Soon after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September, the Economist published an editorial examining “the roots of hatred” underlying it. Many reasons for why people might hate the United States were considered: the missile defense proposal; America’s status as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases; its refusal to place its nationals within the jurisdiction of international criminal tribunals; its cuts in aid for poor countries; and its willingness to subordinate principle to national self-interest in foreign policy.
But while these actions may have caused resentment, the editors argued, they could not “plausibly have motivated one of [the September 11] suicide attackers.” Similarly with American policy in the Middle East: while its approach to the Palestinians and Iraq was acknowledged as a major source of anti-American feeling in the Arab world, it should be balanced against the efforts of American administrations to bring the Israelis and Palestinians to a settlement, and its success in protecting the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo. American leadership in the world is not perfect, the editorial concluded, but those who do not like it “should stop and think how the world would look if the Soviet Union had won [the Cold War].” As for the reasons behind September 11, “in truth, it is difficult to find plausible explanations, . . . except in the hatred and moral confusion of those who plotted and perpetrated them.”
As an explanation of what motivated Mohammed Atta and his associates, this editorial left a great deal to be desired. While clearly and unambiguously repudiating the claim that the United States had somehow brought the September 11 attacks upon itself, the Economist’s attempt at an alternative explanation ended where it had begun. The sources of “the envy, hatred, and moral confusion” driving the terrorist network responsible for the attacks remained a mystery. For regular readers of the magazine this should be no surprise, for the obvious sources of this envy, hatred, and moral confusion are to be found in two of the Economist’s major blind spots: globalization and religion. In the editorial the role of fundamentalist Islam is not even canvassed, and the possibility that globalization might be a source of resentment is dismissed as “ridiculous” at the outset. This was perhaps an unfortunate choice of words. While globalization is preemptively ruled out of the Economist’s explanation, the possibility that September 11 might have been motivated by resentment at America’s refusal to pay its dues to the United Nations is given careful consideration.
The Economist would soon be given another opportunity to address the issues it had overlooked. Shortly after this editorial was published, the New Statesman carried a piece by the political theorist John Gray in which he put globalization squarely in the dock—and religion squarely in the witness stand. Gray argued that the collapse of communism had been seized upon by the victorious West “as a historic opportunity to launch yet another vast utopian project—a global free market. The world was to be made over in the image of Western modernity—an image deformed by a market ideology that was as far removed from any human reality as Marxism had been.” Indeed, Gray continued: what is striking is how closely the market liberal philosophy that underpins globalization resembles Marxism. Both are essentially secular religions, in which the eschatological hopes and fantasies of Christianity are given an Enlightenment twist. In both, history is understood as the progress of the species, powered by growing knowledge and wealth, and culminating in a universal civilization. Human beings are viewed primarily in economic terms as producers or consumers, with—at bottom—the same values and needs. Religion of the old-fashioned sort is seen as peripheral, destined soon to disappear, or to shrink into the private sphere, where it can no longer convulse politics or inflame war.
For market liberalism “there is only one way to become modern.” Free markets and individualistic values are compulsory for all, and if a people’s “religious beliefs or their patterns of family life make this difficult for them, too bad—that is their problem . . . . You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
After September 11, in Gray’s view, “the entire worldview that supported the market’s faith in globalization has melted down . . . [and] it cannot be reconstituted.” The wealthier countries are no longer insulated from the chaos produced by the collapse of the state in Afghanistan, much of Africa, and parts of Russia, and this represents “a grievous blow to the beliefs that underpin the global market.” Even the concept of modernity now appears questionable. “Is it really the case that all societies are bound, sooner or later, to converge on the same values and views of the world?” Countries must be allowed “to find their own version of modernity, or not to modernize at all.” The attempt “to force life everywhere into a single mold” can only fuel conflict. We will never understand September 11, Gray concludes, until we learn to see it for what it is: “a genuine rejection of Western modernity.”
A great deal of the case Gray made against globalization and market liberalism in his New Statesman piece restated the argument set out in his recent book, False Dawn. Nevertheless, the timing and the provocative nature of the article ensured it a wide audience—so much so that the Economist felt compelled to address Gray’s claims directly in its next issue. Far from rebutting Gray, however, the evasiveness of the editorial seemed to prove his point. Describing globalization as nothing more than “the idea that people should be left free to trade with each other in peace,” the editors referred to the study published in the magazine that week showing that globalization does not undermine democracy or the welfare state, is consistent with good environmental policies, and is the most effective force for reducing poverty in the Third World. But given that Gray did not dispute any of these points in his New Statesman article, this argument rather missed its target.
Evasiveness characterized the Economist’s response to Gray’s substantive claims as well. Considering the question of globalization’s impact on local cultures, the editorial pointed out (somewhat disingenuously) that “under a market system, economic interaction is voluntary,” the implication being that if a country does not like the cultural impact of trade it can opt out. This may be true in theory, but autarchy has little appeal in practice. It is also true, as the editors went on to say, that if people all over the world are eating McDonald’s and wearing Nike they are doing so through choice, not coercion. But it does not follow necessarily from this (as the editorial claims) that non-Western cultures should feel threatened by globalization only to the extent that they feel threatened by individual freedom. Globalization does not militate against religious diversity, the editors argue, but no one claims it does. Gray’s point was that globalization often entails a secularist drive to push religion to the periphery, and it is this, rather than religious imperialism, that raises concern. Secularism is also the concern underlying claims that globalization leads to the homogenization of culture. The Economist dismisses this question by pointing to the differences between countries like the United States, Sweden, and Japan, where “globalization has been running at full power for years.” But the real issue is the universalization of a certain form of instrumental rationality, and the narrow concepts of human nature and human well-being that underpin it.
The exchange between the Economist and John Gray over September 11 is important for several reasons, not least because of the unsatisfactory way in which it concludes. It brings together an eminent advocate and an eminent critic of globalization, but what it produces is not so much a conversation as a dialogue of the deaf. For Gray, globalization is the West’s last revolutionary project in pursuit of the millennium. For the Economist, globalization is the pragmatic extension of pr oven economic and political practices around the world to improve the lot of ordinary people everywhere. In Gray’s view, no one of good will and intelligence could be in favor of globalization; in the Economist’s view, no one could be against it. It is an argument dominated by the question of economic liberty, its rights and its limits. But it is also shadowed by another question, the dark horse of religion. Both sides have a vague idea that religion is important in some way or other, but where it fits, and the role it plays, remains unclear. September 11 has required us to be a great deal clearer about a great many things. The most important of these, without doubt, are globalization and religion.
In coming to a deeper appreciation of the relationship between globalization and religion it is helpful to start with an unbiased observer. Pope John Paul II is a natural choice for this role. His pontificate has been distinguished by a profound and thoroughgoing engagement with contemporary culture and the forces that form and impinge upon it, not least of all the economy. His 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus brought a new dimension to Catholic social teaching, emphasizing the irreplaceable role that transcendent reference points play in ensuring the fruitfulness of freedom, not only in the life of the individual, but also in the life of society, the polity, and the economy. Without reference to the transcendent reality that constitutes human life, the open society, democracy, and the free economy risk becoming little more than different forums for an unending contest of power. “Freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth. In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation and man is exposed to the violence of passion and to manipulation, both open and hidden.” The Pope’s linkage of freedom and truth has manifold implications, including an unambiguous, if conditional, endorsement of a market economy that is “circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality.”
Towards the end of Centesimus Annus the Pope briefly discusses globalization in the context of promoting justice and enabling peoples “presently excluded or marginalized to enter into the sphere of economic and human development.” Achieving this will require change, both in individual lifestyles and patterns of consumption and in “the established structures of power which today govern societies.” In pursuit of this end the globalization of the economy “is not to be dismissed, since it can create unusual opportunities for greater prosperity.” The main challenge is to establish an appropriate framework within which globalization can operate. The Pope observes that this task is beyond the competence of any individual state, even “the most powerful on earth,” and will require increased cooperation between both states and international agencies. “Much remains to be done in this area,” the Pope wrote in 1991, not least to ensure that “sufficient consideration” is given in decision-making to “peoples and countries which have little weight in the international market, but which are burdened by the most acute and desperate needs.”
Some commentators have taken the support John Paul II expressed for the market in Centesimus Annus as a break or departure from the tradition of Catholic social teaching. Certainly, some of the nineteenth-century popes were altogether more skeptical, if not actually hostile, to the forms that democracy and capitalism took in their day. John Paul II’s discussion of globalization, however, locates Centesimus Annus clearly in the tradition of twentieth-century papal approaches to social issues. As Samuel Gregg has shown, what we now call globalization was the subject of careful papal study from its earliest stages. In the encyclical Mater et Magistra (1961), Pope John XXIII drew attention to “an increase in social relationships” in modern life, especially at the international level. It was not just a matter of new and different forms of associations, but of their increasingly complex interrelation. The phenomenon that John XXIII addressed was subsequently (and not very helpfully) described as “socialization,” and its main focus was not economics but the broader relationship between the developed and developing worlds. But John XXIII saw the Church’s responsibility towards “socialization” in the same way as John Paul II sees the Church’s responsibility towards globalization. The object of concern is not so much the phenomenon itself as the form it is given and its implications, positive and negative, for human flourishing.
John Paul II himself has said this explicitly: “Globalization, a priori, is neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it. No system is an end in itself, and it is necessary to insist that globalization, like any other system, must be at the service of the human person; it must serve solidarity and the common good.” In an address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences last year, the Pope observed that since the fall of communism “humanity has entered a new phase in which the market economy seems to have conquered virtually the entire world.” While globalization has brought a greater interdependence of economies and societies, and works powerfully to eliminate “barriers to the movement of people, capital, and goods,” it also brings “rapid changes in social systems and cultures. Many people, especially the disadvantaged, experience this as something that has been forced upon them, rather than as a process in which they can actively participate.” This last sentence raises the key questions that must be asked about “what we have made” of globalization so far: Does it promote justice? Does it respect cultures? Does it work to enfranchise people? Does it serve or subvert freedom? Does it serve or subvert the truth about the human person?
In another address on this theme towards the end of last year, John Paul II emphasized that the Church “is called to discern and evaluate the cultural novum produced by globalization.” This discernment has for its primary object the image of man that globalization proposes, the form of culture it favors, and the room it allows “for the experience of faith and the interior life.” It is “the cultural and ethical features of globalization” that are of “special and greater concern to the Christian community,” although any assessment of this necessarily entails its economic aspects as well. In this address, and in the earlier address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the Pope makes it clear that to the extent that globalization operates as “a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed by a strong juridical framework,” its cultural and ethical impact will be decisively negative. In this situation the logic of the market becomes “the medium for a new culture.” It “imposes its way of thinking and acting and stamps its scale of values upon behavior.” For this reason, those who are subjected to it often see globalization as a destructive flood threatening the social norms which had protected them and the cultural points of reference which had given them direction in life. What is happening is that changes in technology and work relationships are moving too quickly for cultures to respond. Social, legal, and cultural safeguards‚—the result of people’s efforts to defend the common good—are vitally necessary if individuals and intermediary groups are to maintain their centrality. But globalization often risks destroying these carefully built up structures by exacting the adoption of new styles of working, living, and organizing communities. (Emphasis added.)
The danger posed to intermediary groups and bodies is of particular concern. Quite aside from the role they play in the life of culture and community and in making individual and political freedom possible, any economic system that destroys intermediary groups denies itself legitimacy and undermines its own sustainability. Michael Novak argues that an international economic system genuinely concerned to liberate “the poor of the earth from the prison of poverty” must work through “institutions that rest upon, and nourish, voluntary cooperation.” Such a system would “exhibit a sort of universal solidarity, married to the healthy practice of subsidiarity,” with local communities playing a major role in decision-making and providing the main source of initiative and energy. The tendency to undermine intermediary bodies identified by John Paul II works directly against Novak’s vision of what globalization might be, and recalls the “radical capitalistic ideology” identified in Centesimus Annus, “which refuses even to consider these problems . . . and which blindly entrusts their solution to the free development of market forces.” It also highlights the importance of the legal safeguards mentioned by the Pope in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, and by commentators like Novak. In other words, governments and international agencies have an important role to play. The realization of what John Paul II calls in Centesimus Annus “a society of free work, of enterprise, and of participation . . . demands that the market be appropriately controlled by the forces of society and by the state with the principle of subsidiarity guiding their cooperation.”
It is important to stress that John Paul II does not approach globalization as a partisan in the public debate. From the Church’s perspective, globalization is something to be studied deeply so that any ethical issues arising can be discussed on the basis of objective knowledge. The Pope’s concern for the impact of globalization on what are sometimes called the mediating institutions of society is not something expressed in the absence of evidence. In a paper presented to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences at its meeting last year, Professor Paul Dembinski argued that the erosion of intermediary bodies can be a function of the integration of international markets and the continuously expanding “width of information” made possible by information technologies. This is particularly so when it comes to the influence of financial markets on local economies and enterprises. The global information used to put a value on the assets and possible outcomes involved places these local projects “in the perspective of an artificial and illusory ‘totality.’” A change in share price based on this information then forces a local operation to react to events that may not be related to its activity and over which it has no control, but on which “it has been made dependent by the integrative action of financial markets.”
Social actors, enterprises, or governments can only influence by their decisions a limited set of realities, but through the integrative power of financial markets, they are exposed and have to react to a much wider spectrum of information and realities. In this respect, one can argue that the widening scope of information taken into account by the financial markets increases the asymmetry in the feedback loop between the financial markets and the underlying elements of the real economy. For medium-sized enterprises, for smaller countries, the asymmetry between the width of global information used to assess prices of assets they represent and the effective reach or influence of the underlying economic actor is particularly strong. As a result, especially for the smaller economic players, interdependence turns into their dependence on the verdict of the financial markets.
The net result of integration in this area is “the progressive withering away of any remains of subsidiarity in the field of money and finance.”
Dembinski also explains how a global market operating without the benefit of an adequate framework of juridical and social controls “imposes its way of thinking and acting” on cultures and “stamps its scale of values” upon individual behavior. The consequentialist and utilitarian form of “rational behavior” that is appropriate to decision-making in the purely economic realm can be confined to that realm only if economic life is considered one part of life among many. The more important the economy becomes in the life of a community, the more difficult it will be to prevent self-interested modes of thinking from penetrating other spheres of life. The importance of the market economy today arises from its immense capacity to generate wealth, but before this became generally apparent the economy acquired its importance from the role it played in stabilizing social life. Dembinski argues that one of the major concerns of eighteenth-century political philosophy was how to check or harmonize human passions so that social stability could be more permanently established. Adam Smith provided the breakthrough with his identification of self-interest and the desire to better one’s condition as the source of both prosperity and domestic peace. Giving people the freedom and scope to get on is obviously a much easier thing to bring about than the management of the passions, and this brilliant solution to the problem of social stability was one of the main reasons for the enormous success of The Wealth of Nations (1776).
Of course, Smith was a moral philosopher and he saw self-interest, operating under conditions of honesty and fair-dealing, as (in the words of Gertrude Himmelfarb) “a moral principle conducive to the general interest.” He had no desire to establish the economy as a realm completely autonomous from politics, religion, and society. That this tendency has emerged is partly the consequence of unforeseeable and unconnected developments such as the decline of faith, and partly the consequence of the enormous success of Smith’s ideas and others in transforming economic practice and securing social stability. On the one hand, the erosion of religious belief in the West and the rise of materialist and utilitarian philosophies made the extension of “economic” modes of thinking to the rest of life almost irresistible. On the other hand, the desire to replicate Western economic success created an openness to these modes of thinking in other cultures which, quickly extending beyond the economic, came to serve as vehicles not so much for Westernization (as is often alleged), but for secularism.
In the West these ways of thinking coalesce with a consumerist mentality that constantly redefines the concept of a “decent” or “normal” life upward, requiring, in Dembinski’s words, “an ever-higher level of income” to maintain, with adverse effects on “the way [people] share their time between for-market and not-for-market activities.” As Pierre Manent has put it, “Profit, not religion, is the spirit of this spiritless world where one must overwork in order to live.” The Pope is thus right to point out that, in other cultures, there is the impression that “a new scale of values” is being imposed, “derived from criteria that are regularly arbitrary, materialistic, consumerist, and opposed to any kind of openness to the transcendent.” People feel that they are being trampled by “faceless mechanisms” and losing their sense of identity and dignity, while their culture is “not accepted and respected in [its] originality and richness.”
Globalization “will be what people make of it.” In considering what we have made of globalization so far and what it might be, its impact on culture and society looms large. It might almost be said that this question has taken precedence over the question of its economic impact. This may be due to the fact that, as John Lloyd points out, it is hard “to disprove the claim that the free trading system is, by and large, good for rich and poor, and that the more open a poor state the more likely it is to grow rich.” John Paul II’s approach to globalization seems to reflect this. The questions he suggests we should ask—“What is the image of man that globalization proposes? What culture does it favor? Is there room for the experience of faith and the interior life?”—actually take us beyond globalization to what some describe as the problem of religion in the modern world. And the real question this “problem” poses is whether there can be any genuine solution to the challenges confronting globalization without religion.
In calling for globalization to “respect the diversity of cultures,” John Paul II is calling for respect for freedom. Globalization “must not deprive the poor of what remains most precious to them, including their religious beliefs and practices, since genuine religious convictions are the clearest manifestation of human freedom.” There are many who would dispute this view and contend that religious convictions are in fact a major impediment to the extension and preservation of freedom. Michael Lind argued last year that it is not Christianity and Islam that are at war in the struggle against terrorism, but “humanist civilization” and religious civilization. The Judeo-Christian tradition has contributed nothing to the development of a free, “tolerant, individualist, commercial society” in the West, Lind claims. Christianity “has always had far less in common with humanist civilization than with orthodox Islam.” The hostility of Christianity and Islam to reason is seen clearly in their opposition to “feminism, gay rights, abortion, contraception, and freedom from censorship,” it being well known that there can be no rational basis for querying these things. “Far from being the source of humanist civilization . . . Christianity in its traditional forms is incompatible with a liberal, democratic, secular society that has an economy based on applied science and commercial exchange.”
Andrew Sullivan has written that one of the good things to come out of September 11 is that the influence of “theoconservatives” such as Michael Novak, Father Richard John Neuhaus (whom Lind accuses of “openly flirt[ing] with sedition” in the “End of Democracy?” symposium in FT, November 1996), and Marvin Olasky on the Bush Administration will now decline. After all, “it is hard to fight a war against politico-religious extremism if you are winking at milder versions in your own political coalition.” Apparently, the argument that a free society needs transcendent reference points is tantamount to arguing for “a total fusion of religion and politics” in pursuit of “a theocratic order.”
John Paul II addressed this line of reasoning directly in Centesimus Annus. “If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people.” The Church realizes “the danger of fanaticism or fundamentalism,” in which people “claim the right” to impose on others their own concept of what is true “in the name of an ideology which purports to be scientific or religious.” But “Christian truth is not of this kind. Since it is not an ideology, the Christian faith does not presume to imprison changing sociopolitical realities in a rigid schema, and it recognizes that human life is realized in history in conditions that are diverse and imperfect.”
It is not new, but as George Weigel has noted, the project of “making the United States a country in which religiously grounded values and arguments have no place in public life . . . continues to this day.” The Catholic Church is seen “as the largest institutional obstacle” to the realization of this goal, and despite the fact that over the last thirty years it has been “the world’s foremost institutional promoter of the democratic project” (in Central-Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and throughout Lýtin America), the charge is still made that the Church is irremediably antidemocratic. But as Weigel points out, the charge that Catholicism is “unsafe” for democracy is a stalking-horse for another argument altogether, the argument over what democracy should be. It is not an argument that America is having alone. Fr. Anthony Fisher, O.P., Australia’s leading Catholic bioethicist, recently described attending a major conference on artificial reproductive technologies in Melbourne. One of the papers given argued strongly that governments and regulators should refuse to receive submissions from groups like the Catholic Church, “because it is not directly affected and in no special position to represent children or morality.” After all, it was argued, “democracy has nothing to do with morality; it is about respecting individual choice.”
But according to John Paul II, such a view is incompatible with genuine democracy. The assumption “that agnosticism and skeptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude that correspond to democratic forms of political life,” and that “those who are convinced that they know the truth and firmly adhere to it” are “unreliable” since “they do not accept that truth is determined by the majority,” opens the way for “ideas and convictions to be manipulated for reasons of power” or”as shown by the way transgressive developments in biotechnology are driven”financial gain. “A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism,” and unless values “are grounded in the very nature of the human person” they will serve merely as “the justification or legitimation of a system,” rather than as “the safeguard of all that is human in any system.” Democracy is not just a set of institutional arrangements that once in place will run themselves. In Weigel’s words, “Democracy is a way of public life, a way of being a political community,” and if it is going to work it requires a critical mass of people “who have made their own the values, the moral truths, that teach us to be civil, tolerant, respectful—in a word, democratic.ý Institutions by themselves are not enough, and a democracy that excludes “any consideration of binding moral norms as a horizon for its public life, on the grounds that moral truth [is] either illusory or sectarian,” places itself in a situation where issues can be resolved only by resort to force, exercised through the capture and control of those institutions. As Leszek Kolakowski has pointed out, without truth, the freedom of democracy becomes a realm where anything is possible. This is not a triumph for the human spirit, but a profound defeat.
Freedom’s need for truth is not something that is purely Western-specific. Arising as it does from the fundamental truth about human life and culture, it is true for human life and culture everywhere. How then might the argument for faith’s role in supporting and sustaining authentic democracy in the West translate to other cultures and other situations? In particular, how does it translate to the world of Islam? Merely to ask this question in the aftermath of September 11 is to highlight just how easy it is to make the secularist argument that religion is inimical to the growth of freedom’s dominion, that the secularizing tendency of globalization is a force for human liberation, and that freedom can never be secure in a culture where religious faith is the primary passion in people’s lives. But going in this direction leads only to a dead-end. As we have seen, there is a very real danger that globalization will serve as the means for replicating throughout the world the sorts of problems that the regime of freedom-without-truth has created in the culture of the West. How Islam might respond creatively to this danger, without turning in on itself and against the rest of the world, is not something that is immediately apparent.
On the face of it, the relationship between democracy and Islam seems troubled at best. Freedom House’s annual survey of freedom for 1999-2000 found that of the forty-seven Muslim countries in the world, fewer than one-quarter are electoral democracies, compared with more than three-quarters of the 147 non-Muslim countries. Muslim states make up seven of the ten countries listed as the least free countries in the world, and they do not compare well at other points along the scale. Of non-Muslim countries, the Freedom House survey rated 58 percent as free (that is, fully democratic), 14 percent as not-free (that is, strict dictatorships of one form or another), and the remaining 28 percent as partly free. Of the forty-seven Muslim countries, however, only one, Mali, was rated free; of the others, 38 percent were rated partly free, and 60 percent were rated not-free. What these figures make clear, as Joshua Muravchik has pointed out, is that Muslim countries account for a majority of the unfree states in the world. Muravchik argues that this is not a function of poverty—the African countries in the survey have an annual per capita income about half that of the average for Muslim states but considerably better freedom ratings. Nor is it a function of religion in itself—from past Freedom House surveys it can be seen that Muslim states had much better freedom ratings twenty years ago. We should also recall how it used to be said that Confucian values in Asia and Catholicism in Latin America meant that democracy would never develop in those regions.
Muravchik notes that it is in the Middle East that things are bleakest for democracy in Muslim countries. His explanation puts a heavy emphasis on the rise of Islamic extremists and the cycle of violence and repression this has generated as the secular regimes that have been in place since postcolonial times seek to ensure continuation of their own power. But this account leaves the rise of Islamic extremism unexplained and sheds no light at all on the broader question of Islamic culture and its openness to freedom. Radical Islam shares with the socialism, secularism, and pan-Arab nationalism that preceded it during the 1950s and 1960s a desire to restore the prestige and power of Muslim countries in response to the ascendancy of the West. The secularist modernizers attempted to revive Muslim greatness by adopting Western ideas and technical innovations to overcome the legacy of corruption, incompetence, and failure bequeathed by the Ottoman empire. Islamism also seeks to revive Muslim greatness and to overcome a legacy of corruption, incompetence, and failure, but its preferred means is the restoration of an ahistorical “pure” Islam and the transformation of the nation into a faithful community of believers.
While both approaches were driven by a desire to assert Muslim independence and manifested themselves as movements of defiance and resistance against the West, both were decisively shaped by Western influences. It will be obvious how this was so for the secularist modernizers. Secularism, socialism, and nationalism were not ideas that occurred naturally in the Muslim world. While secularism was part of the repudiation of a failed religious culture, nationalism and socialism appealed in no small part beýause of their antidemocratic and anticapitalist animus, as Bernard Lewis has convincingly shown. Mixed in with this was the conceit that despite their weakness, even secular Muslim states represented a more “spiritual” and more authentic “civilization” than the soulless consumerist world of the imperialist West.
Radical Islam’s relation to Western influences is considerably more convoluted. Islamic extremism as we encounter it today can be traced back to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna in 1928. In the period after the Second World War, the Muslim Brotherhood became increasingly radicalized, and after falling out with the Nasser regime it internationalized with the assistance of Saudi Arabia. One of its most important figures was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66). Malise Ruthven describes Qutb as “the intellectual mentor of modern Islamism,” and his influence on Islamic radicalism cannot be overestimated. In the words of Frédéric Volpi, “Since Qutb, it has been one of the central tenets of Islamic fundamentalism that politics does not involve merely the confrontation of competing political organizations, but also of entire philosophical systems.” Despite this, Qutb drew heavily on Western ideas in the formation of his own philosophy, in particular Henri Bergson’s —vitalist— approach to culture and existentialist ideas of “action-oriented commitment.”
The first radical group to emerge in Egypt after Qutb’s execution by the regime took this last point a step further, drawing its inspiration not solely from “Islamic ideas” but also from the Baader-Meinhof gang’s concept of the “propaganda of the deed.” Ayatollah Sayyid Ruhallah Khomeini, who was radicalized by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s attempts to break up the huge land-ownings that helped sustain the power of the Shi‘a religious establishment in Iran, was also deeply influenced by Western ideas, especially those of Sartre and—not least of all—Marx. Far from being exclusively Islamic, the ideologies of Muslim radicals are hybrids that reflect a perverse form of engagement with both modernity and the West. That this particular form of engagement is so fruitless is doubtless partly attributable to the fact that the sources drawn on lock those using them into the political and philosophical discourse of the West in the 1930s and 1960s.
To some extent, the disaffection to which radical Islam gives expression is similar to that which has fed into extremist political groups in the West. Urbanization has proceeded rapidly in Muslim countries, and for those whose character and outlook have been formed in the traditional faith of the rural hinterland the confrontation with the chaotic and pagan world of big cities, either at home or abroad, can be profoundly dislocating. Education and economic developments have made it harder to maintain the traditional extended family structure and are changing the roles that women are allowed to play. The encounter with the new worlds of cinema, satellite television, and information technology, and through them with Western-style consumerism, also plays a part. For some, this change is experienced not as a liberation but as an attack on culture, tradition, and religious observance. It is also experienced as a humiliation. The Westernizing trend of these changes and the preeminence of the West over the Muslim world are clear to all who can see.
For Muslims, however, the world divides into two realms, the realm of believers (dar al-islam—the house of Islam) and the realm of unbelievers (dar al-harb—the house of unbelief, or war). While it is “proper and natural” for believers to rule unbelievers, it is “blasphemous and unnatural” for unbelievers to dominate believers. According to Bernard Lewis, many Muslims believe that having to accept this situation “leads to the corruption of religion and morality in society, and the flouting and even the abrogation of God’s law.” The “corruption of religion and morality” through the invasion of foreign ideas and ways of life has been apparent for some time, but more recently its effects have begun to be felt in the most private realm of the family, where—emancipated women and rebellious children—now threaten the believer’s mastery in his own house. At the same time, however, anger and resentment at the impact of the West coexists with a strong sense of the attractiveness of the Western way of life and of the appeal (for some) that a free society has as an alternative, in the words of Anatol Lieven, to “the multiple failures of development and progress within the Muslim world.”
Complicated and important as the question of radical Islam is, the crucial question both now and longer term concerns the openness of Islamic culture to freedom. Lewis has commented that the emergence of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban provides “a new and vivid insight into the eclipse of what was once the greatest, most advanced, and most open civilization in human history.” To the Western observer it is “precisely the lack of freedom” that “underlies so many of the troubles of the Muslim world.” Freedom in the Islamic world generally refers to national independence or to the freedom of the community of believers to maintain religious observance, rather than the freedom of the individual. Ali Belhadj, one of the leaders of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), claims that the object of the West is “to weaken the Muslims’ resolve to do good and reject evil under the pretense that individuals are free in choosing their acts.” For Belhadj, at least, Islam entails a different concept of human nature from the one common to the West which sees individuals as free agents.
The word “Islam” means submission or obedience, and in its expansionist phase Islam was certainly spread through compelling the submission of conquered peoples rather than through persuasion or conversion. The main requirement of the believer is to “obey God’s commands and use [his] intelligence in discerning truth from falsehood.” He will be held responsible for how well he has done this on the day of judgment, and responsibility implies freedom to act. But this responsibility is not the personal responsibility that arises from living out one’s faith according to the lights of conscience; and the freedom of action it implies is not the freedom of choice that Westerners assume goes with it. It is the freedom to submit or surrender to God’s sovereignty, as measured primarily against the external requirements of the five pillars.*
But Islam is about more than outward forms of observance. For example, while jihad is typically understood in the West to mean holy war, the first meaning of the word is “exertion” or “struggle,” and Malise Ruthven points out that, as traditionally formulated, “the believer may undertake jihad by his heart, his tongue, his hands, and by the sword—the most important of these being the first.” The emphasis on interior struggle is sometimes referred to as “the greater jihad,” and it was the path adopted by Sufism, Islam’s mystical offshoot, which directed some of Islam’s energies towards inwardness. This deepening of religious experience, however, was not undertaken in opposition to outward observance but as a means of perfecting that observance and maintaining it even more strictly. And while its focus was on individual religious experience, it did not seek or work to displace the corporate foundation”family, tribe, dar al-islam”of the believer’s identity.
It is quite a different situation with Christianity. While the Koran also speaks of God’s love, the overriding emphasis given to the demands of that love in the Gospels leads in another direction altogether. Christ’s answer to the lawyer’s question about the greatest commandment—“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40)—makes this direction abundantly clear. The life of faith is first and foremost the inner life, and the deepening and cultivation of that life is enjoined both as the means of living out the law and of sustaining it as a law of love. The concepts of responsibility, freedom, and the human person implicit in this are radically different from those at work in Islam, and without them, as Kenneth Minogue has pointed out, the individuality and individualism that we take for granted in the West would never have emerged.
Many significant consequences flow from the differences between Christianity and Islam for the development of democracy and a free society. In one sense, Islam is individualistic. As there is no church in Islam, the believer’s relationship with God and His commands is direct and unmediated. But the consequence of this is to leave the individual exposed to greater domination. As Ruthven argues, “the lack of any central institution in Islam impeded the emergence of its counterweight in the shape of the secular state. The [Islamic] law developed separately from the agencies entrusted with its enforcement, and so military-tribal rule became the norm. The state was thus something which sat on top of society, not something which was rooted in it.”
A related issue is that Islamic law (Shari‘a) only takes cognizance of individuals. The Shari‘a does not possess a concept of juridical personality for corporate entities, and the public domain is treated as “simply the sum of its private components.” In contrast, the medieval Church in Europe generated a great range of mediating institutions within and outside itself, and canon law recognized these as legal persons from the beginning. It also provided a bureaucracy for resolving disputes and the institutional permanence necessary for sustained development. In this way it not only laid the foundations for what would one day become the democratic polity of the West but also prepared the way for the development of capitalism.
The absence of institutional boundaries and legal recognition for intermediary groups in Islam has meant that even today it is struggling to develop a legitimate public realm in which economic and political freedom might develop. This is compounded by the fundamental role the family plays in Islamic culture. The family is the only corporate entity the Shari‘a recognizes. It occupies a privileged position in the law and is accorded a degree of real independence. But when combined with the lack of a clear delineation of public and private and the problematic position of the state in relation to society, the consequence is to make government and institutions unusually vulnerable to capture and corruption by powerful extended family networks.
The profound impact that Islam has had on forming the culture, character, and society of the countries it dominates, and particularly in the Middle East, represents a critical obstacle to globalization. It also represents an important challenge. Globalization is not going to go away (at least in the foreseeable future), and although it is a powerful force in the world, it is not irresistible—as the history of the first half of the twentieth century shows. Islam is not going to go away either, nor will it be relegated to the status of a private lifestyle choice. It is possible to find a way forward on these terms, although doing so will require a radical reexamination of secular presuppositions about what is assumed to be the exclusively negative role that religion plays in political life. John Paul II’s reflections on this question are a good place to start, and the interaction between the West and Islam is a good place to try applying them. In doing this, we might just discover that far from being a critical obstacle, religion is in fact the critical ingredient in making freedom around the world possible.
The problem with globalization as it currently operates is its tendency to foster secularization among peoples and cultures that are not secular and do not want to be secular. The impression for local people is as John Paul II has described it: the sweeping away of the social norms and “the cultural points of reference which had given [people] direction in life,” and the imposition of a new scale of values “derived from criteria that are regularly arbitrary, materialistic, consumerist, and opposed to any kind of openness to the transcendent.” These consequences of globalization should not be dismissed blithely as the price that must be paid for the promise of a wealthier country. It goes without saying that globalization makes change unavoidable, but if it is to be a positive force and to make a positive contribution to the spread of political and economic freedom it must work in a way that respects and does not undermine the most important points of reference for local people.
On the West’s part, this will mean abandoning the illusion that there is only one way of being modern, one way of being democratic, and one way of building and managing a free economy. In Kenneth Minogue’s words, democracy emerged in the West “out of an organic development” of customs and institutions lasting centuries, which today helps sustain it “at a profound level.” As Michael Novak points out, this is not “a purely rational, abstract, conceptual achievement,” but the product of “many generations of social experimentation.” This will also be true for Muslim countries. We tend to forget that the openness of democratic development means that it can move in various directions and take various forms. This is one reason why it is so important to observe and study the experiment with democracy currently underway in the Islamic republic of Iran. Although by no means perfect, it should not be considered unworthy of attention merely because it is not an experiment with secular democracy.
For its part, Islam will have to rediscover some of the intellectual suppleness that produced the scientific and cultural greatness of the period that fell between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. The concept of democracy as it is understood in the West is problematic for Islam, in part because it is associated with Western domination, and in part because the underlying principle of the sovereignty of the people makes it irreconcilable with the sovereignty of God. What is required is the development of a concept of the person which accepts that, along with attributes such as love and reason, freedom is part of what constitutes human nature—and that this gives rise to a legitimate autonomy under the supremacy of the truth. Clearly, this is a very long-term project, since Islam tends to see freedom as something external and conditional on the sovereignty of God, rather than as something interior and constitutive of human being. Law and morality are seen in a similar way, as external precepts imposed by the will of God, rather than as formulations of the practical knowing of the good “written on the heart” that serves as the basis of the Christian concept of conscience.
Engaging in a genuine conversation with Islam on these issues and along these lines would also assist in furthering the concept of human rights. As long as human rights continue to be seen as advancing the interests of sovereign individuals against the claims of family, community, and faith, they will continue to be rejected in the Islamic world as a Western device for introducing a socially corrosive individualism. Secular attempts to respond to this by basing the universality of human rights on some lowest common denominator, such as the desire to avoid pain and humiliation, do not help because they deliberately avoid the underlying philosophical questions about human nature and the conditions of human flourishing. For both parties, an encounter with the personalism of John Paul II might open new possibilities for mutual understanding and common ground.
The engagement between globalization and Islam requires positive responses on both sides. Encouraging greater sensitivity on the part of the media towards cultural values overseas is one example of the practical and immediate measures that might be considered on the part of the West. Electronic media and the international advertising industry exercise a powerful impact on local cultures, and sensitivity to Islamic values in the depiction of women and in normalizing relationships and modes of behavior that Muslims consider aberrant would be an important step forward.
A priority for Islamic countries, in turn, if only to address the problem of corruption, is to encourage the development of clear boundaries between the public and private domains. Some Muslims claim that the Shari‘a is immutable, but even so it has always been supplemented by customary and state law, and this continues to be the case to varying degrees today, even in the six Muslim countries which have declared themselves Islamic states. There is scope, therefore, for the development of a concept of juridical personality for corporate bodies that would assist mightily in delineating a legitimate public realm and in encouraging both political and economic freedom. The development of effective and efficient government and nongovernment welfare agencies would also help in countering the appeal of radical Islamic groups, whose extensive welfare organizations play a significant part in generating and maintaining support for Islamism among the poor and displaced in the cities.
Many more suggestions could be added to these, but underlying most of them is the need for an intellectual shift on the part of the West so that religion is seen no longer as a stumbling block for freedom, but rather as its cornerstone. Muslims are human beings and freedom is part of their nature, whatever the constraints that history and culture may have placed upon it. Democracy can develop in the Islamic world, just as it developed successfully in some very unlikely places in the last thirty years of the twentieth century. It may not develop soon; it may not develop quickly; and almost certainly it will not develop in our own image. Keeping this possibility open is one of the goods that globalization should serve. The wrong sort of globalization, however, could close it off for generations. The outcome depends on the willingness of the West and of international agencies to reconsider the values and assumptions that drive globalization, and the sort of culture it favors as a consequence. The acid test will be the capacity of globalization to take religion seriously. The faith at the center of people’s lives in non-Western cultures has to be respected and engaged so that the extension of freedom and prosperity that globalization seeks can be realized through genuine participation.
The real question is whether the West can overcome its secularist bias to achieve this. Leaving room at the center of the culture “for the experience of faith and the interior life” does not mean pandering to theocracy. Truth and freedom is not an either/or proposition. Democracy needs to rediscover this, and globalization needs to learn it. For the fatal conceit is not that freedom can succeed against religion, but that it can do so without it.
Michael Casey is Permanent Fellow in Sociology and Politics at the Australian session of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family and a sociologist on the staff of Archbishop George Pell of Sydney. This essay won the Acton Institute’s 2001 Novak Award.
Soon after the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon last September, the Economist published an editorial examining “the roots of hatred” underlying it. Many reasons for why people might hate the United States were considered: the missile defense proposal; America’s status as the biggest producer of greenhouse gases; its refusal to place its nationals within the jurisdiction of international criminal tribunals; its cuts in aid for poor countries; and its willingness to subordinate principle to national self-interest in foreign policy.