Waiting for Islam in the Global Era

Is it a 'dialogue of civilizations' or a 'clash of civilizations'? Are Muslims being left behind in the globalization process?

Seattle. London. Prague. Nice. Not long ago, these names would have brought to mind vacations or sports teams. Today, they are historic markers in the worldwide struggle over globalization, that techno-hip buzzword of media, academia, and activism. Globalization is basically this: the increased connections between people around the world in areas such as trade, politics, culture, business, and eco-systems.

But one group is left out: Middle Eastern Arabs and Muslims. And while few Americans would imagine it, the Middle East is a particularly interesting place to examine the globalization debates, because here the issues have engaged Arab and Muslim scholars and ordinary people alike with particular intensity.

The absence of Muslims and other minorities is a serious problem, particularly since Islam is the second-largest religion in both Europe and America, and since minorities are usually most vulnerable to the negative consequences of globalization. In addition, their absence fuels the increasingly widespread belief in an unending "culture war" between a monolithic "West" and "Islam."

And it is also a shame, because more than a decade ago, before Americans had even heard of the word globalization, violent protests against it were occurring in Algeria, Morocco, and Egypt. And as far back as the 1880s, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, the progenitor of modern Islamic political thought, warned of the destructive potential of "materialism" and "science" not tempered by a moral and philosophical sensibility.

In this spirit, I called on representatives of some of the organizations involved in the protests and "teach-ins" in Seattle and its aftermath. They were surprised to learn of the long history of Muslim and Arab protests against the same corporate order they were attacking, and agreed that Middle Eastern experiences and viewpoints needed to be represented in their programs. Yet the voices have remained absent in subsequent events.

According to Malaysian Islamic scholar and activist Chandra Muzaffar, despite cases of solidarity with Muslims regarding the sanctions against Iraq or the Palestinian struggle, "Muslim concerns about the global system and the globalization process have not really been addressed by the mainstream Western media or by the dominant forces in the West."

Let me say here that I don't believe that this is just a matter of organizers consciously excluding Arabs and Muslims. Rather, it did not occur to them to invite them. To anyone familiar with the history of modern Arab and Islamic thought, their absence is surprising and disturbing. Disturbing because it demonstrates ignorance and subconscious prejudice within even American and European progressive movements. Surprising because Arabs and Muslims have been critiquing and protesting against these processes for over a century, and so have much to contribute.

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