All thanks and Praises are due to Allah (S.W.T), our Lord and our Sustainer; we beseech of Allah Almighty to bestow His choicest Blessings and Peace upon our Leader and Master, Muhammad ( S.A.W.)
For the past few days, Cape Town has been hosting delegates from over 100 countries, attending the 17th Annual World Tobacco or Health Conference. This year the conference adopted the theme “Uniting the world for a tobacco free generation”. A shocking statistic emanating from this forum informs us that there are 7 million deaths annually, which can be attributed to smoking. Despite this depressing statistic, the conference also reported on the excellent progress made by using its MPOWER program to reduce the disease burden caused by smoking, especially in low and middle -income countries.
These actions show what’s possible when meaningful and coordinated actions are implemented on a global scale to reduce tobacco use, such that many communities can now experience the benefits of people living, better, longer and healthier lives.
I use this example of both despondency and hope to highlight the major problem of globalization the world is facing these days. Whilst the use of the term “globalization” might be of recent invention, its effects have been around for much longer. Like the sugar and cotton plantations in the colonized Americas, tobacco production was inextricably linked to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Together these practices enriched a few, led to a Civil war, and bequeathed to America its perennial problem of race. In our times it has spurred the growth of MNC’S which continue to pursue their profits whilst showing scant regard for harm they cause. They respect no geographic boundaries, and are continuously seeking out weak governments and deregulated business environments to allow them to thrive at the expense of our health. This is the brutal face of globalization.
Olivier Roy, the French social scientist, and the author of the recent publication Globalized Islam; the search for a new Ummah, defines globalization as a process of entry into a sort of common space, which has no territorial basis. Anyone can have access to this space, where the values, ideas, habits and norms that circulate within it, do not carry any reference to any specific culture or society.
It tends to homogenize any cultural or linguistic differences. One is only allowed to loosely hold onto one’s cultural (or religious) identity. The new cultural or religious identity forged in such a space does not have any deep roots. Globalization, like previous attempts at world domination, are all products of European Enlightenment and the increasing secularization of society. This marginalizes religion, causing some to speculate, rather prematurely, on the eventual demise of religion as a social force. Religion has proved more resilient, however, and stands as the only force capable of resisting Globalization’s advances.
Role for religion in a globalized society
The key questions we need to pose are these:
- What is the place for religion or culture in this new globalized mode of existence?
- Is religion always primed to play an adversarial role in relation to a globalized world or can it, in a spirit of positive engagement, help human societies flourish?
Before we answer these questions let us have a closer look at the nature and effects of globalization.
Effects of Globalization
Whether we like it or not, we are part of a global community. This affects how we live, and how we choose to inform ourselves. Technology and global capital facilitates entry into this digitally obsessed world. We have replaced real meaningful human contact with media interface. Sadly, much of this digital contact is riddled in falsehoods, as the recent revelations about fake news and “echo chambers’” have so starkly revealed.
A digitalized, globalized world allows individuals to:
- experience a high level of connectivity, in which information about goods and services flow freely;
- develop an interdependence, which is planetary in scope but diminishing chances of developing local, independent resources;
- view the world as a contracted social space, such that the whole planet is now a new ”locality” and individuals living in it are becoming “disembodied cosmopolitans’, citizens of everywhere and nowhere at the same time;
- easily identify and become selectively absorbed in their own individual pleasures and concerns, making it easy to identify with the pain and suffering of people half a globe away, whilst remaining oblivious to the plight of their immediate neighbours.
The benefits of increased connectivity and interdependence are not experienced equally, resulting in new hierarchies and divisions, giving some a head start, whilst others are just scrambling to get to the starting line.
At a collective level, especially with weakened nation states and rapid disintegration of traditional support structures, globalization has:
- produced vast disparities in wealth with an underclass of overworked and disenfranchised people living alongside a powerful, wealthy elite.
- enabled criminal networks to flourish as they take advantage of diminished resources available to promote law enforcement, stability and peace.
- led to a loss of traditional ways of living, leading to cultural homogenization and the disappearance of languages and cultures.
- caused environmental degradation, whilst simultaneously, there has never been such a proliferation of movements dedicated to saving the planet.
- spawned many social networks, fostering ease of communication yet unwittingly lead to massive information gathering about individuals and loss of privacy.
These ambiguities associated with globalization stem from two sources; firstly, economic and political practices leading to a revolution in material production, and the second is tied to religions and the revolution in how a culture reproduces itself.
Ambiguities of the market in a globalized society
Markets are regarded, by Socialists and Capitalists alike, as a revolutionary force capable of bringing together people across the globe by creating unprecedented wealth and transforming human lives. For both Marx and Adam Smith, it was a moral phenomenon rather than a morally neutral tool of exchange. For Marx it was negative one, distorting even human beings into commodities and throwing most of them into abject poverty. For Smith, it was a positive one, channeling the self-interested behaviors of individuals away from socially destructive ends toward socially beneficial ones.
The idea that human beings are by nature acquisitive and insatiable in their thirst for profits and consumer goods, are value laden and culturally formed ideas, and therefore contestable.
Whilst recognizing that a market economy “responds well to a people’s economic needs while respecting their free initiative”, the Pope John Paul II, takes it to task for being “intrusive, even invasive”, squeezing generosity and mercy out of social relations whilst replacing it with a calculation of costs and benefits. Every object or service rendered gets assigned a monetary value and so becomes commoditized. This divides people into who can afford or who cannot.
Every marketing ploy is used to dupe people into excess consumption to keep this cycle of exploitation alive. A perceptive insight by Galbraith states that the modern market economy doesn’t so much respond to existing needs by producing goods as it “creates the wants the goods are presumed to satisfy”; it aims to fill the void that it has itself created. This leads to insatiable demands for profits on the part of producers and insatiable thirst for goods on the part of consumers.
Trying to meet up this with this demand is like chasing a mirage. Pure economic solutions to economic problems ignore our innate insatiability. The only way to tame this desire for more is to link our consumption of the conveniences of ordinary life with our striving for a higher life of contemplation and reflection. Religion teaches us that everything belongs to God and we are merely granted temporary stewardship over it. Eventually we will have to return it to its rightful owner. It is only a belief of such Transcendent dimensions that can rope in our excesses of unnecessary expenditure.
Gratitude (shukr) is regarded as the quintessential quality of a believing Muslim. Gratitude includes even our desires for material comforts and pleasures. If God Almighty did not bless us with such desires, we would self – destruct. Once activated, desires should not develop an autonomous existence.
It is God Almighty Who both generates and guarantees that human desires are sufficed for.
Taking God out of the picture robs us of the feeling of contentment and fulfillment we should experience with what we have. Now it makes abundant sense when the traditions teach us that no activity is acceptable to Allah if not begun with Bismillah!
Religions and their ambiguities in a globalized world
Religions were the first to produce an idea of a globalized world with one moral code for all of humanity. All World religions make such claims. In the current iteration of globalization, these religions no longer occupy a dominant position. They have to share their views and account for their behavior in an increasingly secularized world, one that values rational discourse above revelatory teachings.
Encountering other world religions with similar claims introduces a competitive edge to their existence. This coexistence demands a new set of ethical behaviors as much as it demands reflection on moral concerns not hitherto encountered.
All world religions have been enriched when engaging with other religions and traditions in the past. The rapidity with which traditional world religions have had to adapt to a new configuration of a globalized society has left a yawning chasm between its original teachings and the autonomous versions now sprouting in many parts of a global society.
Current levels of migration accompanied by an increase in mobility of goods and services across the globe is unprecedented. This has some benefits, but also many challenges for traditional religions. People have moved from enclaves where they everything they knew and did was with their neighbours in tow.
This displacement generates insecurities for diasporic communities. They struggle with issues of identity and culture without causing any offence to their host communities. This vulnerability often makes them a target for radicalizing tendencies, who do not share their overwhelming concerns to flourish as citizens, maintain a distinct identity and ensure a presence of their religion and culture in their new environment.
Globalization facilitates communication and various religious expressions have been quick to benefit from these inventions. This explains the recent rise of many trans-national Muslim actors crossing the globe in their quest to eradicate other expressions of Islam they deem inferior (bid’ah). Inherent in such a mindset is a desire to “civilize” those who hold on to an “inferior Islam”. This often results in clashes, as their intrusive behavior refuses to acknowledge local cultures and traditions. Religions as globalizers are just as adept as economies and political systems at flattening social landscapes of any cultural diversity.
Three significant problems with Globalization
Having traced some part of the history, structure and features of Globalization, it is my contention that religion can, at minimum ameliorate some of the negative aspects of globalization.
The three main areas of difficulty I see are the following;
- Globalization loosens our social ties and social solidarity. It promotes an individualism that affects our ability to respond appropriately. It foregrounds our material needs over need to express solidarity.
- Secondly, it promotes consumerism, for it is in its interest to create unwarranted needs and desires in us. It blunts us to the consequences of a growing sense of greed and living an acquisitive, wasteful life.
- It globalizes our tastes. By destroying local cultures, commerce, cuisine and other expressions of how we live, it reduces our choice and leaves us culturally poorer in the process.
These are by no means the only three areas of importance for concerned citizens of a globalized world. They are however, an important starting point for us to resist the onslaught of globalization as we strive to live more conscious lives.
Guidance from our Foundational Sources
Nowhere does the Qur’an instruct us to withdraw from this world. Rather, in several places it encourages us to move into this world and live amongst other people as a way of drawing lessons of what caused them either to flourish or to flounder.
Say, [O Muhammad], “Travel through the land and observe how was the end of those before. Most of them were associators [of others with Allah]. [30: 42]
The Qur’an also creates a vision of what it expects us to strive towards. It is a place of happiness, contentment and a just reward of a state of falah or a flourishing state. Listen to the Sublime words of the Qur’an
Only those believe in Our verses who, when they are reminded by them, fall down in prostration and exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord, and they are not arrogant. They arise from [their] beds; they supplicate their Lord in fear and aspiration, and from what We have provided them, they spend. And no soul knows what has been hidden for them of comfort for eyes as reward for what they used to do. [32: 15-17]