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Session II— The Impact of Globalization on the Muslim World

The second session, moderated by Chandra Muzaffar, president of the International Movement for a Just World in Malaysia, addressed various aspects of globalization and the changes globalization has engendered in recent years. Participants discussed the impact these changes have had on Muslim countries and societies.

Mr. Muzaffar opened the session by noting the complexity of globalization as a phenomenon that goes beyond the internationalization of capital and information technologies. Globalization also involves cultural and moral values and has had particular impact on taste. Though revolutionary in significant ways, the current globalization is not sui generis. History has seen previous waves of globalization, with the most recent one taking place during the colonial era.

Similar to today’s movement but on a smaller scale and at a slower pace, the Muslim world itself was a major source of one such wave of globalization, which rippled out from the Mediterranean basin several centuries ago, bringing about transfers of goods, people, information, and technology.

The impact of the current globalization on the Muslim world has been varied, with positive and negative outcomes for different nations. Whereas Malaysia, for instance, has benefited enormously from one particular aspect of globalization, namely, trade, the interwoven international financial networks proved disastrous to the Indonesian economy during the 1997–1998 Asian financial crisis. The globalization of communication technologies, for its part, is exerting tremendous impact across the Muslim world, particularly on youth.

The first panelist, Ralf Fücks, member of the executive board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, also stressed the complexity of globalization, which, he concurred, was not concerned solely with financial matters. The societal dimension of globalization has been essential in shaping the economic and political life of citizens around the world. By the same token, globalization itself is shaped in turn by different sociopolitical and cultural environments. While some would argue that the phenomenon is a U.S.–driven “equalizer” that diminishes local specificities, Mr. Fücks pointed to its capacity to promote diversity. One of the vehicles of that variety, he remarked, is brought on by global migration and the accompanying visibility of a plethora of cultural mores (articulated through food, music, films, and religious practice). Consequently, as goods are transported and sold all over the world, companies are also assembling multicultural workforces. Yet such variety can also create tension, which can lead to additional gaps between nations and civilizations, as in the case of Islam and the West.

The Muslim world is reacting in manifold ways to recent global transformations, with some countries and populations appearing to be able to engage with the new realities more successfully than others. What is certain is that key components of that successful engagement— human liberties, rule of law, equal opportunity, independent media—are universal rather than merely Western values, and that, as the 2004 Arab Human Development Report indicated, these elements are often lacking in Muslim societies.9 Mr. Fücks expressed hope that the next wave of globalization would offer avenues to lastingly remedy these shortcomings, allow a fair say to the global South, and multiply ways to avoid civilizational conflict.

The next speaker, Kurt Seinitz, foreign editor of Die Kronenzeitung, commented that for all the talk of globalization bringing increased diversity, most Westerners continue to demonstrate a widespread lack of basic knowledge about Islam. That lack is compounded in the West by social secularization and the accompanying death of religious taboos, which decreases interest in and empathy with non–Western religions. Similarly, many Westerners view Islam as a monolith, and indeed the demonstrations that took place in the wake of the cartoons controversy were regarded as confirmation of this.

Mr. Seinitz added that, to the contrary, Islam is a globalized world in and of itself. It is an international community that includes some of the richest and poorest countries in the world. Globalization presents both these winners and losers with challenges, much as it does non–Muslim countries. By and large, however, few Muslim countries appear to have made notable contributions to the current field of information technology. One reason is because the basic components of a viable and fertile economy—a good investment climate, inexpensive manufacturing, and market availability—are often missing in the Muslim world. To compete economically, it is hoped that the Muslim world will renew its golden age of scientific progress and enlightenment (during which women were educated and joined the workforce).

Using China as the prime example, Mr. Seinitz posited that democracy is not a precondition for modernization. Globalization itself has no moral values. (On this point, several participants remarked that there is a basic tendency for globalization to strengthen democracy. Hence, in the late 1980s and early 1990s we witnessed a so–called “third wave” of democratization that accompanied growing interdependence.) Mr. Seinitz pointed to examples of effective models of modernization and development in the Muslim world, such as Malaysia and Turkey. What is needed within the Muslim world, as these examples demonstrate, is better governance that encourages modernization and enables Muslim nations to prosper from globalization, rather than suffer its losses.

The panel’s discussant, Mr. Amin, noted the importance of the Qur’an as the source of ultimate authority among Muslims. This model of discourse, he remarked, is characterized by tolerance with the rewards going to those who do good. Currently, the United States dominates the rest of the world in terms of its wealth, military power, and educational infrastructure. As long as 20 percent of the world’s population consumes 80 percent of its resources, there will be trouble and rebellion among those left out. To address this imbalance, argued Mr. Amin, there must be reform of the world economic system.

The subsequent discussion focused on the costs of globalization for the Muslim world. Mohamed Jawhar Hassan, director–general of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Malaysia), pointed out that since globalization inherently favors the powerful and tech–savvy, its costs are highest for those cultures that can least afford them. Whereas globalization is generally unconcerned with religion, the Muslim world is primarily characterized by a common, vibrant religious heritage. Mr. Jawhar Hassan indicated that Muslim countries have four institutional challenges to surmount: (1) an uneven and often insufficient knowledge base, (2) a lack of empowerment of the female population, (3) an absence of participatory governance, and (4) the prevalence of ethnic conflicts. Imran Ali, professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences, added that the distribution of oil revenues must be addressed before the Muslim world can better engage with globalization.

Those internal challenges play out in the context of global problems that are equally daunting, noted Mr. Fücks, who cautioned against a relapse into economic and military imperialism. That trend is materializing not merely in economic means but also in military terms. At the other end of the spectrum, we see the rise of a novel form of terrorism—the nonstate, transnational armed group. These ideologically motivated combatants aim to redress injustices by empowering people rather than states.

Mr. Fücks went on to say that the architecture of international institutions such as the United Nations helps maintain the current global power structure. Apart from a few cosmetic changes in the dynamic of institutional engagement between the World Bank and particular governments in the South, there has been no genuine reform of the international system. In particular, reform of the United Nations remains a gnawing, elusive issue. The renewed violence and anger that the world has witnessed in the first years of this century is evidence of a severe institutional imbalance. Mr. Fücks added that if the world is not able to transition from reliance on fossil resources to renewable forms of energy, future generations may be condemned to further conflicts over dwindling supplies.

Mr. Amin concurred that the international economic system must be reconstructed to accommodate for the effects of globalization. Previous reconfigurations of the world economy were brought about by increased migration, free exchange of goods, and the advent of common commodities markets. The challenge, hence, is not one of capacity but of rearrangement. Is the West willing to make another such vast adjustment today?

Mr. Muzaffar offered Malaysia as an example of a country that has had success with modernization despite the pressures of globalization. This, he feels, is due to five major reasons: (1) a lasting balance of power among national ethnic groups; (2) a socially responsible and relatively honest political leadership since the late 1950s; (3) a sustained economic growth accompanied by redistribution to bridge the gap between indigenous and nonindigenous peoples; (4) an emphasis on education, irrespective of gender; and (5) an ever–more ingrained cultural sense of tolerance at the societal level.

Mr. Langellier expressed that the main difficulties the Muslim world is facing are self–imposed. He argued that the relationship between faith and ideology in Muslim countries needs to be overhauled to enable modernization.

Mr. Bulliet, however, noted that these challenges must be considered from a historical perspective. The globalization that occurred between 1000 and 1500 was dominated by the Muslim world and witnessed a massive movement of knowledge, science, art, and philosophy from Islam to the West. The West’s leadership at the time—like some in the Muslim world today—resorted to violence, notably the Crusades, to regain power.

Returning to the notion of dialogue, Mr. Nizami suggested that language itself can become a barrier. Therefore, the challenge is to find ways to deploy language in ways that achieve progress rather than create more problems. To do so, our discourse must be pragmatic, honest, and dispassionate. An examination of the assumptions that surround notions of governance, accountability, and democracy, for instance, could potentially unearth a wealth of insights into policy reform.

Mr. Boot interjected that the post–1500s rise of the West was linked to sophisticated currency practice (interest, bonds, and stocks) and that adoption of those practices by the Muslim world would have huge socioeconomic benefit. Israel, he argued, achieved its own good fortune by installing a free market and promoting education for women. Unlike many Arab countries, he insisted, Israel does not blame its problems on others.

Mr. Muzaffar remarked that the importance of domestic reform is widely acknowledged throughout the Muslim world. It is the global dimensions of these political questions that need further examination. In particular, he differed with the assumption that good governance necessarily brings progress. Prior to the Gulf War, Iraq enjoyed a first–rate heath care system, high levels of education (including among women), and a vast public infrastructure, yet the country’s leadership made the wrong geopolitical choices. Mr. Muzaffar stated that the Middle East’s problems come from oil and Israel’s predatory stance, and it is high time that these be addressed. Both Joshua Muravchik, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and Mr. Charney took strong exception to Mr. Muzaffar’s statement on Israel.

At the session’s close, Mr. Ali stated that the global transfer of resources must indeed be put in historical context and the arrogance that plagues the Western discourse must likewise be examined. Mr. Amin concurred, stressing that Westernization is not necessarily modernization, nor is democracy a panacea.


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