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May 25, 2011

Modernization and progress

Yes, we believe in it. It's perhaps hard to read between the lines of this blog, but it's true: we think that mankind is on the road towards a better future, a future characterized by individual and collective freedom, rationality, scientific and technological progress, common sense, and solidarity. And we are not the only ones. There's at least one other individual, Emmanuel Todd, a demographer working at the National Institute of Demographic Studies in Paris, who thinks along the same lines. He predicted the end of the Soviet Empire (although we did that, too), the demise of America's world dominance (not so difficult), and the Arab Spring (which we did not anticipate). He has given an interview to Der Spiegel. Here are some highlights:

The factors behind the Arab Spring: The rapid increase in literacy, particularly among women, a falling birthrate and a significant decline in the widespread custom of endogamy, or marriage between first cousins. This shows that the Arab societies were on a path toward cultural and mental modernization, in the course of which the individual becomes much more important as an autonomous entity.

The Arab Spring in Tunesia

Liberalization guaranteed? No. At this point, no one can say what the liberal movements in these countries will turn into. Revolutions often end up as something different from what their supporters proclaim at the beginning. Democracies are fragile systems that require deep historic roots. It took almost a century from the time of the French Revolution in 1789 until the democratic form of government, in the form of the Third Republic, finally took shape after France had lost a war against the Germans in 1871. In the interim, there was Napoleon, the royalist restoration and the Second Empire under Napoleon III.

How about other religious and economic factors? The condition for any modernization is demographic modernization. It goes hand-in-hand with a decline in experienced and practiced religiosity. We are already experiencing a de-Islamization of Arab societies, a demystification of the world, as Max Weber called it, and it will inevitably continue, just as a de-Christianization occurred in Europe.

How about the increasing popularity of the veil for women in Turkey and Egypt, for example. Or the retrogression in Iran? The Islamist convulsions are classic companion elements of the disorientation that characterizes every upheaval. But according to the law of history that states that educational progress and a decline in the birth rate are indicators of growing rationalization and secularization, Islamism is a temporary defensive reaction to the shock of modernization.

How about poverty? Of course, one can placate the people with bread and money, but only for a while. Revolutions usually erupt during phases of cultural growth and economic downturn. For me, as a demographer, the key variable is not the per capita gross domestic product but the literacy rate. The British historian Lawrence Stone pointed out this relationship in his study of the English revolution in the 16th and 17th centuries. He saw the critical threshold at 40 to 60 percent.

The Arab culture stagnated in the 13th century already. Why did it take so long? There is a simple explanation, which has the benefit of also being applicable to northern India and China, that is, to three completely differently religious communities: Islam, Hinduism and Confucianism. It has to do with the structure of the traditional family in these regions, with its debasement and with the disenfranchisement of women. And in Mesopotamia, for example, it extends well into the pre-Islamic world. Mohammed, the founder of Islam, granted women far more rights than they have had in most Arab societies to this day. The patrilinear, patrilocal system, in which only male succession is considered valid and newlyweds, preferably cousins in the ideal Arab marriage, live under the roof and authority of the father, inhibits all social progress. The disenfranchisement of women deprives them of the ability to raise their children in a progressive, dynamic fashion. Society calcifies and, in a sense, falls asleep. The powers of the individual cannot develop. The bourgeois achievement of marriage for love, and the free choice of one's partner, replaced the hierarchies of honor in Europe in the 19th century and reinforced the desire for freedom.

Female emancipation with a headscarf? The headscarf debate is missing the point. The number of marriages between cousins is dropping just as spectacularly as the birth rate, thereby blasting away a barrier. The free individual or active citizen can enter the public arena. When more than 90 percent of young people can read and write and have a modicum of education, no traditional authoritarian regime will last for long. Have you noticed how many women are marching along in the protests? Even in Yemen, the most backward country in the Arab world, thousands of women were among the protesters.

Western values... where do you draw the boundaries of the West? In fact, only Great Britain, France and the United States, in that historic order, constitute the core of the West. But not Germany.

Did Germany contribute otherwise? The Reformation -- and, with it, the strengthening of the individual, supported by his knowledge -- and the spread of reading through the printing press -- that's the German contribution. The fight over the Reformation was waged in a journalistic manner, with pamphlets and flyers. The spread of literacy among the masses was invented in Germany. Prussia, and even the small Catholic states, had a higher literacy rate than France early on. Literacy came to France from the east, that is, from Germany. Germany was a nation of education and a constitutional state long before it became a democracy. But Martin Luther also proved that religious reforms did not by any means require the support of a spirit of liberalism.

A nice word about Europe in these troubled times? If the European Union recognizes its diversity, even its anthropological differences, instead of trying to force everyone into the same mold with the false incantation of a shared European civilization, then Europe will also be able to treat the pluralism of cultures in the world in a reasonable and enlightened way. I'm not sure that the United States can do that.

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