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Let's Face it head-on!
By MH Lakdawala, Mumbai

Today we are witnessing a reformation of cultures worldwide. In Saudi Arabia, 26 Internet service providers have special portals for women who wish to surf the Net. Where does the Muslim Ummah really stand in the current cultural warfare?

In India, there are more than 400 languages and several religions. McDonald's serves mutton instead of beef and offers a vegetarian menu acceptable to even the most orthodox Hindu. It also makes provisions for Halal food to cater to its Muslims clientele. Coca Cola sooner than later realized that in India, to beat Pepsi, it must aggressively promote Thumps Up which suits the Indian palate better as compared to its own coke brand. Hard to believe, but in most of the Muslim countries, Bollywood is gaining more popularity as compared to Hollywood as the people there can easily identify themselves with the Indian culture in comparison to western culture shown in Hollywood films.

Today we are witnessing a reformation of cultures worldwide, a tectonic shift of habits and dreams called, in the jargon of social scientists as ‘Globalization". According to them, globalization, ‘is a reality, not a choice". In the age of computers, the Internet, cellular phones, cable television and cheaper jet transportation, as the goods move, people move and ideas are shared, cultures do change. Humans have been weaving commercial and cultural connections since the time the first camel caravan arrived in the deserts. Then the 19th century saw the arrival of the postal service, newspapers trans-continental rail road, and great steam powered ships that brought about fundamental changes. Telegraph, telephones, radio and television tied, tighter and more intricate knots between individuals and the wider world. Still the basic dynamics remains the same. The difference now is the speed and scope of these changes. It took television 13 years to acquire 50 million users, the Internet took only five.

Cyber guru Nicholas Negroponte made two fascinating points at the ‘elink 2001’ conference in Berlin. First the demographics of the Net will change and the developing countries will come to dominate the Internet. Second, if one wants to spot the countries that could win in the future, it is best to focus on their cultural traits. ‘Culture is more important than infrastructure’, he said rather grandly. He explains that as more of the world moves online, the demographics of the Net will change. Computer economics estimates that by 2002, most Net users will not speak English as a first language. Local language will continue to rise in popularity. And the Net will become a place not only to exchange information, but to preserve local culture.

Culture is changing along with its audiences. In some developing countries, though, it is the non- American quality of Indian movies that draws audiences. Indian movies depicting clean family drama go over well in many conservative societies. Given the choice between a Steve Martin divorce comedy and a musical about the virtue of god and family, Arabs, Africans and South-East Asians often choose the latter. Global culture does not mean just more TV sets and Nike shoes. 'Linking' is humanity's natural impulse, its common destiny. But the ties that bind people around the world are not merely technological or commercial. They are the powerful cords of the heart. Alvin Toffler, in the ‘Third Wave’, explained that 'waves' are major changes in civilization. The first wave came with the development of agriculture, the second with industry. Today we are in the midst of the third which is based on information. ‘Culturally, we'll see big changes,’ Toffler said. ‘You're going to turn on your television and get Nigerian TV and Fijian TV in your own language. ‘Some experts predict that the TV of the future, with 500 cable channels, may be used by smaller groups to foster their separate, distinctive cultures and languages.

‘People ask, ‘can we become third wave and still remain Chinese?’ ‘Yes,’ Toffler says. ‘You can have a unique culture made of your core culture. But you will be the Chinese of the future, not of the past.’

Where does the Muslim Ummah stand in the current cultural warfare? Islam in the initial stages of its civilizational and cultural evolution, met the various challenges successfully with the result that it emerged as the dominant ideology of the world. ‘In reconstruction of religious thought in Islam’, Allama Iqbal writes, ‘ from about the middle of the first century, upto the beginning of the fourth, not less than 19 schools of law and legal opinions appeared in Islam.

This fact alone is sufficient to show how incessantly our early doctors of law worked in order to meet the necessities of a growing civilization.’ Ironically, at the initial stage of the new millennium, the Islamic world is at the crossroads. According to Allama Iqbal, the notion that the Islamic concept of law is absolute and authoritarian and hence immutable, amongst the believers is breeding intellectual inertia. In this era of change, intellectual stagnation means extinction. According to a study carried by National Geographic, about 50 per cent of the traditional cultures could turn extinct or vanish.

Change- it's a reality not a choice. Cultures don't become more uniform; instead, both old and new tend to transform each other. The late philosopher Isaiah Berlin believed that, rather than aspire to some Utopian ideal, a society should strive for something else; ‘ not that we agree with each other but that we can understand each other. In the end, the cultures that survive will be those that are willing and able to embrace the new ones on their terms, while rejecting anything that implies the total violation of their way of life’.

Net is providing a non-corporate, gender - neutral environment which is very alluring, especially in Muslim societies where women are educated, but lack opportunities. Muslims have started talking about the potential of the ‘cyberhijab’, or the ‘cyberveil’, which allows women who cannot work with men or shop without any male escort, to see the world by surfing it. In Saudi Arabia, 26 Internet service providers have special portals for women who wish to surf the Net. The only way is to face the latest challenges which are the by-products of the IT revolution rather than running away from it altogether.
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