"Modernity, Democracy Are Only for the Privileged"

The Egyptian scholar Hamid Abu Zayd criticizes the age-old border between the wealthy North and the impoverished South. It still exists, despite globalisation. Universal human values, however, cannot be a privilege restricted to the West

Abu Zayd (Photo: Markus Kirchgessner)
Abu Zayd

​​"Globalization" is a ubiquitous word with many nuances. Nowadays, globalization primarily refers to the economic and political phenomenon which began in the sixties and has manifested itself as development towards a synchronized world market driven by multinational corporations.

Globalization has two distinct connotations, a positive one and a negative one. The international business world touts the positive aspects, whereas Third World politicians and intellectuals stress the negative. Large businesses view it as sign of progress, the Third World as the domination of international economic and political forces.

Capitalism as the dominant "world culture"

After the demise of the Soviet Union, the United States of America became the sole political world power. As a result, liberalism and capitalism became the global principles of the new world order, which marked the end of history, as maintained by Fukuyama. According to Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations", major conflicts in global politics arise between nations belonging to different civilizations. He identified seven of these nation/civilizations, two them being Islamic and Western civilization.

Now, the question is: Is it really possible to recognize the emergence of a world culture through the international criticism of globalization? In other words, would international criticism be considered as a form of cultural protest against the "culture of capitalism" which is inherent to globalization? And finally, does international criticism reflect the existence of a common culture, one which is the grounds for nurturing democracy/human rights and not only the economic needs of globalization?

If we look at Fukuyama's concept of the end of history, it obviously suggests that a 'world culture' is being asserted, i.e. a capitalist culture with its elements of freedom and democracy. The concept of an end of history predicts the advent of a unified, democratic world of human rights built by the global capitalist system.

The triumph of the "American way of life"

However, the clash of civilization theory points out that the differences between cultural values will inevitably lead to calamity. It is not difficult to see that the two concepts reflect the intrinsic dichotomy in the structure of the new world order: One side postulates a utopia and the other prophesizes a catastrophe. We are aware of the fact that the end of history theory claims that American culture, ethics and politics, i.e. "the American way of life", have triumphed over the others and should thus, be applied universally. War against different civilizations is deemed necessary to achieve this end.

Soon after the Gulf War, it was obvious that the United States expected the world to comply with its ideals and systems and would force them on others by using military power. Political and military powers based on economic power impose cultural values and a specific attitude. There is no room for cultural exchange based on communication with other cultures. It is clear that globalisation has augmented political and military power.

The power of mass media became even more obvious during Operation Desert Storm. People all over the world were able to keep track of American military action step by step, day and night on CNN.

Mass media informed people about their low status

Of course, mass media in the USA wielded great power long before Operation Desert Storm. American mass culture spread across the world through the media. The American way of life as presented in TV soap operas, for example, conveys a false ideal for the masses while triggering critical reactions in higher cultural spheres. The conflict between American mass cultural values und regional cultural values is emphasized and easily conveyed to lower social strata where people are aware of the disparity in living standards between the North and the South.

In our global village, advanced communication technology is a vehicle which transports social messages such as differences in lifestyles; the gap between rich and poor, the privileged and the underprivileged.

The issue at hand is not the threat to cultural diversity but instead, the possibility of creating a fair world on the economic, political and cultural level. The public plea for justice poses a threat to the "world regime", represented by the USA and to regional political rule of pro-Western leaders who are corrupt and thus, not disposed towards promoting democracy, political and economic development in their countries.

Pro-Western rulers create a fear of progress

Such dictatorships do not pose a threat to the new world order and are thus protected against the will of their people. Although the politically pro-Western rulers stress the importance of local culture and traditions, they also create a popular fear of progress and modernization. Dictators view modernity as a threat because it denotes freedom of expression.

In the case of the Muslim World, for example, modernity was introduced in the context of challenging European pressure. In Islam und Democracy, Fatima Mernissi explains how the acceptance of modernity was essentially based on the fear of losing self-identity, so individualism was an ambiguous concept among nineteenth century reformers and nationalist movements. In face of the militaristic, imperialistic West, Muslim nationalists resorted to cultural reversion and used past ideals to strengthen cultural boundaries against colonial violence.

The Muslim past they restored, however, did not establish a modern identity based on reason. In fact, the nationalists were captives of a historical situation that inevitably rendered modernity futile. There were two options. The first one was to adopt the humanist heritage of the Western colonizer at the risk of losing unity.

The second one was to carefully protect a sense of unity in the face of the colonizer by clinging to the past, giving preference to the tradition of obedience and shutting out all Western innovation except for technology. Reason entails individual opinions and choices and therefore, the possibility of diverging opinions poses a threat to a unified society.

American fear turned into arrogance

The situation did not change in the post-colonial era. Illegitimate political leaders, who claimed their leadership either by military power or inheritance, upheld the traditional cultural values of obedience and national solidarity against individualism. The modern values of democracy and human rights have to be reinterpreted, and accordingly be partially accepted or partially rejected.

When we look at the present situation, there is no way of avoiding the aftermath of September 11, which created a situation similar to early colonialism. The battle against terrorism, which in itself is legitimate, has turned into a perpetual battle against all others who are not on our side, as the United States' president declared. The expressions "our values", "our society", and "our culture", clearly imply that the others are uncivilized.

In February 2003, a statement on the need for mutual understanding addressed to the Arab and Muslim world was signed and issued by 60 American scholars, politicians and intellectuals. US foreign policy, which had taken the US to the brink of isolation before the WTC attack was barely criticized. There is no mention of the US' unconditional support of Palestinian genocide in Israel, an omission which discredits the intellectual independence of those who signed the statement.

How much have Western-Muslim relations improved? How much pressure is still put on the Muslim world to protect the economic and political interests of the West? How many unjust political regimes do western political policies support against the will of the people? To what extent are Muslims politically manipulated when Islam is presented as the successor of the Soviet Union's role as the West's enemy? If the conflict of civilizations is inevitable, then why should Muslims accept the values of a society they have to destroy?

Modernity, human rights, democracy – only for the privileged

These questions must be posed in any discussion about cultural diversity. It is true that the world has become a village, but the poor in the southern hemisphere are becoming poorer and the rich in the northern hemisphere, richer. Modernity, human rights and democracy are reserved for the privileged. The underprivileged have nothing but their plea for justice. This plea, sometimes violent, goes hand in hand with questions about democracy and its relevance.

In this context, cultural similarities have been overlooked in every European discussion on Western values. Mass media constantly emphasizes cultural polarization, the barriers between different cultures, and makes very few inconspicuous exceptions. The only way to overcome the politicization of cultural differences is to start rebuilding the world order by promoting the universal values of equality, freedom and justice for all people in the world regardless of their color, language, religion or culture.

It is difficult to accept the existence of a religious state in the 21st century. A state built on the basis of a single religious ideology ostracizes other religious groups. But the world cannot interfere if a state declares itself to be Islamic or Jewish. Such states do not allow democracy and human rights: they are only granted to those of the official faith, and other citizens do not have the same rights.

No culture contradicts values of human justice

The possibility of establishing the universal values of equality, freedom and justice, which always includes establishing democracy and human rights in every culture, is as great as the human desire of sharing the earth's resources equally.

I do not believe that there is any culture that would contradict the values of human justice, political and religious freedom or stand up against human rights. Denial of these values in any cultural context is a means of protecting particular political powers so that certain societal groups can maintain privileges at the expense of others.

It is time for the West to admit that modernity was not born from a vacuum but rather, has evolved historically through values passed on from ancient cultures ever since humans have set foot on earth and learned to fulfill their needs. Universal human values, which are considered to be purely Western, are in fact part of the human battle for peace and justice.

These values are essential for all civilizations, regardless of their religious, cultural or socio-political backgrounds. The fight for human rights started long before Spartacus' revolt against the Romans and has not seen its end with recent figures and movements, such as Mandela and anti-apartheid organizations.

Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd

© Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd 2003

Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid, born 1943 in Egypt, studied literature and wrote his doctoral thesis on Ibn al-Arabi, an Islamic theologian and mystic. He later came to criticise the spiritual monopoly of Islamic orthodoxy, arguing that it blocked rationalism and that it distorted the essential message of the Koran. After having received numerous death threats, Abu Zayd decided to leave Egypt. He currently lives in the Netherlands.