InsightNovember December 2005

Globalization and the Cultural Life in the Islamic World

By Dr. Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri


Every era has its own notions, concepts and terms; and every epoch of human history has its concerns, issues and preoccupations. As human thought develops, the words of civilization renew  themselves, as their meanings evolve and branch out. Thus, new ideas emerge and elaborated theories head towards new  directions, are cast in novel ways or assume new forms that adapt themselves to the contemporary era, reflect its nature and address its issues.

Among the new concepts which have emerged in this era, specially since the past decade of  the last century, there is the concept of Globalization. The advent of this concept is associated with the end of the cold war and the beginning of the so-called new world order,  which is in fact, given the nature of its designs, an order created by the forces of hegemony with the aim of establishing a unique political, economic, social, cultural and media model, and imposing it on all human communities and making it binding on all governments.

The concept of Globalization has intermixed with so many illusions that it became a complex and sometimes ambiguous issue, which always generates controversy. It has also become  associated with the hegemonistic policy exercised by the country that has become the sole leader  of the world in this era, after the collapse of the other antagonistic pole and the fall of its ideological, political and cultural system.

Globalization is therefore a multifaceted phenomenon : it is a political Globalization, an economic Globalization, a cultural Globalization and media Globalization and scientific Globalization and technological Globalization. The most alarming fact, in this regard, is that all these Globalizations are interdependent. There can be, for instance, no cultural Globalization without a political and economic Globalization to pave the way for it through pressure and intimidation or lure and deceit.

Hence, Globalization is to be understood as a system of political and economic principles, social and cultural concepts,  media and information patterns, codes of conduct and ways of life. This system aims at forcing the whole world to subscribe to it, adopt its values and live under its domination.

These are the intellectual, cultural and ideological underpinnings of the new world order.

What is globalization ?

Among all the definitions which thinkers working in the field of politics, as relating to culture and sociology, have tentatively provided for Globalization so as to understand and explain it, the most complete and thorough definition of Globalization and its overtones consider it to linguistically mean making things global, that is making the world into a single and integrated system. The term Globalization is used in English and German, its equivalent term in French is “Mondialisation”, while the word “Aoulama” has been coined as an equivalent in Arabic.

However numerous the contexts, in which Globalization is used, are, the concept which is expressed in all living languages is the tendency to dominate and incorporate the world into a single system. Hence the decision of the Arabic Language Academy to approve the use of “Aoulama”, i.e. making things global.([1])

When I looked up the word Globalization in the famous Webster’s Dictionary, I found out that it means applying a global character to things and especially to make the scope of the application of things global([2]). I believe this meaning to be naïve and very neutral since it does not convey the real meaning of the term as it is used worldwide. In fact, the political, cultural and economic overtones are not fully rendered unless the concept is viewed from a wider perspective which integrates all the political, cultural and economic transformations experienced by the world since the beginning of the 90s of the 20th  century([3]).

Is Globalization a danger ? is Globalization all evil?  Is there room for choice when facing the implacable tide of Globalization, which is supported by political pressure, influence and overwhelming economic hegemony ?

Many thinkers, in different disciplines, from the Islamic world as well as from different parts of the world have been interested in studying, mapping and theorizing on Globalization. However, we can say that Globalization is, in short, a global system in the process of invading and expanding worldwide. It is therefore a reality of the present stage of history.

One of the most salient features of Golablization is the amazing developments witnessed in the fields of information and communication  via satellites, computers and the Internet, which have resulted in :

– deep effects on cultures, social behaviors and ways of life ;

– diversity of economic opportunities through the dynamic of international investment and open markets, as well as  shortage in political alternatives given the decreasing viability of economic self-sufficiency models and the increasing economic interdependency ;

– the advent  of  the  so-called  “electronic  herd” constituted by multinational institutions and individuals who run after profit and have influence on the decisions of the states and the destinies of their peoples ;

– the utilization of Globalization’s tools in a way that enables their producers to control consumers and audiences, and to work towards superseding their local languages and obliterating their national identities.

Thus, Globalization has the extraordinary ability of penetration and therefore influence. Among the evidence that bear witness to the domination of Globalization over governments and peoples, is the following quotation taken from the speech of France’s President, Jacques Chirac which he delivered on the occasion of the National Day of France (July 14, 2000): “ Globalization needs to be regulated because it  produces great social divides. Although it is a factor of progress, it involves serious threats, which have to be closely examined. Among these are three : First, Globalization enhances the phenomenon of social exclusion. Second, it favors international crime. And third, it threatens our economic system”([4]).

Globalization forms, in reality, part of a global order to which governments and peoples are subjected, and no one can isolate himself from it. The psychological  factor is what makes us wavering, skeptical and fearful, as we stand dazzled and agape. If we manage to overcome the psychological effects induced by our attitude towards the phenomena of today’s world, with wisdom and civilizational consciousness, we will be able to confront reality as it is, not as we imagine or expect it to be.

Being honest with ourselves is the first step towards acquiring the means to control the devastating effects of cultural Globalization. In order to be honest with ourselves, we need to recognize that, as an Islamic Ummah in  the present stage of history, we don’t have the necessary capabilities to confront the tides of Globalization  and to control its blowing winds. This honest attitude should not thwart our efforts nor undermine our determination to fulfill our duties, in order to  continually alleviate the effects of Globalization, counter its assaults and minimize as much as possible and by any means available, the damage resulting from this invasion.

The spheres of globalization:

Does Globalization have only one side the negative one, which is reflected in the bad effects and the threats which endanger the stability of human communities? Or does it have both the positive and negative sides?

I think this is a key-question for a deeper understanding of Globalization at all levels, especially the cultural one.

In fact, every system, current or political or social idea relating to human life, has several sides. Given the duplicity of human thought which has both good and evil components that are immanent to the human mind. Based on this assumption, I can state that Globalization operates through several spheres and is not confined to a single one. The human mind has a say in the definition of these spheres and the delineation of their characteristics and processes.

Although this idea is clear, it has been overshadowed by focusing on the economic and political dimensions of Globalization to such an extent that most of the world’s thinkers, among whom there are many from the Islamic world, have overlooked the other dimensions of Globalization and are rather prone to reject Globalization as a whole.

This results in a loss of factual elements and a confusion between right and wrong, real and ideal.

Our rejection and loud and repetitive condemnation of Globalization, and our insistence on refuting its basic arguments and opposing the propaganda of its advocates will not change much to the situation resulting from the domination of the world order, which is imposing Globalization on the world. Our stance will have no positive effect on globalization since it is an overwhelming idea, style and current, which storms barriers and positions.

This is the reason why we call for the determination of the positive aspects of Globalization, and for working as much as possible to capitalize on the advantages of Globalization for our benefit in life, in general.

In this respect, there is an urgent need for a sound methodology which will enable us to control the effects of Globalization to the best of our abilities. and thus to find our way to draw benefits from globalization in a manner that would induce us to contribute to the new human civilization from our vantage point by drawing on our special historical   background and  civilizational identity.

This positive approach to Globalization requires that we take part in the international cultural scene and that we prompt our societies towards a dynamic interaction with the rapidly changing variables of the world, so that we can understand what is happening around us and assimilate the major changes experienced by humanity, throughout the present era. We can not keep on blaming our fortune, watching, in dismay, the world advancing and evolving.

The psychological defeat in the face of Globalization is the result of the belief that Globalization is a fatality. This exaggerated belief does not reflect the reality of the phenomenon as such because viewing Globalization as a fatality is tantamount to acknowledging one’s impotence to resist, the running out of  one’s potential and one’s disposition to capitulate. If this is the choice of some people, it is not binding on the others. In any case, it is unjust to give in to a fatalistic stance which is in reality hasty and thoughtless, because it would make future generations bear the burden of the failure of a preceding generation. Moreover, to consider a given phenomenon as fatalistic depends also on the time span taken into account([5]).

Facts confirm that Globalization represents an overwhelming and devastating danger only for peoples and nations who lack cultural principles, whereas those who have a rich culture and civilization can preserve their specificities,  escape the threats and overcome the drawbacks of Globalization.

Among the ploys resorted to by the architects and the propagandists of Globalization is to induce the feelings of defeat and the predisposition for capitulation in the face of what they intend to force upon peoples and governments, by undermining their subjectivity, their feeling of difference and their pride in belonging to a civilizational heritage and a cultural patrimony.

We note, in this regard, that there is a continually growing international rejection of Globalization, even if it is not effective in countering its assaults on peoples and nations of the world, at least in the foreseeable future. We firmly believe that this is because any system that is unjust, any belief that runs counter to nature and any ideology that seeks to impose hegemony over people’s will and to control their spiritual, cultural and civilizational aspirations, are invariably doomed to fail since they challenge the rules set by God for His creation and the pattern  on which He has made mankind.

As we are faced with the exuberance of Globalization and its tremendous pressures, we should not give in to the will of the strong, who hold the reins of power under the new world order. This required attitude is not at variance with our aforementioned arguments.

The methodological error committed by a large number of Islamic world’s thinkers who study the phenomenon of Globalization, consists primarily in the fact that instead of delineating the new map which Arab and Islamic societies should internalize and work within, and illuminating facts, as they actually are not as they are imagined, for decision makers and the intellectual elite, they rather extensively describe the drawbacks and evils of Globalization. By acting this way, they have stopped short of fulfilling their mission entirely, carrying out just a part of their duties.

There is no doubt that there are many indications which attest that the contemporary forces of Globalization are only the natural ideological extension of the powers of hegemony, containment and exploitation. These forces operate in a way that crystallizes the dependence of  underdeveloped countries on the developed ones, with tools which have evolved under Globalization from traditional colonialism to economic pressure([6]). This is an incontrovertible fact, is our responsibility however limited to stating these facts aloud, or does it go beyond, to be illimited and more complex ?

The methodology to be adopted in order to examine the Globalization phenomenon should be more akin to analytical description and political criticism from an ideological perspective than to enlightened scientific analysis shorn of any political or ideological considerations. One of the pitfalls in which fell most of those who dealt with Globalization from the latter methodology was to steer away from plain objectivity under the influence of the totalitarian thought which prevailed in the era of bipolar world during the cold war.

The domain of cultural globalization:

Globalization, as we have formerly stated, is an integrated system where the political and the economic aspects intertwine, and  both aspects complement the social and cultural one. None of these aspects quite stands by its own. Therefore, cultural Globalization is a phenomenon which is fully endorsed by the political and economic influence of the strongest protagonists on the international scene. In order to have a clear idea about the climate in which cultural Globalization exerts its influence on peoples and nations, we adduce here brief and concise data published and currently used by the specialized international press that is interested in keeping track of the information revolution which is the solid base of cultural Globalization and represents the driving force of the new world order.

Information technology is the propelling force of cultural Globalization In the light of the new sophisticated boom of information technology, the world seems to be divided into three major categories :

– 15 % of world population provide all modern technological innovations.

– 50 % of world population are able to assimilate this technology as regards consumption and production.

– The rest of world population, that is 35 %, live isolated and insulated from this technology.

This reality of the world implies that the expression “The global village” which was coined by Marshal MacLuhan in 1962 has proved to be wrong. And it does not seem that it would prove right in the foreseeable future however widely used it is in the current language of press and culture([7]).

This fact indicates that the influence of cultural Globalization is rather limited in spite of its exuberance, agressiveness and the power of the world order which is paving the way for it and broadening its horizons.

This being said, the impact of Globalization on the peoples it invades is very baneful given the deteriorated economic and social conditions prevailing in the largest part of the world, including the Islamic world. It is indeed impossible to ignore all the suffering of the vast majority of the latter especially at the economic and social levels.

Cultural globalization has penetrated poor and needy societies which lack the capacity of resistance even if they have preserved their sense of difference. We can easily assess the general situation in the Islamic world from the following statistical data :

– World population has reached so far 6 billion people. This figure increases at a rate of 100 million people each year. 90 % of this increase takes place inside 127 countries, all of which belong to the developing world that cannot absorb such a rapid increase. The Islamic world is of course part of the developing world.

– At the dawn of the 21st century, one third of world population lives below the poverty line (that is with a per-capita income of 300 dollars). The vast majority of the peoples of the Islamic world are affected by this situation.

– According to the statistical studies conducted by UNICEF, 12 million children under the age of 5 die every year of a curable disease.  That is 33.000 children die every day of causes that can be avoided, including malnutrition. This study concerns also the children of the Islamic world which stretches from Bangladesh to Mauritania.

– According to the statistical data released by the United Nations, more than 75 million people have been driven out of their homes during the last quarter of the 20th century as a result of wars and religious, ethnic and tribal conflicts. As the 21st century unfolds, more than 60 million people still live  as refugees. A high percentage of these refugees are either Arab, African or Asian Moslems

– More than 75 countries enter the 21st century with complete or partial submission to the dictates of the International Bank. They apply its dictated policy to avoid being declared in a state of bankruptcy or in deficit. Accordingly, these countries pledge to orient their economies in a direction which does not generate development, by cutting expenditure and subsidies for consumer goods which are meant to support poor people. Muslim countries feature among these states.([8]).

Cultural Globalization is forced upon the Islamic world under these hard conditions and circumstances. This state of affairs should prompt us to work toward determining the causes and factors which were conducive to the economic weakness of the Islamic world, as well as to relate the treatment of the negative effects of Globalization to a serious  initiative which should be based on solid grounds.

Poor and ressourceless societies constitute a vital domain for Globalization, since whenever the economic immunity is impaired the cultural immunity follows suit. In this event, collapse under the blows of cultural Globalization becomes more likely. It is therefore incumbent upon all of us to make sustained efforts in this vital area, within the framework of concerted Islamic action and through specialized channels. No one can be exempted from this important duty.

Bridging the yawning gap between the rich and the poor within the Islamic world and achieving an integrated, balanced and comprehensive development are likely to curtail the domain in which cultural globalization operates and to halt the progress of the forces of hegemony, which attempt to subject people and dissolve them in the cultural globalization. To remain arms      folded and mind bogged in the face of the relentless progress of cultural globalization in the Islamic world cannot be justified by neither convenience, nor reason nor law. We believe that the action to be taken in this vast area must join all forces, mobilize all capabilities and whet all determination.

The Islamic world in the face of cultural globalization :

As the Islamic world undergoes the negative effects of cultural globalization and given its unsatisfactory economic social, educational, cultural, scientific and media situation, how can it confront the threats of globalization, resist its impact and overcome its pressures.

The present situation of the Islamic world is propitious for the penetration of the baneful effects of cultural globalization, since the immune capacities of the Islamic world are not strong enough to protect it from the devastating repercussions of this global phenomenon that recognizes no boundaries and destroys all barriers.

Our historic heritage which is comprised of our cultural credos and civilizational values will not enable us to confront cultural globalization as long as the present conditions of the Islamic world remain below the expectations of the Ummah. There is no shame in admitting this reality because concealing it represents a threat to the present and the future of the Islamic world and adds to the complexity of the crisis experienced by most of the Islamic countries at the political, economic, social, cultural and scientific levels.

Underdeveloped and economically weak societies cannot resist the cultural pressures and the overwhelming lure of cultural globalization to preserve the purity of their own identities and the cleanliness of their specificities. Therefore the first step to be taken to resist  the effects of globalization is to encourage the development of Islamic societies at all levels, to begin with a strong support for social and economic development accompanied by the promotion of stability and the consolidation of its bases. This can be achieved through the implementation of the necessary reforms in the fields which are closely related to the life of citizens. That would enable the Islamic world to evolve from a state of weakness and backwardness to that of powerfulness and development within the framework of Islamic values and spirit of brotherhood, tolerance and cooperation, in conformity with the teachings of the holy Koran.

Since the phenomenon of cultural globalization is an integrated system of political, economic, technological and media structures, protection against its effects must be established on solid bases and underpinned by sound principles. Hence the utmost importance of joint Islamic action at every level and through every channel in order to boost Islamic solidarity as the solid foundation for cooperation among Islamic societies in all fields. Such an action should be aimed at achieving a comprehensive development in the Islamic world, improving the living standard of people by eradicating injustice, poverty, illiteracy and diseases, and spreading heightened cultural awareness. It should also seek to boost the rational investment in human, economic and natural resources available to the Islamic peoples, as well as the planned optimal use of opportunities, capabilities and prospects accessible to the Islamic world,  so as to accomplish a genuine civilizational  transformation.

In this respect, we are capable of acquiring the assets required to fortify the cultural immunity system and the Muslim’s capacity to resist cultural globalization. Without these assets, it is impossible to protect the Islamic civilzational cultural identity from the threats of cultural globalization.

Strengthening the Islamic world economically, scientifically technologically, culturally and educationally is the most effective and efficient means to surmount the negative effects of cultural globalization and is at the same time the best way to benefit from its positive aspects by selective adaptation to the cultural and media environment constituted by the currents of cultural globalization and by a wise dealing with its effects, changes and latest developments. Unless we take recourse to this means, we will get stranded amidst the blowing winds of globalization and be gone with its torrential streams.

The features of the cultural future :

In the field of telecommunication and information technology humanity is witnessing not a revolution as it is often described, because revolution echoes chaos, havoc and groping, it is  rather a comprehensive and radical change based on intensive use of science and technology and on research, planning and the utilization of mental, professional and technical capabilities as well as the bringing together of  several expertises accumulated in different fields of applied science. This feat of mastery and planning is no revolution.

The amazing development in the field of telecommunication and computer science has produced deep changes in culture, media and communication as well as in various fields of human intellectual activities. Judging from the present scope of these changes as they relate to the numerous transformations experienced by humanity nowadays in the fields of economy, trade, industry, agriculture, medicine, genetics and space, we can make our forecasts with regard to the future of cultural globalization on the short and medium term, based on calculations which are highly accurate.

There is no doubt that cultural globalization will reach a very high level of development that will give it an unprecedented capacity for penetration and influence. Governments and peoples should get prepared, at all levels, to come to terms with this upcoming situation.

It is however sure that, based on the same calculations, the cultural globalization phenomenon will recede when faced with the resistance of peoples with a marked civilizational heritage, who are determined to stand up to this tyrannical policy which is shored up by the will to subject, to dominate people by compelling them to adopt economic, social, cultural, educational and media policies that run counter to their own interests and are at odds with their cultural and civilizational specificities.

In the light of this analysis, we can predict that the Islamic world will find itself forced into a relentless cultural battle which can be fought and won only if the Islamic world develops the mechanizms of cultural action through the modernization of its means and a total revision of its goals and objectives.

In this respect, I would like to point out that the effective tool available today to achieve the cultural revival of the Islamic world is “the cultural strategy for the Islamic world” which was adopted by the sixth Islamic summit conference held in Dakar in 1991. This tool represents the adequate and integrated framework for cultural action in Islamic countries. The implementation mechanizms of this strategy were worked out by the 2nd Islamic conference of ministers of culture which was convened in Rabat, in the kingdom of Morocco. This strategy is then ready for application at both the national level, within the framework of national cultural policies, and the Islamic level, within the framework of joint Islamic action and out of Islamic solidarity.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the cultural future of the Islamic world under the era of cultural globalization will live up to the aspirations of the Islamic Ummah by the mere implementation of the cultural strategy. In other words, what is required in the first place is more combined efforts in order to bring about the needed changes in our ways of thinking, planning, implementing and following up. This entails changes in the means, tools and objectives of cultural action, amelioration of the methods of education and teaching, and update of human sciences in general. The Islamic world should also adopt scientific methods in its media and cultural action so as to acquire the modern means which will back up the general cultural  revival. Thus, the Islamic world will be able to firmly resist the phenomenon of  cultural globalization.

Conclusion :

The Islamic world cannot stop the spread of cultural globalization because it is a real phenomenon which is imposing itself by the forces of political influence, economic pressure, media and information domination exerted by the new world order. Still, it can control the negative effects of this kind of globalization if it redoubles its efforts to rid itself of underdevelopment and achieve progress in all fields without exception, given the close correlation between the factors and ingredients of comprehensive development.

Dealing with cultural globalization must be based on economic power, political stability, social justice and progress in all fields of life. These can be attained first by the  implementation of necessary reforms, correction of the situation of the Islamic world and firm establishing of the bases of joint Islamic action at all levels, so as to enhance cooperation among Islamic countries towards a more promising perspective and future.

The whole issue depends on how strong the Islamic resolve is, how close the ranks of Islamic solidarity are and how combined and concerted efforts of Muslim communities are in their quest for a civilizational revival of the Islamic world which ought to be based on science, reason and conscience after being spurred by faith, solidarity and Islamic brotherhood.

[1] Dr. Mohmoud Fahmi Hijazi, “Al Hilal “, March 2001 issue, p. 87, Cairo.
[2] Webster’s new collegiate Dictionary, 1991, p. 521.
[3] Dr Abdulaziz Othman Altwaijri, Dialogue for coexistence, p. 61, Dar al Chorouk, Cairo, 1998.
[4] Mohammad Assammak, from a lecture on “the future of Arab journalism under Globalization” published in AL HAWADITH, issue n° 2310, March 9, 2001, p. 63, London.
[5] Dr. Jallal Ahmad Amine, “Globalization”, p. 42, Darul Maarif, Cairo, 1998.
[6] Rajab Al Banna “Al Bahth Anil Mustaqbal” (In search of the future) p. 234, Egyptian General Authority for the Book, Cairo, 1999 and Dr. Mohammed Omar Attir, “Arae hawlal Muhafada Alal Hawiya Athaqafiya Al Arabia fi Dillyl Awlama” (Views on Safeguarding the Arab cultural identity under globalization) Shuun Arabiya (Arab Affairs) magazine, issue 105, p. 48, March 2001, Beirouth.
[7] Mohammad Assammak, ibid, p. 62.
[8] Mohammad Assammak, ibid, p. 62.


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