We talked to Ira about the competing global agendas of Christianity and Islam, as they are being played out the conflict in Iraq.
Some Iraqis and other Muslims say the current war is globalization by other means, if you will. Can you explain this mindset, and what are they afraid of?
In a very real sense, globalization is the exportation of Western economic and cultural values. That's very threatening to many Muslims, who have their own religious beliefs about which economic and cultural values should prevail globally.
It's not that these Muslims are anti-globalization, but rather that they are alter-globalization, meaning they have an alternative vision of the values that should prevail. Traditional Muslims believe they are in alignment with God's, or to use the Arabic term, Allah's preferred values. So to succumb to Western notions of globalization is, for them, to succumb to a system not in alignment with Allah's plan for humanity, and is deeply troubling and even offensive to them.
This helps explain why Muslims who despise Saddam Hussein have rallied to his defense and in opposition to the United States. Of course, nationalism and historical wrongs, both real and imagined, also play a role. It's a very complicated situation that is becoming more dangerous by the day.
When you talk about cultural globalization, does this boil down to McDonalds and Jennifer Lopez videos?
McDonalds and J-Lo are manifestations of the far deeper question of cultural and personal identity. Globalization, because it involves rapid and deep-seated changes in lifestyles, can upset everything a person thinks about who they are and what's important. In the past, these changes occurred over much longer periods of time. People were able to adapt slowly. Today, the changes wrought by communications and travel technologies are so rapid that human psychology, the human spirit, can't keep up. So it breeds defensiveness.
This is certainly not restricted to the Muslim world. It's a prime reason for the resurgence of traditional or conservative religion worldwide, and of identity politics. People need an anchor in a swiftly changing world.
But they do succeed, which is infuriating to those who see a need to resist. They succeed because they're so seductive, particularly to young people who are more open and experimental than their parents. Every parent knows how hard it is to keep children from being corrupted by consumer culture. Globalization is about this corruption occurring on a global scale.
Some ultra-conservative religious groups attempt to retreat into an insular community to avoid the dominant culture, but even that is nearly impossible today, because of economic and other necessities. So the culture of globalization is a steamroller. It angers those who want to resist but find themselves sucked in anyway.
As you point out above, Islam has its own global claims. What's the source of those claims, and what would the Muslim version of globalization look like?
The source, as with most things in Islam, is the Qur'an. Surah 82:27 states: "Verily, this is no less than a message to all the worlds." Like traditional Christianity, Islam regards itself as the faith God intends for all of humanity. That puts Islam (and Christianity, for that matter) into conflict with any other philosophy that makes similar claims.
The question then becomes, how do you moderate the competing claims? Some Muslims--the bin Ladens of the world but surely others less violent but as fervent about what they belive is Islam's unique status--say that the Muslim version of globalization simply means conversion of the world to a system in which Islamic law and custom dominates all aspects of public and private life, period. End of discussion.
But it must be stressed that other Muslims believe that's what's most important is the globalization of Muslim values, not whether everyone calls him or herself a Muslim. These values include those that most religions consider to be consistent with righteous living: treating people with respect, fairness and equality, an end to exploitation, putting faith in God ahead of faith in material goods. Those that believe in this second vision also point to the Qur'an as a source of their inspiration. They quote Surah 49:13, in which Allah says humans were made "into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other."