Talal Asad - Interview on Modernity, Human Rights


Talal Asad

modern power and the reconfiguration of religious traditions

Saba Mahmood

Contemporary politico-religious movements, such as Islamism, are often understood by social scientists as expressions of tradition hampering the progress of modernity. But given the recent intellectual challenges posed against dualistic and static conceptions of modernity/tradition, and calls for parochializing Western European experiences of modernity, do you think the religio-political movements (such as Islamism) force us to rethink our conceptions of modernity? If so, how?


Well, I think they should force us to rethink many things. There has been a certain amount of response from people in Western universities who are interested in analyzing these movements. But many of them still make assumptions that prevent them from questioning aspects of Western modernity. For example, they call these movements "reactionary" or "invented," making the assumption that Western modernity is not only the standard by which all contemporary developments must be judged, but also the only authentic trajectory for every tradition. One of the things the existence of such movements ought to bring into question is the old opposition between modernity and tradition, which is still fashionable. For example, many writers describe the movements in Iran and Egypt as only partly modern and suggest that its their mixing of tradition and modernity that accounts for their "pathological" character. This kind of description paints Islamic movements as being somehow inauthentically traditional on the assumption that "real tradition" is unchanging, repetitive, and non-rational. In this way, these movements cannot be understood on their own terms as being at once modern and traditional, both authentic and creative at the same time. The development of politico-religious movements ought to force people to rethink the uniquely Western model of secular modernity. One may want to challenge aspects of these movements, but this ought to be done on specific grounds. It won't do to measure everything by grand conceptions of authentic modernity. But that's precisely the kind of a priori thinking that many people indulge in when analyzing contemporary religious movements.

It seems that you are using the term tradition differently here than it is commonly understood in the humanities and social sciences. Even the idea of "hybrid societies/cultures," which has gained ascendancy in certain intellectual circles, implies a coexistence of modern and traditional elements without necessarily decentering the normative meaning of these concepts.

Yes, many writers do describe certain societies as hybrids, part modern and part traditional. I don't agree with them, however. I think that one needs to recognize that when one talks about tradition, one should be talking about, in a sense, a dimension of social life and not a stage of social development. In an important sense, tradition and modernity are not really two mutually exclusive states of a culture or society but different aspects of historicity. Many of the things that are thought of as modern belong to traditions which have their roots in Western history. A changing tradition is often developing rapidly but a tradition nevertheless. When people talk about liberalism as a tradition, they recognize that it is a tradition in which there are possibilities of argument, reformulation, and encounter with other traditions, that there is a possibility of addressing contemporary problems through the liberal tradition. So one thinks of liberalism as a tradition central to modernity. How is it that one has something that is a tradition but that is also central to modernity? Clearly, liberalism is not a mixture of the traditional and the modern. It is a tradition that defines one central aspect of Western modernity. It is no less modern by virtue of being a tradition than anything else is modern. It has its critics, both within the West and outside, but it is perhaps the dominant tradition of political and moral thought and practice. And yet this is not the way in which most social scientists have talked about so-called "traditional" societies/cultures in the non-European world generally, and in the Islamic world in particular. So this is partly what I mean when I say that we must rethink the concept of tradition. In this sense, I think, we can regard the contemporary Islamic revival as consisting of attempts at articulating Islamic traditions that are adequate to the modern condition as experienced in the Muslim world, but also as attempts at formulating encounters with Western as well as Islamic history. This doesn't mean that they succeed. But at least they try in different ways.

In discussing different historical experiences of modernity, are you suggesting that there are also different kinds of modernities? There is a certain centrality to the project of modernity that scholars like Foucault have described and analyzed. How does one reconcile the European model of modernity, that modernization theorists and their critics alike pose, with different historical and cultural experiences of modernity?


In the first place, given that we are situated in contemporary Western society, and given that we are in a world in which "the West" is hegemonic, the term modernity already possesses a certain positive valence. Many of its opponents-- for example, the so-called postmodernists--to some extent have a defensive strategy towards what they think of as the central values of modernity. Very few postmodernist critics of modernity would be willing to argue against social equality, free speech, or individual self-fashioning. In fact, the very term "postmodernity" incorporates "modernity" as a stage in a distinct trajectory. So it may be a tactical matter in some cases to argue that there are multiple forms of modernity rather than contrasting modernity itself with something else. In other words, the equation of a specific Western history (which is specific and particular by definition) with something that at the same time claims to be universal and has become globalized is something that to my mind isn't sufficiently well thought out. An ideological weight is given to modernity as a universal model, even when it is merely a form of Westernization.

I think that at one level there is the problem of conceptualizing modernity as a term that refers to a whole set of disparate tendencies, attitudes, traditions, structures, and practices--some of which may be integrally related and some not. At times, people think of modernity as a certain kind of social structure (industrialization, secularization, democracy, etc.), and sometimes as a psychological experience (e.g., Simmel on "The Metropolis and Modern Life"), or as an aesthetic posture (e.g., Baudelaire on "The Painter of Modern Life"). Sometimes modernity is thought of as a certain kind of a philosophical project (in the Habermasian sense) and sometimes as a post-Kantian universal ethics. Do they all necessarily hang together? There is an implicit assumption that they do--that just because certain aspects of "modernity" ("modern" science, politics, ethics, etc.) have gone together historically in parts of Europe, all of these things must and should go together in the rest of the world as well. A curious kind of functionalism is actually at work in this assumption. Whereas in other contexts social scientists have become skeptical of functionalism, this doesn't seem to be the case here.

Part of the problem is deciding whether "modernity" is a single tradition, a singular structure, or an integrated set of practical knowledges. And if things go together, then does this mean that what we have is a moral imperative or a pragmatic fit? In other words: what criteria are we using when we call a person, a way of life, or a society, "modern"? Where do these criteria come from? Are they simply descriptive or normative? And if they are descriptive, then do they relate to some immutable essence? If they are normative, then on what authority? Such questions need to be worked through before we can decide meaningfully whether there are varieties of modernity and, if there is only one kind of modernity, then whether it is separable from Westernization or not. I have not encountered a satisfactory answer to this question, either by social scientists or philosophers.

Now, when Foucault talks about modernity, he is speaking quite specifically about a development in Western history. He is really not interested in the history of the non-Western world, of the West's encounter with that heterogeneous world. And he is not interested in different traditions. As you know, his emphasis is on breaks rather than continuities. It is possible to think of these breaks, of course, as occurring in certain kinds of continuities, and to some extent Foucault understood that. Otherwise, he would not have pushed his investigation into modernity back to early Christian and Greek beliefs and practices. This inquiry brought him to a conception of the Western tradition, with all its ruptures and breaks, although he didn't think systematically about "tradition" as such.


Full interview here: www.stanford.edu/group/SHR/5-1/text/asad.html


To subscribe to our event updates|newsletter|mailing list - email us with "SUBSCRIBE" in the title: