The real impact of globalization on Muslim-Western relations has been mixed, but as the adage reminds us, “bad news travels fast. Ironically, the speed of globalization’s negative press can be attributed primarily to globalization itself. Empirically, it seems credible that income levels and life-expectancy in Muslim-majority countries have improved in the last half-century, as have media openness and information distribution.
Yet, world events and international discourse strongly suggest that Muslims’ net impressions of globalization actually add up to a distinctly negative bias, which seems to have the Western world befuddled. From the United States’ point of view, this comes across as apparent ingratitude on the part of developing countries that, showered with aid and investment, seem to want to bite the hand that feeds them. Two maxims seem critical to bridging the Muslim-Western gap in understanding when it comes to the impact of globalization: “Perception is reality and “denying reality does not help perception. In the eyes of many in predominantly Muslim countries, the ambitions of proponents of free financial, trade and information flows are seen through two distorting lenses: suspicion and insecurity. The suspicion is the residual effect of resource exploitation under colonialism.
The second view, uniquely Muslim-Western, stems from insecurity over whether Islamic civilization will ever reassert itself after its prolonged period of stagnation. It is particularly an issue of the Muslim world because unlike other civilizations, only Islam ever culturally dominated the West. Numerous accounts exist of Islam’s golden age eclipsing Europe’s dark ages, and of Reformation and Renaissance thinking being spurred by exposure to Muslim civilization. In contrast, and as great as such civilizations as the Aztecs, the Chinese or the Indians were, they never held a part of Europe within their sphere of influence or borders. This has perhaps saved them from the obsession with “reassertion. To put things in context, the Middle East today may be compared socially to middle-America in the 1950s. At that time, a fully-clothed Elvis with obscenity-free lyrics was banned from television talk-shows for his gyrating hips.
What intentions do we expect Muslims to project on the West if “free media to them means that the most explicit pop videos of the day will be beamed into their living rooms and consumed by their children? Imagine how an America suspicious of Elvis would have roiled at seeing Britney Spears or Paris Hilton. In addition, how does one explain the fact that on the same signal, only a click away, the national news has no ability to question the ruling monarch or autocrat?
The matter of “MTV for Muslim masses highlights the problem of perception: this becomes the reality to which societies will react. The latter point, “Yes to pop-music, but no to political accountability, underscores a frustrating reality that we cannot deny without widening the chasm of misunderstanding. The hope for the future may lie first in a dose of forgetfulness, if not forgiveness and repentance. As a colonial-era generation has passed and the post-colonial one is aging, a new wave of young people is coming up in both Muslim majority countries and the West.
On the one hand, information availability and a growing diversity in Western societies has nudged even privileged youth in the US and Europe to view developing countries more as people than as economic resources – albeit sometimes with an eye to future consumer markets. At the same time, there are burgeoning numbers of young people throughout Muslim countries who have learned to appreciate Western ideals of intellectual freedom and self-determination, despite certain unfortunate realities of politics and war, though their numbers remain small. For Muslim antagonism toward “free global exchange to decline in a broader fashion, the exchange needs to be mutual.
There must be genuine opportunity in the global marketplace for contending ideas and ideologies, not merely for the stifling effects of oligopolies and special-interests. While the globalization of media has created forums for “moderate voices from the East and West to come together, even there there lies a risk of further misunderstanding.
With BBC, CNN and Fox News ubiquitous in the Middle East, how can proponents of globalization justify the fact that no US cable or satellite distributor will carry the English-language Al-Jazeera – run by nothing more threatening than a cadre of BBC veterans and former employees of other Western stations? As in the developing countries, globalization becomes palatable when the economic expansion of multinational corporations comes with the extension of Western notions of labor and of consumer and environmental protection. But in Muslim majority countries in particular, the backlash to globalization needs to be diffused by prioritizing the additional burdens of cultural sensitivity and real political inequity.
Mehmood Kazmi, an international business and investment consultant, is a Muslim American. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.