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 Islamic views on globalization

by Prof. Louis BAECK   

Emerging non-western multiple modernities

The various geopolitical configurations of the world each produce a dominant discourse. During the period of ideological rivalry between the two superpowers, the choice was between westernization or, alternatively, sovietization, with a reluctant Third World in between. Since the implosion of the Soviet empire and China's entry in the international market, the "assertive" cultures and religions are the ones who find themselves in trouble. The pressure of global standardization exercised by the sole superpower and the prevailing view of neoliberal globalization have produced identity countercurrents. In the large cultural areas of the world - China, India, Africa and Islamic lands - ground swells surge to oppose the standardizing pressure, in favour of the right to authenticity and difference. The most striking example is China, a colossus of 1.3 billion inhabitants, which achieved the highest rate of growth in the world during the last twenty years through a strategy of openness, modernization and internationalization which is quite different from the western model. The so-called socialist government, while controlling the project, combines an authoritarian one-party state and a network of multinationals that bring hefty investments and technology. With its low-cost exports and the enormous surplus of its commercial and financial deficit with the United States, China has already become a driving force of the world economy. In India, the strategy centred on the creation of niches of sophisticated technology is more autonomous. And its modernization is more democratic than that of China, in accordance with its multicultural genius for synthesis. In Malaysia, a new unified wave of Islam supports a remarkable economic dynamic. During the 1990s,, multiple trajectories of non-western modernization emerged, even in Latin America where the postmodernist current is proudly called modernidad periférica. Thematic areas and texts about the various possible angles on this subject are increasingly debated in conferences throughout the world. In the Muslim world, since the end of the 1990s, seminars and conferences in Beirut, Cairo, Damas, Rabat, Lahore and Kuala Lumpur on globalization's issues and global governance have taken place. Multiple Internet networks have spurred transnational contacts; they act as opening catalysts in circles that had until recently been closed or had existed in an ethnic, cultural and religious cleavage. Clicking on the heading "liberal Islam" leads to some forty sites of Muslim intellectuals of international reputation.

From the point of view of western neoconservative or fundamentalist commentators who are influential theorists of the prevailing discourse, these multiple ways of asserting identities will inevitably lead to a clash of civilizations. From a hegemonic perspective, Western publicists judge the policies and practices of other civilizations on the basis of principles and ideals prevailing in the western world. According to this method, the non Western cultures are judged according to criteria which are not theirs. We would like to reverse this trend so that we may listen to Muslim intellectuals and understand, especially on the challenges that globalization represents for them. In spite of well-known differences between fundamentalist, liberal and innovative thinkers, they are commonly critical of our practices in the field of global governance. They consider that our principles are not universal and moreover not convincing. Indeed, some of the ideals we present as the most important appear to them as trampled and disavowed by our neo-colonialist behaviour.

To open this intercultural dialogue, it will be necessary to critically assess not only the thoughts and the prejudices of the others but ours as well, accepting the test of contradiction wherever it may come from. Dialogue implies that everyone can present his argument while listening to the Other.

The historical trajectory of Islam

From the eighth to the fifteenth century, Islam was at the core of the dominant cultures and peoples which prevailed in the Mediterranean area : Arabs, Persians and invaders coming from Asia such as the Turks and Mongols. During this period, Islamic culture deployed its splendour and was hegemonic in the Mediterranean basin, reaching as far as Spain. Its scholars picked up where the Western world left off: Greek philosophy, mathematics, the beginnings of medical science, and numerous technologies for irrigation, agriculture and architecture. These transfers accelerated our take-off in the 11th and 12th century. Then came the decline. One of the great Maghreb masters, Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406) theorized the causes of the decline in his historical work Muqadimmah. Later, stagnation in the material sense and in the intellectual sphere brought political colonization as well as grudgingly adopted modernization. The movement of reform (nahda) at the end of 19th century did not hold its promises because it was not supported by the masses that remained anchored in tradition. Decolonization brought to the Islamic world its share of more or less authoritative governments. Currently, there are some 1.3 billion Muslims dispersed in about fifty nation-states around the world. OPEC's oil crisis marked the first divide. And the Ayatollahs' Iranian revolution started a trend in which religion and culture override imported secularization and models. In the wake of this spiritual and political revolution, the Muslim world was vivified by a movement of cultural and religious revival : Al sahwa Al islamiyya. In the large, diverse Islamic world (Arab, Asian, African, and the diaspora with its numerous Muslim intellectuals and university professors), it is impossible to give due place to the complex dynamics which animate these cultural areas with their different schools of fiqh and theology. The leaders of a cultural Islam (Al Islam hadari) have become more influential than the protagonists of the Islamic state. In spite of an enormous financial support for Saudi Wahhabite fundamentalism, liberals and innovators gain ground in most areas. However, fundamentalists received a gift from heaven when the American army, supported by some Western forces, invaded and occupied oil-rich Eurasia. Muslims who were sympathetic to the Western culture were not rewarded. Even sympathizers disapprove of democracy when it is imposed by foreign military force like a suppository. Imposed westernization hurts nationalism and national pride and consequently works like a contraceptive.

Debates on globalization build on those of modernization, however they are more about geopolitics and strategies for economic development.

The culturalist and religious debate

A great number of Muslims see globalization (Al aulama) as an elegant neologism which hides reality; they see globalisation as a powerful lever for westernization (Al taghrib) whereas pro-Westerners favour it and see as a highway to modernity. Fundamentalists demonize globalization as an invasion and even as cultural rape. They argue that Western mass-industry (pop art, cinema, television and other media, consumerism, Mc World, etc) brings perversion through seduction. Secularization presented by Westerners as liberating in fact destroys the canonical hierarchy of values where religious morals control the social, economic and political processes. Secularization is perceived as a lever to push religion out of the public sphere. Its purely instrumental rationality deprives life of its fundamental dimension. In the Western world, demystification or desacrilization led to dechristianization. Churches are empty. Structuring principles no longer guide fundamental values. Culture becomes merchandise and values (including economic morals) dissolve. While reading fundamentalist texts, the learned reader has sometimes the impression they are hearing the great master of Western rationalization, Max Weber, discussing the other side of modernity: disenchantment of the world, loss of direction as a result of secularization.

On the other hand, liberals and innovators underline the obsession of the fundamentalists for models of the past. Admittedly, cultural heritage is a value but it should not function as an obstacle to the present. All cultures have a dynamic which takes in external elements and contributions. Islam cannot paralyse itself through excessive glorification of past values. Each culture like each religion has appeared in the world at a historical moment and in a particular cultural context. Thus, innovators say, our culture like our religion must evolve in order to serve as an existential anchor for the faithful who wish to progress in their historical trek. According to these new scholars, Islam must be situated in history, just like Western culture that proclaims itself universal. The evolution of the Western world, its secularization and particularly its economism (priority given to material development) must be understood within the framework of its particular historical course. Viewed as a product of history, the Western world has moved away from models that are more grounded in the human tradition of the long term. Thus it became the exception and cannot aspire to universality. Our postmodernists (Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault) have also deconstructed the myth of universalism, of the isms of modernity through the recognition of difference, specificity and endogeneity.

The Muslim revival thus tends to outfit imported models with its own intellectual productions,, especially in the social sciences. Great intellectual centres are reformulating economy, sociology and political science in new terms on the basis of the Islamic system. However transition to Western modernity rests on the critique of traditional knowledge and the evacuation of religious morals. This model of secularization implies autonomy in the spheres of knowledge and life in accordance with their own validation and operational processes. Through this evolution, politics, society and economy free themselves from the religious morals by which they were governed. Without structural regulation, conflict between these spheres of values is unsolvable, say even the innovative Muslims.

But a group of new scholars of international reputation plead for a religion that is not subdued to jurisprudence (fiqh). They contend it should open the way to hermeneutic debates (ijtihad) in order to reconcile the spiritual foundations of religion, its existential value, and its contribution to the future of umma. A religion that mingles constantly with turmoil and the variations of day-to-day political options becomes an ideology and loses its transcendental substance. Intense and profound thematic topics reflect the cultural creativity and theological renewal that has arisen through the debate on globalization. The Muslim world very strongly resents the militarization of international relations which touched on aspects of its historical splendour. For them, the globalization process seems to be pushed less by an earnest care for democracy and development than guided by material interest.. A Muslim is deeply stung when he feels he is being "bedouïnized" by an arrogant Westerner.

Economic analysis of geopolitics

In the view of publicists writing from an economic perspective, the geopolitics of security is a project imagined and directed by the Western world to ensure its vital raw materials supply (such as oil) and to retain its capacity to attract world savings towards Western financial markets. Wall Street is the epicentre of the recycled savings of the whole world which serve to finance deficits in the US trade balance and American public sector deficits. In order to control the rate of the dollar and thus world trade, it is vital to control oil reserves on which competitors (Japanese, Chinese, Europeans) are even more dependent. Global governance produces a view and a strategy of development that suits Western needs as a whole, including also Europe. These strategies of development are passed down to staff and think tanks associated with the institutions with economic capacity such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. In order to allow them to impose their discipline (by punishing the uncooperative through the Malthusianism of loans and privilege for those that yield to structural adjustment), their financial means and their capacity of intervention have become considerable. While researching on the Chinese course of action, I read similar critical analyses. In China, the questioning of global governance is formulated by the intellectuals of the New Left and the militants of cultural nationalism (cf analysis of Wang Hui, Liu Kang and Zheng Yongnian).

But criticism of consumerism is absent from Chinese discourse, while it is very present in Muslim publications that recommend a reserved attitude towards consumption. From a planetary perspective, the Western consumerist model is a false utopia, because it is impossible for the Western model of consumption to apply to the 6.5 billion inhabitants of the world without bringing about an ecological explosion. For innovators, development is a project of civilization. Their writings laden with principles of social ethics support the harmonious development thesis. In this way, they come close to some Western reformers, such as Indian Amartya SEN and also the inspirers of the Kyoto school, notably Yasusuke Murakami. A comparison of Asian and Islamic courses of action is all the more interesting because modern Malaysian Islam has played an important role in the economic success of this country. This is partly due to Mohamed Mahathir who was during 12 years (1981-1993) its bold Prime Minister. As an enthusiastic Muslim, he associated Islamic masters to the doctrinal framing of his development.strategy. Some innovators of the Arab world, like Hassan Hanafi, see the modernized Islam of Malaysia as a model.


In spite of the constraints exerted by global governance, a counter-current exemplifying courses of non-Western modernization is shamelessly emerging. In order to understand correctly these trends and perspectives from inside, a recommended method is to read and to analyse their intellectuals' writings and publicists' writings. If one is uninformed of ongoing controversies and trends as they are viewed from inside, one cannot understand the real situation. Western analysts are often blamed for reading only western scholars and for ignoring or neglecting indigenous sources even on issues such as globalization. If this debate is to become really a dialogue with multiple voices on world issues and the future, it must not shun but rather include the views of Others.

(translated from french by J. Tardif - revised by Paule Herodote)

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