Globalisation Critics Are Naïve

Tariq Ramadan, Islamic scholar based in Geneva, says that it is time to stop defining Islam in opposition to the West. In this essay, he argues that the anti-globalist movement is naïve in thinking it can be successful without aligning with the Islamic world.

Over the last few years popular mobilisations have reached an unprecedented scale. The demonstrations which greeted the last G8 meeting in Evian are further proof that the mood of resistance is not letting up. From Porto Alegre to Florence (and next November in Paris-Saint-Denis), from Seattle to Evian, from the support of the Chiapas to the movement against the Iraq war, the places – the events and the causes are multiplying. These protests are providing an outlet for the expression of a radical rejection of liberal neo-capitalism, itself motivated by the belief in another kind of globalisation: fairer, more humane, more dignified. Because we all think that ‘Another world is possible!’

It’s ethics versus money

When we stop and study the literature produced by those involved in this international movement, one cannot but be struck by the internal logic on which this struggle is based. Faced with a soulless capitalism, which turns everything into a commodity (human beings, intelligence, the body, goods and public services, air, nature, etc), consciences are stirring and demanding respect for justice and human dignity, for the environment and for genetic equilibrium, just as they demand the right of people to self-determination and democracy.

In addition to the fact that one comes across the old slogans of various strands of the Left, one is also forced to acknowledge that the critical analyses of the world, as well as the range of solutions proposed, are based on an essentially structural approach to matters. At the heart of a very Western-oriented debate, a humanising and humanistic economic logic responds to the disembodied madness of another logic; a democratic model of society (today dreamed of over here) is used to denounce the excesses of systems that fly in the face of this model every day (usually over there); the rationality of ethics is challenging the rationality of ‘money’. The terms of the confrontation are clear.

The postmodern Hippie is really a colonialist in disguise

What is nevertheless astonishing is the near total absence of serious consideration of cultural and religious diversity, outside the usual conventional talk which reminds us of the so-called “duty of tolerance”. Those seeking an alternative to neo-liberal globalisation, the anti-or ‘alter’-globalisers, all too often think of cultural, as well as religious diversity as a principle of goodwill to be affirmed but rarely see it as a reality with which it is necessary to engage, venture into and to build. To such an extent that it is not unusual to meet men and women championing progressive opinions on social, political and economic issues, while their cultural vocabulary still bears the imprint of an old colonial outlook. From forum to forum, one grows accustomed to meeting this new species of activist - a living contradiction of the contemporary left - economically progressive but culturally so imperialist; ready to fight for social justice but at the same time so confident and sometimes arrogant as to assume the right to dictate a universal set of values for everyone.

At a time where the divide between civilizations and religions appears to be deepening, the movement against neo-liberal globalisation cannot afford to avoid the central issue of diversity of cultures and religions, their role within the resistance and the significant contribution they can make to the cause of a pluralism which is as enriching as it is urgent. To advocate another kind of globalisation armed only with Western rationalism against the uniform commodification of the world is not only contradictory, but profound nonsense.It would have been nice if, in this informal movement, the experienced voices of the radical left had blended with the younger voices against alienation, and that together they had given birth to an open and democratic space for dialogue. It would have been nice to call for diversity while living it in the midst of this hope for another world. To live a little as one says, and not end up claiming the opposite of what one lives.

And yet today, the movement’s shortcomings in terms of democracy and open-mindedness are obvious. There are no leaders, nor a unified structure; everything is discussed, debated, voted on. The movement, they say, is open to individuals as much as it is to ideas, to the anonymous as to the famous. This remains to be seen. Very quickly, at the heart of the dynamic, one perceives the old complicities, common interests, unspoken but recognised all the same, and common practices moulded during so many years of struggle. Hidden behind the informality are the hidden networks of collusion, habits and terminology.

The blue-eyed activists don’t practise what they preach

There is a certain preconceived idea of the symbols and concepts of the one true and legitimate struggle, which sometimes allows itself to judge the erring ways of everything which does not look similar. Without stating it clearly, an entire wing of the movement is becoming institutionalised and building its speech around demands whose content has been renewed, but which have not arisen from nor been discussed with the popular base in the name of which they are expressed.

Amid the talk of democracy, social justice, of the struggle against discrimination in employment and housing, of the rejection of racism, of antisemitism and islamophobia, the populations most affected (those living in deprived urban areas, young people of ‘immigrant origin’, Muslims) are virtually absent from the numerous forums where one thinks for them, without them. If they do come along, they are questioned, suspected. ‘What do they want?’ This single question says enough about the contradiction. Worse: those in the movement who seek so positively to go beyond the negative representations and to establish partnerships with Muslim activists are going against the stream and are suspected at best of naivety and at worst of treason.

Globalisation critics have a superficial understanding of Islam

On the international scene, we come across the same inconsistencies. The worryingly deficient and conformist nature of the arguments put forward by the ‘alter’-globalisers on the question of the Middle East or Islam cannot be emphasised enough. Although the impressive size of the protests against the Iraq war must be acknowledged, one has to ask what alternative was really being proposed (beyond saying ‘No to the war’) to counter America’s unilateral stance and its programme of supervised democracy. Absence of awareness about Islam, as much as the fear cultivated and shared at the heart of a caricaturally constructed West, have led those seeking another kind of globalisation to engage in superficial, if not dangerous talk on Islam. Where are the Arab and Muslim alter’-globalisers? How can we reach out to the millions of activists in the Middle East, Africa and Asia who could become the new life blood of the movement? Such is the fear, and so widespread is the suspicion, that it is unimaginable that Muslims, with their convictions and values, might themselves be agents of change.

Blind to the dynamics of social, cultural, economic and political liberation underway across most of the Muslim world (and often expressed within and through Islam) and oblivious to the struggles being fought by European and North American Muslims, the ‘alter’-globalisers continue to cultivate too many prejudices. Convinced that they are progressive, they give themselves the arbitrary right to proclaim the definitively reactionary nature of religions, and if liberation theology has contradicted this conclusion, the possibility that Islam could engender resistance is not even imagined ... unless it’s to modernity. In the end, only a handful of ‘Muslims-who-think-like us’ are accepted, while the others are denied the possibility of being genuinely progressive fighters armed with their own set of values: by doing this, the dialogue with Islam is transformed into an interactive monologue which massages ‘our ideological certainties’ just as Huntington wanted to ensure ‘our strategic interests’.

Globalisation critics won't be successful without the Islamic world

The globalisation that we reject, however, feeds on complacent old knee-jerk reactions like this. If we look at the way the world is now, there is no future for the movement without a fruitful and open dialogue with the Islamic world. This third contradiction, even more than the other two, could lead the whole movement to its own downfall: at a time when every opportunity is being taken to feed a psychosis which acts as a justification for an international security policy spelling the death of liberty for citizens everywhere, worldwide resistance which does not seek to join forces with the other, the Muslim who is so frightening, will not be able to make use of its own powers of coherence and credibility.

With each new odious act of terrorism, ‘alter’-globalisers will be labelled dreamers and this is the worst that can happen to us, for this struggle is after all our own. It is up to us to make this commitment to diversity, and each and every one of us must face up to our own contradictions in order to overcome them. Only permanent, effective and demanding partnerships will allow us to face these challenges: to remain free citizens, let us learn to build by using our diversity. That is what, for better or worse, we are starting to do. Here and there, dialogues are striking up, and meetings, still on the fringes, are taking place, but it is still true that the overwhelming majority of the movement has for the moment still not chosen to live its own hopes.

© Tariq Ramadan

Originally published in the "Frankfurter Rundschau" on August 11, 2003

Tariq Ramadan is professor of Islamic studies at the University of Fribourg and professor of philosophie at the Collège Geneva (both Switzerland). He was a member of several commissions of the European Parliament and he is member of the High Level Advisory Group for the Dialogue of Peoples and Cultures set up by Romano Prodi.

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