BBC News UK Edition
 You are in: In Depth: Islamic world  
News Front Page
N Ireland
UK Politics
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Islamic world Friday, 12 July, 2002, 09:40 GMT 10:40 UK
Waiting for the dawn
Iranian university students hold flowers as they stage a peaceful - September 2000
Iranian women are at the head of the struggle for reform

In every part of the world, Muslims are responding to the challenges of modernity in a variety of ways. Can they succeed in reconciling the principles of their faith with the needs of modern societies? Roger Hardy will be presenting a five-part series for the BBC World Service.

The Cairo I used to know is a village compared with the Cairo of today. A forest of high-rise blocks has sprung up beside the Nile. Motorways and flyovers, mobile phones and Internet cafes are now commonplace.

If modernity means technical progress then, as I travelled through the Muslim world over the past few months, I found a great thirst for modernity.

Cairo: A city of high-rise blocks, flyovers and mobile phones
But many would say modernity is also a state of mind. If so, Muslims (and plenty of other people for that matter) are less certain about it.

If modernity means Americanisation, then many are wary of it, especially at a time when anti-American feeling is running high because of the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

If modernity means freedom, what kind of freedom? Freedom of expression is popular with the people, unpopular with the authorities. If freedom means alcohol and promiscuity, religious conservatives are appalled.

Some Muslims told me firmly they want their own modernity - an Egyptian or a Turkish or an Islamic modernity - rather than conform to a one-size-fits-all global identity.

Challenge of the West

The dilemma is not new. Muslims have faced a "crisis of modernity" for at least 200 years. In the early centuries of Islam, Muslims were at the cutting edge of science and progress.

Muslim praying in a mosque
Some Muslims fiercely rejected modernity and all its works
But by the 18th century, Islam was in serious decline and the European colonial powers dominated large swathes of the Muslim world.

When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, bringing with him scientists as well as soldiers, Muslims realised how far they had fallen behind.

How to respond? Then as now, some Muslims fiercely rejected modernity and all its works, insisting their own Islamic culture was both superior and self-sufficient.

Others embraced Western-style modernity, even if that meant adopting a completely secular lifestyle. Others tried to create a synthesis, adopting what was useful from the West while holding on to their religion and identity.

This struggle is the theme of my five-part series, Waiting for the Dawn.

Whose Islam? Whose modernity?

In Egypt, the state has defeated the violent Islamic groups and cracked down hard on the avowedly non-violent Muslim Brotherhood. But this has left the country in limbo, neither secular enough for the secularists nor Islamic enough for the Islamists. The underlying identity crisis is unresolved.

Kamal Ataturk
Ataturk: Father of Turkey's modernisation and secularisation
In Turkey the struggle has taken a different form, because the cards are stacked in favour of the secularists. The legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the modern state, is still very much alive.

He pushed through in the 1920s and 1930s the most thorough-going programme of modernisation and secularisation any Muslim society had ever experienced, before or since.

His heirs, the Turkish generals, are now trying to complete the crackdown they began five years ago on an Islamic revival they find deeply threatening.


In sharp contrast, Iranians are struggling to remedy the ills of their Islamic revolution. Reformist intellectuals argue the clergy have failed in their attempt to govern a modern state, and should now take a back seat.

Poster advertising modern versions of traditional dress
Woman are playing a bigger role in Iranian society
Women are playing a bigger role in society, especially in the workplace - an ironic consequence of a religious revolution led by bearded old men.

The young are impatient for a better life, and the Internet and satellite television are putting them in touch with a "modernity" which had previously been denied to them.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is confronting a deadly mix of poverty, patriarchy and religious extremism. The crisis unleashed by the attacks of 11 September last year has transformed the country's international standing, and that of its military leader Pervez Musharraf, with bewildering speed.

Bin Laden

I visited one the madrasas, or religious schools, which now stand accused of providing willing young recruits for Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda organisation and other militant groups.

Supporters of Osama bin Laden march in Pakistan
Many Pakistanis say rooting out extremists will be a long-term task
Several Pakistanis told me they were sick and tired of extremism and sectarianism, but added that rooting them out would be a long-term task.

It's hard to feel much optimism about the Muslim world right now. Yes, I met some impressive individuals who seemed clear-eyed about the challenges their societies face.

But those challenges are all the more daunting because they have both an external and an internal dimension. Internally, the struggle between conservatives and reformers goes on, with the state often playing the role of an indecisive referee.

Meanwhile, many Muslims feel the continuing crises in the Middle East, and in other areas of friction between Islam and the West, call into question the validity of a "modernity" which many equate with Westernisation and Western dominance.

Waiting for the dawn: Muslims in the Modern World will be broadcast on BBC World Service at the following times:

Programme One: Egypt
Programme Two: Turkey
Programme Three: Iran
Programme Four: Pakistan
Programme Five: Cairo to Brick Lane

Broadcast time: Fridays 1830GMT/1930BST

Repeats: Tuesdays 0930GMT/1030BST

The BBC's Roger Hardy
looks at how Muslims are responding to the challenges of modernity

See also:

16 May 02 | Middle East
30 Jan 02 | South Asia
19 Oct 01 | Americas
08 Jun 02 | From Our Own Correspondent
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Links to more Islamic world stories are at the foot of the page.

E-mail this story to a friend

Links to more Islamic world stories

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | World | UK | England | N Ireland | Scotland | Wales |
UK Politics | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology |
Health | Education | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |