THE REAL IMPACT of globalization on Muslim-Western relations has been mixed, but as the adage reminds us, “bad news travels faster.” Ironically, the speed advantage of globalization’s negative press can be attributed primarily to globalization itself. Empirically, it seems credible that income levels and life expectancy in Muslimmajority countries have improved in the last half-century, as have media openness and information distribution. Yet, world events and 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 U.S. point of view, this comes across as apparent ingratitude on the part of these 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 understanding gap on 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 had a cultural dominance over the West.
Numerous accounts exist of Islam’s golden-era eclipsing Europe’s dark ages, and of reformation-and renaissance-thinking being spurred by exposure to the scientific curiosity of Muslims. In contrast, and as great as civilizations such as the Aztec, Chinese or Indian ones are, they never held any part of Europe in a sphere of influence, let alone within their borders. This has perhaps saved them, ironically, from the obsession with “re”-assertion.
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 TV talk shows for his gyrating hips. What intentions do we expect Muslims to project on the West if “free media” then means that the most explicit pop videos of the day will be beamed into their living rooms and consumed by their innocent children? Imagine how an America suspicious of broadcast-Elvis would have roiled at satellite-Britney, or at 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 former point, “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. No to political accountability,” underscores the 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 Muslimmajority countries and the West. On the one hand, information availability and a growing-diversity in Western societies has nudged even privileged youth in the United States and Europe to view developing countries more as people rather 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 Muslimdominated 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 truly bi-directional. There must be genuine opportunity in this global marketplace for ideas and ideologies, not merely for the stifling effects of oligopolies and special interests. While globalization of media has created forums for “moderate” voices from the East and West to come together, even in this sector there is risk of further misunderstanding. With BBC, CNN and Fox News nearly ubiquitous in the Middle East, how can proponents of globalization justify the fact that no U.S. cable or satellite distributor will carry the English-language Al-Jazeera, a network run by nothing more threatening than a cadre of BBC vets and their peers from other Western stations?
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 EMs with obscenity-free lyrics was banned from TV talk shows for his gyrating hips. What intentions do we expect Muslims to project on the West if “free media” then means that the most explicit pop videos of the day will be beamed into their living rooms and consumed by their innocent children?
As in other developing countries, globalization becomes palatable when the economic expansion of multinational corporations comes with the extension of Western notions of labor, consumer and environmental protection. But in Muslim-majority countries in particular, the backlash to globalization needs to also be diffused by prioritizing the additional burdens of cultural sensitivity and real political inequity.