Cultural Identity and Modernization in Asian Countries

With Special Reference to Indonesia

Arifin BEY

1. Cultural Identity

WEBSTER'S defines "identity" as used within the context of this paper as "the distinguishing character or personality of and individual." When one speaks of "cultural identity," it means then the distinguishing value of an individual, a tribe or nation. When then is the distinguishing character of a culture? It is the sum total of its value system, or the standard norm with which community distinguishes between good and bad, the desirable and the detested.

Eugen Erhlich, an Austro-Hungarian sociologist of law, points out, as follows:

(A community) never has law without norms. These norms are determined instead not by any particular facts given inductively by observation but by what he termed `the inner order' of all the facts. This means that there is never a legal, political or economic society except when all the facts of that society are ordered by certain common normative or, in other words, ideological principles. Law and its political institutions, and one may add also economics and its business institutions, are effective only as they correspond, and express this ideological or normative inner order... This normative inner order of any society or nation is called its `living law' (F. S. C. Northrop, The Taming of the Nations, Macmillan, NY, 1953, pp.4-5)

U Nu, one of the founding fathers of Burma and who was later to become the country's Prime Minister, expressed Erhlich's thesis in concrete words. U Nu was stressing the fact that Burma's cultural identity was Buddhism and nation building must conform to this long tradition.

Buddhism... passed on to us by out forebears, has now become our national heritage. It is our way of life. We prefer it to any other way of life on this earth. We do not say that it cannot be improved, or that it cannot be adapted to suit modern conditions, but we do not wish to change its bases. We are not prepared to exchange it for any other way of life. This is not a matter of conceit. We do not claim that our way of life is better than that of other people. We merely say that it is different, that it suits us better... (U Nu, cited by Clauded A. Buss, South Asia and the World, Princeton, New York, 1959, p.151)

Other Asian leaders have been stressing the same basic thinking, namely the need to be true to one's cultural identity, if nation building is to succeed. This has been stressed by Sun Yat-sen in his "Three Principles of Nationhood," by Sukarno in his "Pancasila," by Ayub Khan of Pakistan in his "Basic Democracy," by Iran's Islamic way of life. In fact, Japan itself carried out "modernization" on the basis of "wa-kon yôosai." The Koreans called it "Tongdoo soki" (Eastern way, western instrument). To borrow the words of Prof. S. J. K. S. Hahn of Korea University, Seoul: "Asians...philosophize that the universe consists of visible things, just as human beings lead spiritual and physical lives. The relationship between the two is equated with the relationship between cause and effect (inga), fundamental and detail (honmatsu) and value and utility (taiyô)." (Paper submitted to "The Tenth International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences," Seoul, Korea, November 9-13,1981). The process of modernization, to borrow the words of U Nu again, must be carried out within the context of "the basis" of the cultural identity. A vital thread of continuity bind the two!

For the Asian eye, then, "modernization," as expressed in the Western experience, was a fundamental break from the spiritual.

2. Modernization

"Modernization" has been discussed so often that is would be redundant to repeat it here. Many books have been published on this subject, in Japan and abroad. Personally, I have discussed this phenomenon in two books, one in English and one in Japanese. The first one is entitled Emerging Asia: The Role of Japan (Riverfield, Inc., Tokyo, 1981). The second is Kindaika to Islam (Mekong Publishing House, Tokyo, 1981).

My major complaint about books on modernization is expressed in the introduction of the first book. "Often people talk about modernization as if it had a universal meaning and as if its connotation has the same ring everywhere, no matter which cultural or religious persuasion they are addressing." (p. 3) My other complaint is that theories on modernization introduced by the scholars of industrialized societies concern themselves only with the peripheral manifestations in the political and economic sectors of life. Most of them overlook the core problem, namely the cultural matrix.

These scholars appear to be of the view that if non-Western societies desire to modernize, then for them, there is no other way than to follow into the footsteps of the West, which may even require the nagation of their "outdated" cultures. In fact, the very "modernization" of the West was the product of the nagation of the past. As aptly pointed out by an Indonesian scholar:

Western culture is the product of a series of nagations of tradition while the culture of the East is the continuous preservation of tradition. (S. T. Alisyahbana, "Cultureel Niews Indonesie, "No. 16, 1952, p. 133)

Speaking about the European experience, Max Weber explained that "modernization" equals "secularization," a unique European experience. May I pointed out that ideationally speaking, secularization as the product of "modernism" -- the ideational origin of modernization -- can be traced back to the "Idea of Progress," where man, which up to that time was perceived as "a religious animal endowed with reason," proclaimed his independence from "religious bondage" and came to rely solely on reason only! "I think, therefore, I am!" Western "modernization" cannot be discussed separate from the role of Religion, spelled with a capital R! Because Western "modernization" took the form of the decapitazation of the cultural matrix -- religion -- it has developed inner contradictions and has demonstrated its shortcomings.

Prof. Hahn, quoted above, mentioned at least three such shortcomings. His views may be paraphrased into:

First:It is oriented to empiricism, concentrating only on the sensory culture. It deal with the utilitarian, ignoring the core issue.
Second:It is enthno-centric, believing that the Western experience is universal.
Third:It places the meaning of life within the domain of the means of life, while it should be the other way round. It is interesting to note that Ian Ilich, in a discussion on modern society with a Japanese scholar, also pointed out that if in pre-modern days, economy was part of the objective of life, today economics has won out as the paradigm of life. (See Ekonomisto.)

Within this context, it is proper to take up the view of a Western scholar about the product of "modernization" which, in his view, has brought cultural value into total confrontation with the "law of economics." Richard L. Rubenstein stresses:

Modernization is a process whereby the organization of both the economy and society have been progressively rationalized. It is process involving the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means, that is... rationalization. In a fully rationalized economy, impersonal calculation of profit and loss would eliminate all ethical (and religious) considerations. Where economic values are in conflict with religious or social values, the economic values will in the long run overwhelm all others. (Emerging Asia, op. cit., p. 7)

How does Islam look at such a world view?

3. Islam

Charles J. Adams writes in Encyclopaedia Americana about the resurgence of Islam as follows:

Muslims have turned again to the glories of their past to seek identification and guidance in the trying circumstances of the modern world. After several centuries in which it seemed to lose vitality, Islam is once more on the rise. The Muslims, who form one seventh or more of the world's population, are daily increasing in number, wealth and importance.

Adams further points out that, "perhaps the most remarkable thing is the sheer devotion to Islam which 20th century Muslims exhibit at a time when religion generally has declined."

Why the resurgence of Islam? The following reasons may be given.

  1. The disintegration of the social fabric of "modernized" societies, in the West as well as East.

  2. The disenchantment with the West among the new elite of the Muslim world.

  3. The upsurge of the "silent majority," up to now, the guardian of the society's living law, namely Islam.

I refrain here from presenting an outline of Islam. I assume that the audience is familiar with the problem. However, in order to provide a basis for discussions, allow me to introduce some basic tenets of this world view or way of life.

(1) Islam is an all-embodying system of civilization (H. A. R. Gibb) underlined by a system of law (Iwamura Shinobu). The system of law is composed of (a) The Quraan; (b) The Hidith; and (c) The system of Ijma. Ijma is the pronouncement of legal scholars-in-assembly when dispensing of new problems.

(2) Quraanic verses, the paramount source of Islamic law, are divided into "usuul" and "furuq." The first category deals with matters of "faith" and "morality." In other words, those matters which fall within the scope of the relations between God and man and the duties emanating therefrom.

(3) Islamic law is divided into five categories.

  1. Matters which fall under absolute duties.

  2. Matters which do not fall within absolute duty, but when not performed are looked at with lenience.

  3. Matters which preferably are avoided, but when performed do not meet reproach.

  4. Matters which are undesirable but when performed do not meet with punishment.

  5. Matters which must be avoided at all cost and when performed meet with punishment.

(4) Islam does not distinguish between the "scared" and the "secular." Islam looks at man as

an irreconcilable duality of spirit and matter. In Islam, God and the universe, spirit and matter, church and state, are organic to each other. Man is not a citizen of a profane world to be renounced in the interest of a world spirit situated somewhere else. To Islam matter is spirit realizing itself in space and time. (Mohammad Iqbal, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Oxford U. P., London, 1934, p.170)

(5) Islam stands for Unity of Faith and Reason. I will dispense with quoting from the Quraan pertaining to Faith. As to the encouragement of the use of reason, the following verses may be quoted.

  1. Study nature and find its laws! (Chapter III, Verse 190). Study archaelogical remains!(III, 137)

  2. Knowledge is superior to unknowing. (Ch. 2, V. 30)

  3. Conditions for Ruler: wisdom and health (Ch. 2, V.247) and many more such verses.

(6) Unity of Worship and Work and Pleasure

  1. Beautify places of worship, and eat and drink and be not extravagant. (VII, 29)

  2. God desires ease for you and he does not desire for you difficulty. (II, 185)

  3. Without his own efforts, God will not change his fate for the good. (V, 10)

  4. Do not break the covenant after you have confirmed it. (XVI,91)

  5. And say: "Work"! (IX, 106)

  6. Read in the name of your Lord who created. (XCVI, 1-5)

Muhammad said that "Wisdom is the lost property of the believer, take it wherever you find it."

4. Islam and Modernization in Indonesia

If the encounter with "Rangaku" provided Japan with a foundation for modernization in the technological sectors, Dutch colonialism over Indonesia curtailed its growth in the field of education and social-economic development. Modernization has been possible by the self-sacrificing efforts of Indonesian Muslim elite.

The work of modernization has been carried out through two approaches.

  1. Propagating western learning among those who have only been exposed to "religious education." This work was carried out by the chain of schools and social institutions established by Muhammadyian and its woman's counterpart, Aisyah. (History of Muhammadyianh movement will be explained during discussions.)

  2. Propagating Islamic principles among those who have been educated in Dutch institutions, at home as well as in Holland. This work was carried out by the Jong Islamieten Bond. (History of this body will be discussed during the discussions.)

The revitalization of Islam among Indonesians during the Dutch period also meant to purify it from pre-Islamic influences. Prior to the arrival of Islam, Indonesia was already under the influences of adat (traditional customary law system) and Hinduism or Buddhism or both. This is a heavy task, because adat and pre-Islamic religions have penetrated deep into the life style of Indonesians. Hence a kind of syncretism or co-existence came to take place.

But the results are in complete contrast.

  1. Syncretism with Hindu practices has helped to deemphasize the democratic tenets in Islam. In such areas, "leader worship" appears to be strong.

  2. Co-existence with adat has helped to emphasize the democratic tenets of Islam.

Consequently, in Indonesia, it was Islamic education, rather than "Dutch learning" which had helped to contribute to the process of modernization in the sensory sectors. In the meantime, Islam has succeeded in preserving the "inner law" of the population, namely Islam, although in many ways influenced by pre-Islamic religions and adat.

5. Dilemma and Challenge: Conclusion

The developing countries are seeking to establish states capable of using modern means of life. On the other hand, they also seek to maintain their cultural identity. Obtaining the modern means of state building requires studying from and in the industrialized and secularized countries, such as Europe, the United States and Japan. This process has often produced a "split personality" among the elite of the developing countries. In serious cases, they become elite uprooted from the cultural matrix.

The problem for the developing countries is to formulate patterns of modernization suitable for their respective nation building. In the past and up to the present, developed countries take it for granted that those in the developing areas seek to establish a way of life similar to their own. Anyone who claims he does not want to be "Westernized" is accused of blasphemy. Or, as a communist!

Of late, there is a tendency towards self-reflection and a willingness to accept -- although reluctantly -- that third world nations are entitled to a pattern of modernization within their respective cultural identities. Countries like Japan should go further. Scholars may interest themselves into a comprehensive research, trying to formulate what type of modernization is most suitable for a certain type of cultural matrix. Such an endeavor would of course entail a rethinking of the concept and manner of accepting foreign students -- especially from the third world -- into Japanese educational institutions. For interest in "learning from Japan" as well as the implementation of a "Look East Policy."

The role of Japan in helping to modernize those countries is to help make them into first-rate citizens of their nations, not second-rate imitations of Japanese. As Iqbal aptly points out: "The flame of life cannot be borrowed from others; it must be kindled in the temple of one's own soul!"