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The Global Bazaar and Islamic Civilization

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Executive Director

America Institute of Islamic History and Culture

Concord, California

Three images remain in my mind from my recent visit to South Asia. First, the explosive software revolution in the Southern city of Bangalore has been a boon to the region, or at least to a select few, who have become enormously wealthy. Second, the silk industry of Mysore has been almost destroyed since the region joined the World Trade Organization. Third, the coffee industry in the Western Ghats is similarly on its way to decay and disappearance.

The story of software, silk and coffee is the story of the modern Global Bazaar. While, it is shifting wealth in the direction of a new group of technocrats, it is destroying the old aristocracies, creating in its wake unprecedented social change and social havoc.

Silk was introduced into Mysore by Tippu Sultan, that stalwart soldier who resisted the expanding British Empire for forty years. It is said that after his victory over the British armies at the Battle of Pollipur, he sent a delegation to China to further trade and commerce. The delegation returned in 1784 with silk cocoons and the know-how to manufacture silk. The industry thrived and Mysore silk was valued in the British Empire for its quality and its fineness.

At least that was so until recent years. When India joined the WTO, Chinese silk flooded the market. Superior in its fineness and its quality, and cheaper even at the point of sale, it rapidly displaced the local industry, forcing many of the old silk manufacturers into bankruptcy.

The story of coffee is similar. It is said that Shaikh Baba Budhen of Deccan, an honored Awliya who lived in the seventeenth century, performed his Hajj, and on his way back, picked up some coffee beans from Yemen and introduced them into the hills of the Western Ghats. When the British captured the area from Tippu Sultan, they encouraged the growth of coffee at the expense of staple foods, for obvious commercial reasons. But with the WTO, coffee from Vietnam is rapidly displacing the homegrown product, again forcing the old coffee-estate based aristocracy into poverty.

Such are the winds of change across the globe. The Global Bazaar has created untold wealth and has at the same time produced untold poverty and misery. It has marginalized entire regions, indeed entire continents from the onward march of human civilization. Vast oceans of humanity survive at best at subsistence levels. Driven by a relentless search for profits, global capital has forced art, architecture, music, philosophy, education, culture and love itself to be measured in terms of their economic value. People no longer grieve when a truck driver is killed in a crash; they ask how much the insurance company paid the survivors. They do not measure the worth of a mother in terms of her priceless love; they measure it in terms of wages paid to a baby-sitter.

Some thinkers have called this the post-modern global civilization. This writer holds the position that the so-called post-modern global civilization may not be a civilization at all but a passing material phase in the struggle of man. A civilization must have at its core an inherent spirituality, a spiritual reservoir, which provides sustenance for its renewal. The Global Bazaar may yet develop that spiritual dimension which may qualify it to be a global civilization. But that is something only the future can decide.

The inputs to the Global Bazaar are technology and capital. Its gross output is economic centralization. It has a hierarchical pyramidal structure. At its apex are the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. Just below it is the transnational corporation. Then, there are the national governments, whose ability to control their own economic destiny is decreasing by the day. At the bottom is the incredibly shrinking man and the incredibly shrinking woman who feel helpless and totally marginalized. Their domain of action and their freedoms are squeezed from every angle. Even that bastion of social stability, the family, is fast disappearing. The industrial revolution created the nuclear family; the global bazaar has vaporized it.

The Global Bazaar has a process and a method. The process is driven by information, which moves at the speed of light. And, enormous amounts of capital change hands at the wink of an eye. It is a virtual world, where people feel they are rich even when they own nothing except a piece of paper. It is a funny world, where the perception of wealth is based on mathematical models and projections by security analysts.

How does the Islamic world enter into this Global Bazaar, which has created a culture limited in its reach only by the speed of light and the human capacity to absorb change? The question is important because some writers, with obvious political agendas, have postulated that not only is there a conflict between Islamic and Christian civilizations, but that there is a conflict between Islam and the post-modern global civilization.

Even a cursory scan of history and elementary social analysis shows that these positions have no merit. The Global Bazaar stands on a foundation built by many civilizations. And the conflicts it has generated are not Islam-specific.

One may start with the Greeks. Modern man is reminded time and again that his civilization is the progeny of Greek civilization, which placed human reason and the autonomy of man on center stage. Yet Greek civilization was itself a composite of ancient Egyptian and African civilizations and borrowed heavily from the wisdom of the peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean. Discovered, adopted and embellished by the Muslims, it reached Europe in the eleventh century through Spain but it was not until the sixteenth century that it found its expression in European lands.

In the middle ages, between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries, Islam and Christianity co-existed, with the lead taken by Islamic civilization. Both had a spiritual core, which showed itself even when they met in mortal combat in the battlefields of Spain and Palestine. The dielectic produced the likes of Salahuddin Ayyabi and Richard the Lion-hearted. Chivalry was valued. A manís word carried weight. Struggle had a spiritual dimension even though the two sides related to the transcendence of God in different ways.

Things changed starting with the thirteenth century. With the sack of Constantinople (modern Istanbul) during the Fourth Crusade by the Latin Crusaders in 1204, Europe changed its focus from the Cross to the glitter of gold. At about the same time, following the Mongol destructions (1219-1258), the Islamic East turned inward to the world of Ihsan, Taqwa and Tasawwuf. In Italy, the infusion of gold from Constantinople, and the profitable trade with the Egyptian Mamlukes, gave birth to the age of Renaissance in the sixteenth century. After this period, Europe turned decidedly from a Christ-centered civilization to a man-centered civilization.

Europe produced the Protestant Reformation (sixteenth century), Scientific Materialism (seventeenth century), Humanism (eighteenth century), Dialectic Rationalism (nineteenth century), Communism and Fascism (twentieth century). And finally, exhausted from its man-centered philosophical quest, it has now produced Perennial Philosophy, which is nothing but Islamic Sufism coated with a layer of Eastern philosophies.

While a vibrant Europe flexed its intellectual muscles and went through a metamorphosis, the Islamic world made an about-turn towards the beginning of the seventeenth century, from the Age of Taqwa to the Age of Fatwa. The fatwa-hurling Muslims lost out to Europe in the race to control technology and trade. Colonialism resulted, with much of the Islamic world under the heels of a dominant Europe.

The two World Wars collapsed the colonial empires but the inexorable march of technology increased the advantage held by the West vis-ŗ-vis the rest of the world. New mechanisms of control were devised, resulting in the creation of the World Bank, the IMF and Aid Agencies. The Islamic world got its political independence, but economic subjugation only deepened.

Coming back to our main thesis, the economic disparities created by the Global Bazaar are not Islam-specific. Indonesia and Brazil are both up to their neck in debt. So are Zimbabwe and the Philippines. Centralization of economic power has resulted in a North-South divide cutting across religious and cultural lines. A vast majority of the Buddhists of Thailand, Muslims of Turkey and the Catholics of Latin America all belong to the South. The divide is not between Islam and the Global Bazaar. It is between those who have access to technology and capital and those who do not.

The Global Bazaar has exported a consumer-oriented culture across the globe. Teenagers in Karachi wear jeans similar to those worn in New York. Hollywood movies attract huge crowds in Delhi. Qawwali music goes hip-hop. Punjabi withers as a language and Urdu suffers as English takes their place. It should be obvious that the issue is not Islam-specific. The reach of the Global Bazaar has spread a culture that threatens to inundate all older cultures, not just the Islamic culture.

It is true that there are territorial issues such as those in Bosnia, Chechnya and others. But these are political issues, not religious. They have nothing to do with the emergence of the Global Bazaar and would have existed with or without the global consumer economy.

There is no singular conflict between the Global Bazaar and the Islamic world. Muslims stand on the same side of the fence as the Christians, the Buddhists, indeed all men and women of faith, struggling to come to terms with a technology based, irreligious, global avalanche. Modern man is like the tin-man in the movie, the wizard of oz. He carries a lot of metal but has no heart. Islam, working side by side with other men and women of the spirit, can provide a heart to this tin-man. But how can a Muslim provide this heart when he himself has abandoned his own heart (Ihsan) and has become a statue without a soul? 


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