2017-07-12
Ira RifkinIra Rifkin is one of the country's best known religion journalists. A former Beliefnet editor, Ira is currently a contributing writer for MSNBC.com's Opinions page and Washington correspondent for Jerusalem Report magazine. His new book "Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization" from Skylight Paths Publishing surveys the responses of Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians and Hindus, as well as Baha'is and Earth-based faiths, to the West's economic and cultural transformation of the world.

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.

Is it naive to suggest that, if these products and influences are offensive to Islamic values and other cultures, they won't succeed? Put another way--if you don't like Big Macs, why buy them?
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."

As you've mentioned, Christianity has its own global spiritual aspirations, and those enter into the present situation. Briefly, what's the history and how is it playing out today?
What we call Western civilization is an outgrowth of cultural Christianity, particularly, some say, Calvinist Protestantism as it developed in the United States. The political scientist James Kurth has called globalization "Protestantism without God." Kurth says globalization's "contempt for and protest against all hierarchies, communities, traditions and customs [is the] ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion" in the United States.

This is why many in the non-Christian world see globalization as both American neo-imperialism and as an insidious neo-Christian intrusion. Convert people to a Christian-lite lifestyle, and you can ultimately turn them into full-fledged Christians after they lose their traditional ways of thinking and living.

This does not mean, however, that Western Christians concerned about real faith and social justice issues do not take strong issue with the process of globalization. Many Roman Catholics, including Pope John Paul II, and even conservative evangelical Protestants agree that the materialist values of globalization are in sharp opposition to the spiritual values of the Gospel. Those who come from a social justice perspective view the inequities that are so obvious in the global marketplace as running counter to the teachings of a just God.

And yet global Christianity has often become localized--it tends to adopt and adapt to local traditions. Isn't there an argument that Islam is more culturally aggressive? Certainly, that's what we've seen in recent decades.
In recent decades, yes, in particular because of the spread of Saudi Arabian Wahhabi-style Islam, thanks to the kingdom's vast oil revenues and the movement of Muslims around the world.

But the practice of Islam used to vary more widely across the Muslim world. Islam in Indonesia, for example, was far different than Islam in Bosnia, or Yemen. Mosques differed architecturally, women were more or less free to pursue life outside the home, and men could be clean-shaved or not in accordance with different cultural expressions. In short, local customs mattered greatly. But the Saudis have gone to great lengths to influence the larger Muslim community by funding mosque construction and sending teachers and imams around the world.

So a certain homogeneity has taken hold in the Muslim world, with a demand that it also be accepted as the Muslim norm in parts of the non-Muslim world where Muslims are now settling in large numbers.

Are there no American or Western values that are worth sharing?
From my perspective, which is that of a Westerner, there are many values worth sharing. Democracy, gender equality, the vision of the genuinely pluralistic society. And there's nothing inherently wrong with Hollywood making movies or Sony turning out Discmans. It's all about content, not geography or technology.

Lastly, you said earlier that the situation is becoming more dangerous, and that a clash of civilization is possible. What specific dangers lurk?
Our apparent military victory in Iraq will likely further enrage those Muslims who regard any American--meaning Western and Christian--presence on sacred Muslim land to be an outrage and insult. Political history is very important to Islam. There is no mosque-state divide in Islam as there is a church-state division in Christian democracies.

So to lose out on the field of history, for some Muslims, calls into question the concept of an all-powerful God. Resentment will further simmer, fueled as it is by the growing economic divide between the West and the developing world, a large percentage of which is Muslim.

The secular but culturally Christian West, meanwhile, runs the risk of becoming even more arrogant in its treatment of the developing world. I in no way want to imply that the Christian West is responsible for the failures in the Muslim world. Their failures are their own. But we don't make it better by insisting that progress is all about adopting Western ways and values.

What we need is what some have called glocalization; combining local values with international markets and communications. Moreover, any changes must be gradual. Spiritual values are the basis of all civilizations. They represent peoples' highest aspirations. They must be taken into account by market forces and the politicians who facilitate the penetration of global markets. I don't for a second think any of this is easy. But I think the alternative is disappointment and jealousy, which breeds anger and all that flows from it.


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