2016-06-30
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.

In the global era, culture reigns supreme over political and economic exchanges as the primary arena for human interaction. It is almost a cliché to say that the "new" economy is knowledge- and media-based. It is undeniable that in the global era, politics and economics are now being transacted through cultural symbols.

In fact, culture is at the center of much opposition to globalization, which is having dramatic effects in the Middle East and larger Muslim world. To take just one example, the region is experiencing unprecedented demand for the defining technology of the global era: Internet access. But only one-tenth of 1% of the Arab world's 200 million citizens are online. (Compare that with Israel, which has about the same number of users as the Arab world, with only one-fiftieth the population.) Since only 5% of the Middle East has regular access to a phone, let alone a modem, the prospect of wiring the region into prosperity is slim. It should thus come as no surprise that outside some government and business circles, there is deep anxiety over what is perceived as American-sponsored, corporate-led, and consumer-driven culture. Religious conservatives and Western-educated scholars alike view this culture as a new form of imperialism dressed up as privatization.

More specifically, for its Middle Eastern critics, globalization represents an intensification of three historical movements. The first is capitalism, which for them is inseparable from a history of European imperialism and economic dominance in the Middle East. This belief is certainly in sympathy with the critiques of globalization heard in Seattle, Washington, or Prague.

The second movement is an unending "invasion" of Western (and especially American) culture, one that will surely be intensified with the synergy of old and new media epitomized by mergers of corporate titans like AOL and Time Warner. Given the centrality of culture in the global era, Muslim critiques of globalization's consequences have much to offer.

The final movement has three components. First, critics believe that the West considers the Arab and Muslim world to be irreconcilably "different." At the same time, however, Westerners are viewed as intolerant of any alternative to our consumer worldview--or, perhaps better, "religion." (The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that religion is whatever a person considers to be of "ultimate concern"; from this perspective, there are likely as many Consumers as Catholics in the United States.) Finally, backed by overwhelming military and economic power, our intolerance and sense of uniqueness seem to support a demand for unlimited economic and cultural "penetration" of the region, regardless of its costs.

Given this critique, it is no surprise that it contrasts unfavorably with the Qur'anic celebration of diversity as a divine blessing, or that critics fear it will be the source of continued antagonism between Islam and the West in the 21st century. Yet while these sentiments are similar to the arguments made by Westerners in Seattle and Prague, the same deep cultural biases these critics point to as defining globalization appear to prevent their invitation to the "international" conversation about it.

But bringing Muslims and Arabs into the grassroots worldwide conversation on globalization is crucial to addressing many problems. It would help all of us to come up with an alternative vision of the world. And it would enlarge the conversation beyond its secular, left-wing base to include not just religious perspectives but also specifically "Other" faith and culture perspectives.

In fact, none other than the president of Iran has called for a "dialogue of civilizations" about globalization, in contrast to the "clash of civilizations" that many Western policy makers, led by Harvard's Samuel Huntington, believe will inevitably define relations between the West and Muslim (and other non-Western) peoples in the future.

Yet to be fair, the problem isn't just due to organizers of these movements not thinking and searching broadly enough. Certainly, Middle Eastern activists need to speak more loudly and demand to be included. After reading dozens of books by Arab and Muslim critics, I found it troubling how often their views mirror those of Huntington's "clash of civilizations" thesis--even as they condemn them.

But if "Islam" is the only alternative for many critics, others look also to the Third World and even Europe for allies with whom a more democratic and inclusive world system can be established. However, the almost universal exclusion of Americans from this conversation is equally troubling. After all, it took decades for America to be transformed from a frugal, spirit-oriented culture to today's hyper-consumerist society; the change is neither irreversible here nor inevitable elsewhere. And certainly, it won't happen without America's participation.


Indeed, according to Sheikh Abdullah Nimr Darwish, the founder of the Islamic Movement in Israel, America's very desire to remain the dominant power in the global era will likely force it to deal more justly with Arab and Muslim concerns, lest Middle Eastern leaders "get off the American globalization Concorde"--taking their oil with them--and re-board on one made by an inevitably resurgent China.

It is clear that this moment in history, while the rules of the emerging world order are still open for debate, offers an important opportunity to heal the wounds and excesses of the century now ended and address the challenges of the globalization juggernaut. As Louay Safi puts it, "Ultimately, Muslim experiences underscore the importance and possibility of maintaining both a progressive agenda and...a desire to maintain a core of traditional values, such as an emphasis of family, spirituality, and moderation in living."

This is a perspective from which a true dialogue can begin. But we all need to be talking first.

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