BOOK REVIEW:  The Crisis of Globalization (Akbar Ahmed)

Ishtiaq Ahmed

Posted Jun 9, 2007      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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BOOK REVIEW:  The Crisis of Globalization (Akbar Ahmed)

  By Ishtiaq Ahmed

Akbar Ahmed’s latest book Journey into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization published by the Brookings Institute of Washington DC is an anthropological contribution to a field in which there is great scope for theorising about future relations between the west and the Muslim world.

The contemporary social, economic and political shape of the world has been formed by globalisation centred on the west, with the US as its leader. Especially after 9/11 the overall economic and social difficulties generated by globalisation have been compounded by cultural estrangement: suspicion, fear and hatred from both sides has been noted. Its full impact on the cultural lives of people remains largely unfathomed. The author portrays the predicament of globalisation in words which are most apt and should be quoted:

‘Since the late twentieth century, the Muslim world has plunged into the age of globalisation, which to many people resembles a new form of imperialism. Its emphasis is on producing the most goods at the lowest cost, along the way accumulating wealth for some higher standards of living regardless of the cost to society. Neither faith, in its pure spiritual sense, nor reason, based in classical notions of justice and logic, appears to figure prominently in the philosophy of globalisation’ (page 12).

This is a telling indictment of globalisation which in practice has meant that the developmental state which used to provide basic services such as health, education and employment has been forced to withdraw in favour of so-called civil society taking over such functions and commercialising it to a point that common people can in no way benefit from them. Instead charitable organisations have taken over the function of helping the poor and needy but given their limited resources most people are without any help. Such globalisation has helped multi-national companies maximise their profits through the imposition of unbridled capitalism.

The author’s main interest in this study is not to analyse the economic consequences of globalisation, though he does take up that aspect too. He is interested in throwing light on how Muslims perceive globalisation in cultural terms. He continues to apply a framework of analysis which he has used in the past for categorising Muslim opinion. These are the orthodox (Deoband model), modernist (Aligarh model) and Sufi (Ajmer model) modes of thinking and reasoning. I think this spectrum is quite adequate to capture a wide range of Muslim opinion, but scope should also be provided to include secular and rationalist opinion.

Akbar Ahmed, his assistant, Hadia Mubarak, and two of his American students, Hailey Wodt and Frankie Martin, travelled to the Middle East where they spent time in Jordan, Syria and Qatar; South Asia where they were in Pakistan and India; and South East Asia where they went to Indonesia and Malaysia. The author had access to presidents and prime ministers and representatives of orthodox seminaries and Sufi brotherhoods and many other prominent people.

He regrets they could not visit Iran and Saudi Arabia because of the logistical problems. I think this was only good or his American students may have had an opportunity to see the effects of Islamism in practice and thus come back with a strong opinion about it than when speaking only to its supporters in societies where Islamism is not in power.

The team conducted in-depth interviews with 120 persons at various places such as universities, hotels, cafes, madressahs, mosques and private homes. The questionnaire was prepared to find out from the respondents what they read, what changes they had noticed in their societies, the nature of their daily interaction with technology and the news, and their personal views on contemporary and historical role models.

We learn that the research team decided not to have written responses to the questionnaire because it was felt that many of the respondents were reluctant to commit themselves in writing because of fear that such material may end up with the intelligence services of their countries. Instead personal interviews were conducted.

The book provides useful information on the sects of Islam and the historical personalities that Muslims hold in great reverence and admiration. The author has shown great skill in providing as neutral an account as possible.

The findings of study are that fundamentalist ideologues such as Syed Qutb, Abul Ala Maududi and Khomeini have followers among the orthodox in the Muslim. Among those with a Sufi type of inclination Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens) and Amr Khaled and some other cultural figures were popular. Some found the former Malaysian president, Mahathir Muhammad, a worthy role model of the Aligarh variety.

Quite expectedly Osama bin Laden and Yasser Arafat were the two main heroes of young Muslims from the contemporary period. This cut across the orthodox, modernist and Sufi distinctions. Even the current Iranian President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khomeini fascinated Sunni Muslims. In the popular perception they are seen to have stood up to western domination and therefore enjoy broad support.

The problem with the expression ‘contemporary role model’ is that while Syed Qutb, Maududi and Khomeini: all deceased are included in such a description the Turkish reformer Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is not. This gives a false impression that he is absent from the choices being made about contemporary role models. After the recent mammoth demonstrations in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir in favour of keeping the Turkish republic a secular state there should be no doubt at all that millions of Turks are convinced that it is in their interest that religion and state should remain separate.

Elsewhere too I find a revived interest in Turkey and the secular state as Muslim societies sink deeper and deeper into the quagmire of obscurantism and nihilism. One of the worst types of racism in the west is to believe that Muslims as a civilisation are incapable of thinking in secular and rational terms.

The strength of the book is that it also takes up practical life situations of the Muslims into account. Not all want to throw bombs at the Americans or want to start a worldwide jihad. This is the obsession of a tiny minority but they tend to get the most attention and indeed serve as the basis of stereotyping Muslims in the west.

We learnt that young Muslims who want to partake in globalisation and seek jobs and admissions to higher seats of learning are discriminated against in many parts of the world. The west has undoubtedly played a dirty role in creating a corrupt and exploitative economic and social order in the world.

The writer is professor of political science at the University of Stockholm, Sweden.  Originally published in The News at