A.18 -

A.K. Award for Architecture

HL Islam Struggles With Modernity

Byline: William Pfaff. William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist based at the International Herald Tribune in Paris.

DD 10/24/89

SO Newsday (NDAY)



Page: 66

Origin: CAIRO

LP The political fault-line of modern Islamic society is its failure to reconcile Islamic culture with the modern West. How can Moslems be modern, which is to say western (there being as yet, no other universal form of modernism) and faithful to religion at the same time? A successful answer is important to the West, as well as to Islam. Big Moslem communities now exist in the U.S. and Canada. There are estimated to be as many Moslems in the U.S. today as Jews, and the Jewish population is falling, while the Moslem is growing.

TX Islam is the second religion of France, with 2.5 million foreign resident Moslems in a population of 56 million - a total that excludes the large number of Moslems already French citizens. There are about a million Moslems in Britain's population of about 54 million, and more than 1.5 million in West Germany's population of 61 million. All are growing communities in societies otherwise static or declining in birth rate. Despite its brilliant intellectual, as well as political-military accomplishments from the 8th Century to the late Middle Ages, Islam never reconciled religion with secular thought, as Christianity did when Aquinas reconciled Greek philosophy and science with a Christian rationalism. Islam never had its Reformation, or anything comparable to Europe's Renaissance or Enlightenment. Its science and technology - more advanced than the West's in the Middle Ages - never made the transition to modern empirical science and modern industrial technology. The problem was evident in Cairo recently when a group of architects and intellectuals, mostly from the Islamic world, debated * this year's Aga Khan Awards for Architecture - given not only for buildings, but for architecture in a social context. Thus, one prize went to the physical and economic rehabilitation of a fishing village on Morocco's Atlantic Coast, Asilah, accomplished by its own people, led by two men who had spent years abroad and came home to find a community on its way to extinction. They fought off the obvious but corrupting possibilities of purely touristic development: "We are not the zoo in Kenya." Another prize was for an urban development program in Indonesia that harnessed small-trader commercial interests to rehabilitate a slum. Another was for a housing program in Bangladesh, conceived by the National Rural Development Bank, the Grameen Bank, which gives low-interest (5 percent), long-term (10 to 18 years), loans of some $350 each to very poor people. The loans require the borrower to buy four concrete columns as house cornerposts (it is a monsoon climate), corrugated iron for roofing, and the concrete fitting for a pit latrine. The rest is up to the borrower. This plan went against the conventional wisdom, and the opposition, of international aid and development agencies, but has built more than 45,000 houses in little more than a decade. It has had a default rate on the loans of less than 2 percent. A Grameen Bank officer says that when borrowers fall behind, the bank's practice is "to ask them if they need more money." On the other hand, the ethical justification for expensive monumental buildings in poverty-stricken countries was hotly debated. * The Aga Khan himself spoke "of the difficulty in most of our juries in making well-founded value judgments on (such) buildings" as a vast new foreign ministry in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh's distinguished and powerful National Assembly building (by the late American architect, Louis Kahn), or the new Institute of the Arab World in Paris - none of which would seem other than products of an international modernism. Is what goes on mere borrowing of architecture and technology from the contemporary West, or does a socially relevant modernism exist that is capable of a specific relationship to Islamic civilization and social demands? What, after all, is an Islamic architecture? Is there a Christian architecture, a Jewish architecture? Such aesthetic and intellectual problems can seem secondary, even self-indulgent, next to the poverty of Bangladesh, the crisis of explosively overpopulated Cairo, or the political-military-terrorist impasse most of the Arab world has been locked into since its attempt in 1948 to prevent Israel from being established in Palestine. Yet, addressing the cultural issue is fundamental to the problem of political progress. Islamic society has to re-establish confidence in itself to be able to speak to the modern western world in constructive language, and take from it what can support its own political and social development. The astonishing past hangs over today's Islam as a reproach: What has been squandered? The fundamentalists are hostile to people like those at this meeting, who know the West, recognize its virtues as well as its power of seduction, and understand that to abandon interaction would be fatal. But the forces justifying an Islamic attempt to march back into the past are very powerful.

@Art: Photo-William Pfaff

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