The concept of ‘modern’ as we understand it

The concept of ‘modern’ as we understand it

What are the values that come to our minds when concepts such as pious, modern, European and Middle Eastern are mentioned? 

This may sound unrelated, but it is not. At the basis of many of our fights lie the different meanings we have attributed to these concepts. 

The discussions over the constitution and the system of governance we are discussing these days are also different according to the meaning we attribute to them. The reason I am writing on this subject is Kadir Has University’s “The Survey of Social-Political Trends in Turkey,” which covered these concepts. 

When asked which concept best described the current situation in Turkey, half of the society answered that we were “European,” the other half said we were “Middle Eastern.” 

Opposition segments such as socialists and social democrats say Turkey’s current state looks “Middle Eastern” and “backward.” However, in “pious and conservative” segments, the concepts “European and modern” prevail. Isn’t this interesting? 

Among those who call themselves “pious,” 57.6 percent think today’s Turkey is “European,” just like the 56 percent of those who define themselves as “conservative.” 

When asked whether Turkey is “modern or backward,” 84 percent of the “pious,” and 88 percent of the “conservatives,” answer that Turkey is “modern.” 

Apparently, the religious and the conservative attribute a positive meaning to “European” and particularly “modern.” 

It is a separate matter as to what Turkey’s state can now be called objectively. For me, it has a “developing country” look; our developed and non-developed aspects are intertwined. 

In all societies, the concept “modern” is seen as being identical to, at the outset, comfort tools and the development of public services. After them come orderly traffic, the state of order or chaos in the cities, aesthetics, respect for privacy and the rule of law in state and social life. At the bottom comes especially modern mentalities and behavioral values such as rational thinking and institutionalization. 

Modern mentality and behavioral values are not monotypical and there are “multiple modernities” in question – a concept developed by sociologist Shmuel Eisenstadt. A typical example of this is Far Eastern societies like Japan and South Korea that are different than the West but “modern” in law and rationality.  

Muslims, who set up a huge civilization with their law and rational thought, have been left behind since the 16th century. No Muslim society has demonstrated a Far East-like success.  

In Turkey, the concepts of “Europe and modern (contemporary)” have a past of two centuries. We have seen military strengthening, modern transportation and administrative tools as “modernization.”
That was correct but not adequate. 

Modernization is not only comfort tools, fast trains and planes; it is the mentality that produces them and law that provides the order. 

Technology is a part of modernization. At the core of modernization there are values such as law, legal institutionalization, rational thinking, tolerance, freedom of thought and expression. 

Developed countries are institutionalized societies where a series of modern values prevail, from orderly traffic to the orderliness of social life, the rule of law, individual rights and freedoms. 

While in Middle Eastern societies powers are concentrated in one hand, causing inertia and uncertainty in administrations, in modern societies, powers are used by different institutions rationally according to the separation of powers and the principles of expertise. 

It seems it will be a long time before we reach the dimensions of the concept of “modern” that we have adopted.