Navid Kermani
"Globalization Is a Very Ambivalent Process"

Navid Kermani says that an increase in globalization will not automatically lead to an increase in democratization. In our interview, the renowned German-Iranian publicist draws a balanced view of globalization and global conflicts

photo: Larissa Bender
The West ought to stop supporting repressive regimes, but change has ultimately to come from within, says Navid Kermani

​​In your latest book "Brave New Orient - Reports from Cities and Wars" (German title "Schöner neuer Orient - Berichte von Städten und Kriegen") you describe the negative impact of globalisation on major cities in the Islamic world, such as Karachi or Cairo. Here, affluent ghettos in the middle of neighborhoods are characterized by increasing poverty and violence which respective states are ignoring. Is this development in the Middle East an inevitable consequence of an economic world crisis, as modernization theorists, such as Robert Kurz, see it? Or is it something that can be attributed to the failures of state leadership in the Islamic world?

Navid Kermani: Of course, the two come together and intensify each other, whereby I, with regard to the second development, consider it wrong to blame everything on bad state leadership. Societal structures, archaic intellectualism and paralyzing illusions have also contributed to the dreadful situation. If I just look at the development in the education sector, then it is far more disastrous in many countries in the long term than one single dictator.

I'm not trying to say that the state is not responsible for the education sector, but it also has a lot to do with societal willingness or unwillingness. After all, there are counter examples: positive societal development, especially in the education sector or in the field of media, despite incompetent or repressive state leadership.

To what extent must Western nations act urgently in order to effectively contain the negative developments in the long term?

Kermani: The West could accomplish a lot if it would stop supporting repressive regimes. If the West would take itself and its own values more seriously then a lot would be gained and it would also serve the interests of the West in the long run as well, even economically. Arabic societies ultimately have to liberate and develop themselves anyway. The West can do a lot to avert democratization but on the other hand, can barely bring it about. That has to come from the societies themselves.

Iranian author Faraj Sarkuhi sees globalisation as an opportunity since it opens doors to people who are imprisoned in a dictatorship. Liberalization, which goes hand in hand with globalisation, actually upsets dictators and religious authorities. Islam, as a state ideology is being challenged, writes Sarkuhi. Do you share this opinion?

Kermani: Absolutely. It is a very ambivalent development and I especially try to describe this ambivalence accurately in my book instead of proposing clear solutions. I couldn't do that anyway since I am not a political scientist. Sometimes I give opinions in feature articles which are emphatically political but in my book, I mostly want to describe what I have seen and make it comprehensible.

"The West produces, whereas we only copy and consume," states Egyptian professor Hassan Hanafi in one of his essays. How can one explain this technological backwardness or "globalisation resistance" in the Arab world?

Kermani: That is a very complex question which cannot really be answered precisely in a few sentences. A lot of things come together. Cultures do not reach their prime from one day to the next and there is not only one explanation for this. They also do not find themselves in a crisis from one day to the next.

Of course, external factors play a part. One can still clearly see the late consequences of colonialism and the fatal consequences of Western presence in the Middle East, especially the American influence. But that alone does not explain everything as societies have to become so intellectually and politically weak that they have to become dependent on external influences.

I think "globalisation resistance" is a wrong term because many parts of the Arabic world have been globalized for a long time, it's just that democracy unfortunately is not necessarily part of globalization. That exactly is a basic observation in my book: globalization and cultural isolation can indeed go hand in hand.

In "Brave New Orient" you draw a very sobering conclusion in your closing Iran report. Conclusion: 23 years after the revolution, the situation has deteriorated drastically, especially for the younger generation. Drugs, violence and prostitution are spreading, customs are disintegrating. Isn't this image exaggerated or too generalized with regard to young people today in arts and culture or journalism who are looking for progress and creativity of their own kind in the Islamic world?

Kermani: If the images created in my book were similar to your description, then it would indeed be exaggerated. The chapter you are alluding to is about drug problems, prostitution, even child prostitution - social rejects. The developments here are absolutely alarming. At the same time, they are a part of Iranian reality.

They do not reflect the overall picture, neither in "Brave New Orient", nor in my previously published book on Iran which even appeared too optimistic to a few critics, even though I did not see it that way myself. Optimism and pessimism are also not categories that mean anything to me when I'm writing. I try to comprehend a certain reality, especially in its complexity; be it in a country or in piece of literature or music. I leave the conclusions to the (hopefully) confused readers.

Publicist and Islam scholar Navid Kermani is a long-term fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg) in Berlin. He was awarded the Ernst Bloch Award in 2000. Other publications include "Dynamite of Mind - Martyrdom, Islam and Nihilism" (German title: "Dynamit des Geistes – Martyrium, Islam und Nihilismus") and "Iran - A Children's Revolution" (German title: "Iran - Die Revolution der Kinder.")

Interview: Arian Fariborz

© 2003

Translation: Helen Groumas

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