The Long Read: Out with the old, in with the new

Image credit: Michael Huniewicz

There is no denying it – we live in a changing world. People, practices, societies evolve continually, and there is value still in the old proverb, “Change is the only constant”. But as we watch the world evolve and adapt, it is inevitable to feel the pull between modernity and tradition; the clash between longestablished cultural practices and beliefs, and modern sensibilities and sentiments.

This is a grey area – should we be adhering to and protecting cultural traditions, or should we be learning to adapt them in an increasingly diverse yet interconnected world?

Reports that Morocco had recently banned the manufacture and sale of burqas out of security concerns seemed to me, in particular, to highlight this war between the modern and the traditional; although the government has yet to formally confirm this move, local Moroccan media reported that manufacture and retailing of the conservative Islamic garment had been banned in the country, with certain news outlets speculating that this was a bid to promote a more temperate form of Islam. Although it is a minority of Moroccan women who actually don the burqa – most prefer the niqab or headscarves without veils – the New York Times suggested on 11 January that, “Morocco, a majority Muslim country and former French protectorate where the influence of Western secularist ideals remains, has been trying to foster more moderate expressions of Islam and subtly warn Islamists not to go too far, though acts of extremism remain rare.”

If the ban, as the New York Times speculates, is intended to reduce Moroccan associations with religious terrorism, then it comes as less of a surprise given the current political climate.

The burqa has arguably come to be one of the pieces of clothing most associated by Western societies with the Islamic religion and culture, and are considered by some to be overt religious symbols. Such bans on Islamic dress are not new; France has banned “overt religious symbols” like Islamic head coverings in government buildings and public schools since 2009, Azerbaijan since 2010, Tunisia since 1981. Reasoning for these bans lie in their ties to political Islam, or friction with secular governments. Some, too, would argue that the banning of religious head covering would liberate the women of those cultures, but is all this an example of other religions accommodating a Western way of thinking, and a Western culture that has become ubiquitous with the growing interconnectedness of our world?

What a ban on the manufacture and sale of burqas in Morocco represents, even if the ban does not extend to the wearing of them, has sparked a fierce debate between Moroccans, with some arguing that despite the security rationale, little evidence exists to support the claim that the burqa represents a security threat. Others, like Moroccan journalist Ali Anouzla, take a more understanding approach: “The Interior Ministry didn’t ban the hijab or niqab but banned the burqa, and the burqa isn’t part of Morocco’s culture,” he wrote on his Facebook page. Although women who wear the burqa are a minority in Morocco, it is still a tradition practiced by a sector of society. As some critics have pointed out, there is little evidence for the association between the burqa and extremism in Morocco, so what is left could be a government attempting to tailor the image of a religion to fit what is deemed “acceptable” by another culture.

The issue of a ban on burqas in Morocco is certainly a complex one; there are, of course, other implications to consider, including the possible violations of freedom of speech, religion, and female expression. Perhaps it does make sense in a political context, a move that will allow Morocco to adapt to the changing modern world better, but it might a be move that requires the sacrifice – however small – of its culture or practices.

Other examples that illustrate the clash between modernity and tradition There is no denying it – we live in a changing world. People, practices, societies evolve continually, and there is value still in the old proverb, “Change is the only constant”. But as we watch the world evolve and adapt, it is inevitable to feel the pull between modernity and tradition; the clash between longestablished cultural practices and beliefs, and modern sensibilities and sentiments. This is a grey area – should we be adhering to and protecting cultural traditions, or should we be learning to adapt them in an increasingly diverse yet interconnected world? Reports that Morocco had recently banned the manufacture and sale of burqas out of security concerns seemed to me, in particular, to highlight this war between the modern and the traditional; although the government has yet to formally confirm this move, local Moroccan media reported that manufacture and retailing of the conservative Islamic garment had been banned in the country, with certain news outlets speculating that this was a bid to promote a more temperate form of Islam. Although it is a minority of Moroccan women who actually don the burqa – most prefer the niqab or headscarves without veils – the New York Times suggested on 11 January that, “Morocco, a majorityMuslim country and former French protectorate where the influence of Western secularist ideals remains, has been trying to foster more moderate expressions of Islam and subtly warn Islamists not to go too far, though acts can be cited from around the world; in Asia, for instance, debate has long existed over whether shark’s fin soup – a long-established dish and symbol of wealth in Chinese and Vietnamese culture – should still be consumed given the modern unsustainability of shark finning. The European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages exists to preserve the use of certain languages in the name of tradition. The adoption of English as a main speaking language in many originally non-English speaking countries is a symptom of globalisation, a means by which countries have joined the flow of modernisation, a means of keeping up with the economic and social movements of the rest of the world. 

Again, the interconnectedness of the world has had its many benefits, but it has been at the expense of tradition Using Morocco as a case study to question the state of traditions in a rapidly evolving world and age-old culture. But culture is not static, and culture will change. The pull between tradition and modernity might one day come to characterise the cultural identities of such countries, and perhaps the most important question for the present is how much tradition should be relinquished to modernity. There is no simple or clear answer; as I mentioned before, this is a grey area. Ideally, we would one day live in societies where we can, and do still, appreciate traditional practices and beliefs, but still be dynamically engaged with a globalised world. The world will come to a standstill if we do too. But it is difficult to strike the right balance between tradition and modernity, and we might find that some traditions will inevitably slip away from us.

I do believe that it not need be a dichotomy between them, but it is perhaps impossible to control exactly where the compromise is to be. It is a divisive and debatable topic, and while, for now, we may only try to preserve and speculate, only time will tell how tradition fares in the long conflict with modernity.

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