The Modern World: La Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!

"Our wretched species is so made that those who walk on the well-trodden path always throw stones at those who are showing a new road." - Francois-Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire (1694-1778)

Political scientists often credit our modern-day world with the outward signs associated with Americanization. Let's face it, where there is a McDonald's there is bound to be freedom, equality, and justice! But is this necessarily true? How do we account for the lack of women's rights in the Middle East that boast a McDonalds in the streets of Bahrain or Cairo? Or present-day Communism in China, where KFC and Pizza Hut appear in big cities like Hong Kong or Beijing? In order to trace the modernization of the world, historians take a look back at a time of timultuousness, huge economic disparity, and desperate voices turned silent from below. We refer to the French Revolution, a movement that first appeared in the early American colonies in the 'Spirit of '76', but solidified change once lines of French peasants stormed the Bastille in 1789. The French Revolution begged the question, who said the poor have no voice?

Bernard Lewis, author of What Went Wrong? The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East, attributes modernity in the Ottoman Empire with the French Revolution. This revolution had no religious identity,and according to Lewis, it was not identified with the Christian West, and was therefore influential to the eastern world. The Ottomans idealized the French for their ability to change their government, grant people rights, and secure those rights through a modern constitution. The result was what the Ottomans referred to as Tanzimat, or the 'reordering' of their society--bringing rights to women, equality among Muslims and non-Muslims, and constitutions that protected the people regardless of social class and economic standing. How revolutionary indeed!

What the French did do, differently than other colonial powers, is allow the local indigenous practices throughout the Ottoman Empire to continue. Unlike the British, for example, who sought to Anglicize their colonies in the hopes of 'civilizing' them, the French rather permitted the locals to modernize without completely westernizing themselves. Christianity was not forced onto the natives of the Ottoman Empire, but rather granted equal status with Islam. Britain, on the other hand, sought to impose Christian beliefs on colonial natives through missionary practices--often associating Christianity with modernization in places like China and India. France's model gave eastern countries little reason to oppose modernizing themselves and eventually opened them up to adopting western practices.

The French Revolution was not a revolution that threatened a major colonial power like the American Revolution did. It was rather a revolution for change, remodeling its own government along enlightenment principles such as adhering to the 'people's will' and not the will of the aristocrats and nobles. It personified Rousseau's social contract theory that argued the virtue of man was not the power of his purse, but the moral standard to which he lived. Although Rousseau is known as the founder of socialism, he came at a time in French and European history when bread was scarce to the majority and women like the Austrian Marie Antoinette would rise to power in France at the pure young age of 15 for having 'French connections'.

The French Revolution was a societal reordering for economic equality and although it did not successfully bring permanent stability to France, it enumerated the necessity for the people to be heard over the ineptitude of their elitist government. From 1789 onward, independence movements spawned the Atlantic through Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Far East. Do we attribute the growing modernization of the world to 20th century America's 'big guns' and military paternalism? Perhaps slightly. But what really marks the long-lived creative histories among nations thirsty for economic stability and individual rights is the year 1789. France's revolution had no religion associated with it, it sought to change government from within, and grant power to the poor through social discourse. Rousseau said it best in his book, The Social Contract, when he wrote, "All men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains".


Anonymous said...

Rania, I enjoyed reading your blog and found it very thought provoking. I think your opinion that the French Revolution was the pivotal event in terms of freedom, equality, and religious toleration is somewhat overstated. Many lost their heads during the French Revolution via
the guillotine, and after Robespierre's "Reign of Terror," Napoleon, a despot, was
able to gain power. I don't think this helped "economic stability" or "individual rights" for the Third Estate (i.e., the working class) because France was destroyed after the Napoleonic Wars and many of the working class and poor were conscripted into the army where many were killed. I think this is an important point that you seem to downplay.

While I will concede that the French approach to modernization is more appealing to those in the so-called Third World (i.e., the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America) than the Anglo-American one, modernization however is a difficult process for many ancient civilizations to make. Their societies, in some cases, are very deeply entrenched with customs, traditions, and religious beliefs that have been practiced for a millennium or longer. I also agree that pushing religious beliefs on others is wrong and causes unnecessary tensions between East and West.

Unfortunately Rousseau's famous observation that "[a]ll men are born free, but everywhere they are in chains" is still true today. I don't see where civilization has made great strides in "economic stability" for the underprivileged. Most of us still relinquish our freedom to
menial jobs so that we can afford the chains of cell phones, iPods, and video games to name just a few, which in my opinion destroys vital brain tissue! This allows the government to do whatever it wants (i.e., use military force), which prevents real change and keeps the powerful in control over the poor. How many underprivileged and working class people in this so-called free country get a real quality education? This is why it is not surprising that force prevails in our world over reason! As a result, I think it is highly unlikely that great visionaries like the philosophes or Gandhi (a man you mention in a previous blog) will ever come along again. I really hope that I am wrong.

Finally, while the ideals of the French Revolution were noble, violence—both then and now—seems to dominate. Maybe the world needs a great woman to fill the void left by men.

Thanks for the forum, Rania.

Your friend, Jeff

Rania said...

Hi Jeff! Thanks for following this blog and posing a very interesting forum here. The French Revolution wentthrough what I term the four stages: 1) the initial phase of
restructuring the monarchial government to a constitutional monarchy; 2)the storming of the Bastille by the French working class citizens, whichgave rise to the militant revolution; 3) the Reign of Terror whereGirondists and Jacobins alike vied for the termination of all counterrevolutionaries where mass executions took place via the
'national razor' or guillotine; and 4) the Thermidorian Reaction, whichwas called to end the turmoil of the revolution by killing men likeRobespierre and other leaders of the 'Reign of Terror'. The portion ofthe revolution that I am referring to in the blog is the initial phase(although I did not specify thison the blog and should have!) that which called to end absolutism and grant more power to the Third Estate.
My argument is that Middle Eastern, African, and Latin Americancountries were more affected by this revolution than any current military campaign that we have in those regions. This revolution introduced freedom, equality, and religious toleration (although I would argue that the Ottoman Empire already had this toleration prior to the revolution. European political liberalism gave rise to constitutional governments throughout the world and in this sense, colonialism was a good thing. I attribute French raison d'etre to the modernization and
liberal policies of these governments today. In other words, American military excursions have little influence on creating and maintaining political liberalism in these parts of the world.

Best to you, Jeff!

Anonymous said...

Rania, raison d’être is a very abstract concept in my opinion. According to Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition, raison d’être is defined as the “reason for being; justification for existence.” Now we may agree or disagree on what justifies our existence. And to be perfectly honest with you, I am not sure. Maybe you could enlighten me on exactly what French raison d’être means? Does it include pilfering the Egyptian pyramids’ priceless artifacts to fill the Louvre? And should I mention Vietnam? The French were there before we were and that certainly didn’t go very well! Third World countries may like French policies better than American ones; yet, the results are mixed in my opinion.

You mention America’s lack of influence on the Third World in terms of successfully creating democracies. Well that may be true, but I would contend that is not our real intention. While we give “lip service” to wanting to establish democracies around the world, America is mainly interested in promoting and protecting its interests (i.e., oil and Israel). Now I know these subjects are taboo in most discussions; however, they need to be addressed in an honest and equitable way. Do you honestly think that the United States would be involved in the Middle East if these interests didn’t exist? I will let your “followers” ponder that question!

Thanks again, Rania for the forum. I wish you would have told me that you had a blog. I will certainly be keeping a watchful eye on it.


Rania said...

Wow, you really covered all the points here! I must say that the French were certainly not angels by any means, but they were the first to question unbridled capitalism and insatiated greed during the time of the French Revolution. Rousseau would perhaps argue that raison d'etre was to live a moral life over a wealthy one. Voltaire would argue that raison d'etre was to tolerate all people irrespective of their differences. Is it a coincidence that one philosophe by the name of Denis Diderot argued for cultural relativism during a time when laissez-faire colonial policies exploited the masses in what we today term third world countries?
You make a clear point, though, the French colonials were no better than the English ones. But we cannot exclude French philosophy of liberalisme politique for the major changes that took place in the Middle East and North Africa.
Perhaps had Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo we may see a very different world today. We would be blaming the French and not the British. French would be the major language of the world ahead of English. But the fact remains, the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen' brought forth a new reality around the world. We cannot disregard this.

Anonymous said...

Rania, I do not disregard the importance of the ‘Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen.’ It is almost a carbon copy of our ‘Declaration of Independence.’ And I do not totally “exclude French philosophy of liberalisme polique for the major changes that took place in the Middle East and North Africa.” The Tanzimat reforms that you mention in your blog played a major role in the liberal reforms within the Ottoman Empire. However, I would argue that these reforms did not stop either the decline of the Ottoman Empire or the emergence of the Young Turks. The radical Young Turks led the Ottoman Empire down a path of destruction, which caused its demise. After the Treaty of Versailles split up the Ottoman Empire, the region has been in a state of turmoil ever since. Would you disagree? And I am drawing a blank in regards to stable liberal democracies in North Africa and the Middle East. Could you give me some examples?