the kind of political and social chaos we see today in Iran. In my experience, Western organizations do a generally poor job of recognizing the potential problem areas resulting from the introduction of technology to well-established but non-technological cultures and, therefore, a poor job of dealing with them on a constructive preventive basis.