The orient express3 min read . Updated: 29 Sep 2007, 01:08 AM IST
The orient express
The orient express
A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism." The dramatic opening of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto may be amended slightly for our more comprehensively embattled times. Two spectres haunt our world today, and dominate public discourse everywhere: that of the bullying hyperpower US, flaunting its military and economic might under the stewardship of a bellicose president; and that of radical Islam (in some cases generalized to all of Islam), violently intolerant and anti-modern.
Between them, they embody in the popular imagination the clash of civilizations of Samuel Huntington’s thesis, accelerated by the upsurge of conflicts post-9/11 on the one hand, and by the more benign—but no less controversial forces—of globalization on the other.
The canopy of this formation is huge: For a better sense of the outline of the conflict, would it not be better to break the whole into parts? This is the premise of Akbar Ahmed’s book Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization. Ahmed, formerly a member of the Pakistani civil service and now a professor of Islamic Studies at Brookings in Washington, decided to conduct an “anthropological excursion" into the Islamic world in the company of three American students, meeting and hearing out religious leaders, scholars, journalists and common people in India, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Qatar and Indonesia. This would help not only in providing a fresh understanding of the richness and diversity of the much-misunderstood Islamic world, but also to illustrate the impact of the age of globalization on traditional societies around the world.
But if the promise of Ahmed’s book is that of the discoveries, the forging of connections, the romance of travel, then the reader will find it does not last very long. The first and foremost objection to Journey Into Islam is that it is a work whose composition owes more to the library than to fieldwork. It is too bookish: meetings and encounters are rapidly overwhelmed by extended surveys and theses, and we hear the sound of Ahmed’s voice far more than that of his interlocutors. Indeed, he sometimes seems to speak for his speakers. Of one person’s complaints, he remarks: “Aijaz was, in fact, commenting on globalization without once using the word." Was he really?
Second, although Ahmed asserts that the “clash of civilizations" thesis is flawed, he himself does very little to disturb that conceptual model: On virtually every page there are references to either “the United States" or “the Muslim world". Several long sections are nothing more than catalogues of American mendacity in world affairs, and especially those of Islamic countries: Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Anyone can put these together—they do not justify Ahmed’s time and expense. For a book titled Journey Into Islam, Ahmed sure spends a lot of time talking about America.
The third problem is contained in Ahmed’s subtitle: The Crisis of Globalization. For Ahmed globalization and Americanization are much the same thing, which explains why it has been received so badly in the Islamic world. Although globalization has improved living standards the world over, it has also increased the disparities between the rich and the poor and legitimized a culture of individualism and materialism antithetical to the teachings not just of Islam, but all the great religions of the world.
When Ahmed argues that globalization as we know it today “lacks a moral core", he is hardly in a club of one. There are many intelligent and perceptive critics of globalization today, among them the Indian writer Ashis Nandy, who notes that the wave of globalization prior to the current one went by the name of colonialism, and explains popular resistance to globalization with the perceptive observation that globalization “is only global, not universal. By universalism I mean that which has the capacity to transcend cultural, political, and social systems. I don’t think globalization has that capacity."
Ahmed mostly repeats anti-globalization rhetoric to cover for failings elsewhere, even as he falls into the trap of arguing that “the definition of ‘terrorist’ in the war on terror seems to depend on what side one supports. It is all a matter of perspective." Much as one wants to sympathize with Ahmed’s call for compassion, dialogue and understanding, it is hard not to be wearied by the longueurs of his work, which promises an excursion, but delivers only a professorial disquisition.
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