Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
Demon by Siona Benjamin (detail)
  Globalisation and culture - 2

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  Amartya Sen

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  Meghnad Desai
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Meghnad Desai

'Zarina's encounter with Mr Eastwood', gouache by SIONA BENJAMIN

Muslims or Islamists?

In facing the challenge of modernity, Muslims, like all other peoples of the periphery, used the dual strategy of revivalism and reform. Through much of the 20th century, one could say that reform was winning, especially in the Arab world. Secular formations such as the Ba’ath Party emerged and socialism had a lot of appeal

But over the postwar years, while many Arab nation states were established, there was no realisation of Arab unity. What is more, as one player in the Cold War began losing out in economic prosperity to the other, Arab socialism also suffered its crisis. Not only did Nasser’s dream of a United Arab Republic not bear fruit but in 1967, Israel decisively defeated Arab armies from Egypt and elsewhere. As Albert Hourani has said, ‘The defeat of 1967 was widely regarded as being not only a military setback, but a kind of moral judgement’. The turn to Islam was the answer for many.

In the wake of this came the conjuncture of the early 1970s — the collapse of Bretton Woods and, following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the quadrupling of oil prices, and this transformed the possibilities of the modernist option in the old centres of Islam. The oil-rich countries, especially Saudi Arabia, now supported the revivalist path with extra money obtained from the West. Modernist movements had been marginalised.

Yet the Saudi regime fell foul of the orthodoxy it had promoted because of the Cold War. There has been a mutual dependency between the USA and the Saudi regime ever since the end of the Second World War. The USA was happy to leave the Saudi regime to its own beliefs and devices, while providing military cover. But as the Cold War receded, its dependence on the USA was seen as hostile by many. The removal of the Shah of  Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini was a signal lesson to dissidents within the Saudi regime itself, such as Osama Bin Laden. The identification of America with Israel and the festering dispute in Palestine sharpened this hostility. For a while, America’s desire to recruit guerrillas to fight the Russians in Afghanistan confused the loyalties of dissident Muslims, as did the ten-year war between Iraq and Iran, in which Iraq was backed by the Americans and their allies. After the USSR collapsed, there was not even an alternative power to help the Palestinian struggle if it was to take a military path. But the mujahedeen were armed in Afghanistan and free now to roam farther afield.

Arab unity was once promoted by intellectuals like Michel ’Aflaq, who was Christian. The PLO is a secular democratic movement. But in the 1990s, Arab nationalism took on a religious colour. There was also frustration about the possibility of waging yet another war over Palestine. So the dissidents had to think of alternatives and here, they had new possibilities. Globalisation, with its ease of movement and communications, could be leveraged by the dissidents to mount a guerrilla campaign. Guerrilla warfare was classically reliant on the rural hinterland where the guerrillero could hide, and come out to strike at the powerful enemy. Now, the polyglot, multiethnic, metropolitan West provided an urban hinterland where guerrilla warfare could be carried out with a global rather than a local reach.

There is only a single set of human rights and the set is based
on ideas of preserving and developing human dignity and
human potential. Sooner or later, in the course of
development, every capitalist country adopts this Enlightenment package. Their development makes them multiethnic and multicultural communities, since globalisation encourages movement

At the heart of this insurgency is an acute feeling of helplessness. The development of capitalism in the sixty years since the War has been spectacular. After the West, growth has spread to Asia and to a lesser extent to Latin America. But Africa and Arabia have been left out. For Africa, one can think of several causes. But the underdevelopment of the resource-rich Middle East is a self-inflicted wound. The fragmentation of the Ottoman Empire and the multiple quarrelling nations it has spawned have not helped. Lacking a secular, progressive economic idea to unite them (as was indeed attempted by Nasser), the peoples of the old Ottoman empire have taken to religion as an identifier for their unity. Also, a revivalist Islam has come to the fore among the peoples of the Middle East. It is not that Islam hinders development. Malaysia is a ready refutation of that argument. It is just that Arab nationalism has lost every other basis for identity-building.

Fundamentalisms or modernity?

The present conjuncture is therefore a volatile one. A diaspora often defines itself by the identity of the nation left behind and carries the burden of dual national loyalty. But far away from home, many diasporas have used religion both as an identifier vis-à-vis the host nation which grasps ethnicity easier in cultural terms, and also as an instrument for cohesion. This is true of the Hindu members of the Indian diaspora who have made their Diwali celebrations a colourful passport to the sympathies of the majority community and also built a platform for political action back home in India. Muslims from many nations have found that places of common worship in the metropolitan cities bring them together as Muslims rather than as Iraqis or Syrians or Chinese. Thus, globalisation both creates anxieties about identity and provides the means of assuaging those anxieties.

But in doing so, there is a reverse challenge to the very notion of modernity. The community that first encountered modernity — the Christian West — is itself feeling beleaguered and suddenly we have fundamentalist Christians rejecting Darwin’s theory as a mere hypothesis against which the Creation story of the Bible has to be pitted. They believe and assert the literal truth of the Bible to the extent of demanding that the Old Testament boundaries of Israel be implemented today. Muslims have taken to a fundamentalism of their own, with literal interpretations of the Quran taken as the living truth. Hindu fundamentalism has had to invent a Semitised version of the old sanatan dharma with a single book, a single God.

Far from being hostile to globalisation, these manifestations are its products. Thus, fundamentalists of all religions are happy with modern technologies, though not with modern science. They are happy to claim rights everywhere but not to grant them to those who they think do not belong to their community. Each fundamentalism is a political movement, not a religious one, based on an agenda of creating an exclusive realm where they can control citizenship. But in their mobility, their technical savvy and their ability to manipulate the idioms of modernity to subvert its spirit, these fundamentalisms are headed for a mutual clash. In a modern society, they run against the universalist ideas of modernity about individual rights, especially women’s rights, to which every fundamentalism is hostile. To be able to live away from their ‘native land’, they have to accommodate to the minimum of modernist ideas which have made their new homeland what it is over the last two centuries. This is also true of fundamentalists such as the American Christian groups who are at home in their native land but hostile to modernity. In this clash of all fundamentalisms with modernity as well as of fundamentalisms with each other, something has got to give. What will it be?


It is fashionable nowadays to claim that there is no single modernity but various different paths to modernity. This is superficially correct. There are seemingly many paths to capitalist modernisation, which is one vital aspect of modernity. Yet it is also necessary to be reductionist on this. Capitalism is about profits and accumulation, about savings and productivity, about competition and trade, all carried out within a structure of property rights and the rule of law. Different countries achieve their own capitalisms in various ways but finally, it is still profits and accumulation, within a legal framework. Asia is showing Europe that capitalism is not just a Western monopoly. Similarly, there are many cultures and their values may vary. But there is only a single set of human rights and the set is based on ideas of preserving and developing human dignity and human potential. Sooner or later, in the course of development, every capitalist country adopts this Enlightenment package. Their development makes them multiethnic and multicultural communities, since globalisation encourages movement. All communities lose their old cohesion and exclusivity and become mixed and cosmopolitan.

Whatever a community may be, ultimately it comprises of autonomous individuals, each of whom is his or her own moral agent. No community has the right to deny this autonomy to any of its members. Thus torture or rape are violations of these rights, even if they have been allowed in the past as privileges of patriarchy. Forced marriages or excessive physical hardship at work or in the home are violations of human rights. Terrorism, which results in extra-judicial killings, is a violation of these rights even if it is claimed to be in defence of the rights of other oppressed people.

It is not a defence of practices which violate rights to say that one’s religion or culture allows them. One could get into disputes about whether the religion actually does allow it, or whether a revivalist interpretation is being invoked. But to go down that route is to accept the terms of the fundamentalists. The answer is that no religion should allow such practices and if it does, it must be circumscribed by the rule of law; the law which informs daily living in modern communities to which many eagerly flock and others aspire to join or emulate.

The law is public morality. Religion is or ought to be private morality. There can be many religions and cultures living together but there can be only one law. This is because we may belong to different cultures but in this globalised world of ours, what unites us as members of the community in which we live together is our common humanity. Mutual tolerance and the separation of the private sphere, where an individual’s beliefs are her or his own concern, and the public sphere of equality before the law, lie at the core of modernity.

p. 1 p. 2 p. 3 notes

Lord Meghnad Desai is a Labour Party legislator of Britain’s House of Lords and a former professor at the
London School of Economics. He lives in London