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Beyond Jihad Vs. McWorld | The Nation

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Beyond Jihad Vs. McWorld

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Yet there is a long way to go. While the Colin Powell forces do battle with the Dick Cheney forces for the heart of the President, little is being done to open a civic and political front in the campaign against terrorism. After what seemed a careful multilateral dance with President Putin on missile defense, President Bush has abruptly thrust his ballroom partner aside and waltzed off into the sunset by himself, leaving the Russians and Chinese (and our European allies) to sulk in the encroaching gloom. Even in Afghanistan, Nicholas Kristof, in his first contribution as the New York Times's new crisis-of-terrorism columnist, complained that even as other nations' diplomats poured into the capital after its fall, the United States posted not a single representative to Kabul to begin nurturing a postwar political and civil strategy--a reticence it has only just now begun to remedy.

About the Author

Benjamin R. Barber
Benjamin R. Barber is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and president of its CivWorld initiative.

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Is there anything realistic about such reluctance? On the contrary, realism here in its new democratic form suggests that America must begin to engage in the slow and sovereignty-eroding business of constructing a cooperative and benevolent interdependence in which it joins the world rather than demanding that the world join it or be consigned to the camp of the terrorists ("You are with us or you are with the terrorists," intoned the President in those first fearful days after September 11). This work recognizes that while terrorism has no justification, it does have causes. The old realism went by the old adage tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner and eschewed deep explanations of the root causes of violence and terror. The new realism insists that to understand collective malice is not to pardon it but to assure that it can be addressed, interdicted and perhaps even pre-empted. "Bad seed" notions of original sin ("the evil ones") actually render perpetrators invulnerable--subject only to a manichean struggle in which the alternative to total victory is total defeat. Calling bin Laden and his associates "the evil ones" is not necessarily inaccurate, but it commits us to a dark world of jihad and counterjihad (what the President first called his crusade), in which issues of democracy, civil comity and social justice--let alone nuance, complexity and interdependence--simply vanish. It is possible to hate jihad without loving America. It is possible to condemn terror as absolutely wrong without thinking that those who are terror's targets possess absolute right.

This is the premise behind the thesis of interdependence. The context of jihadic resistance and its pathology of terrorism is a complex world in which there are causal interrelationships between the jihadic reaction to modernity and the American role in shaping it according to the peculiar logic of US technology, markets and branded pop culture (what I call McWorld). Determining connections and linkages is not the same thing as distributing blame. Power confers responsibility. The power enjoyed by the United States bestows on it obligations to address conditions it may not have itself brought into being. Jihad in this view may grow out of and reflect (among other things) a pathological metastasis of valid grievances about the effects of an arrogant secularist materialism that is the unfortunate concomitant of the spread of consumerism across the world. It may reflect a desperate and ultimately destructive concern for the integrity of indigenous cultural traditions that are ill equipped to defend themselves against aggressive markets in a free-trade world. It may reflect a struggle for justice in which Western markets appear as obstacles rather than facilitators of cultural identity.

Can Asian tea, with its religious and family "tea culture," survive the onslaught of the global merchandising of cola beverages? Can the family sit-down meal survive fast food, with its focus on individualized consumers, fuel-pit-stop eating habits and nourishment construed as snacking? Can national film cultures in Mexico, France or India survive Hollywood's juggernaut movies geared to universal teen tastes rooted in hard violence and easy sentiment? Where is the space for prayer, for common religious worship or for spiritual and cultural goods in a world in which the 24/7 merchandising of material commodities makes the global economy go round? Are the millions of American Christian families who home-school their children because they are so intimidated by the violent commercial culture awaiting the kids as soon as they leave home nothing but an American Taliban? Do even those secular cosmopolitans in America's coastal cities want nothing more than the screen diet fed them by the ubiquitous computers, TVs and multiplexes?

Terror obviously is not an answer, but the truly desperate may settle for terror as a response to our failure even to ask such questions. The issue for jihad's warriors of annihilation is of course far beyond such anxieties: It entails absolute devotion to absolute values. Yet for many who are appalled by terrorism but unimpressed by America, there may seem to be an absolutist dimension to the materialist aspirations of our markets. Our global market culture appears to us as both voluntary and wholesome; but it can appear to others as both compelling (in the sense of compulsory) and corrupt--not exactly coercive, but capable of seducing children into a willed but corrosive secular materialism. What's wrong with Disneyland or Nikes or the Whopper? We just "give people what they want." But this merchandiser's dream is a form of romanticism, the idealism of neoliberal markets, the convenient idyll that material plenty can satisfy spiritual longing so that fishing for profits can be thought of as synonymous with trolling for liberty.

It is the new democratic realist who sees that if the only choice we have is between the mullahs and the mall, between the hegemony of religious absolutism and the hegemony of market determinism, neither liberty nor the human spirit is likely to flourish. As we face up to the costs both of fundamentalist terrorism and of fighting it, must we not ask ourselves how it is that when we see religion colonize every other realm of human life we call it theocracy and turn up our noses at the odor of tyranny; and when we see politics colonize every other realm of human life we call it absolutism and tremble at the prospect of totalitarianism; but when we see market relations and commercial consumerism try to colonize every other realm of human life we call it liberty and celebrate its triumph? There are too many John Walkers who begin by seeking a refuge from the aggressive secularist materialism of their suburban lives and end up slipping into someone else's dark conspiracy to rid the earth of materialism's infidels. If such men are impoverished and without hope as well, they become prime recruits for jihad.

The war on terrorism must be fought, but not as the war of McWorld against jihad. The only war worth winning is the struggle for democracy. What the new realism teaches is that only such a struggle is likely to defeat the radical nihilists. That is good news for progressives. For there are real options for democratic realists in search of civic strategies that address the ills of globalization and the insecurities of the millions of fundamentalist believers who are neither willing consumers of Western commercial culture nor willing advocates of jihadic terror. Well before the calamities of September 11, a significant movement in the direction of constructive and realistic interdependence was discernible, beginning with the Green and human rights movements of the 1960s and '70s, and continuing into the NGO and "antiglobalization" movements of the past few years. Jubilee 2000 managed to reduce Third World debt-service payments for some nations by up to 30 percent, while the Community of Democracies initiated by the State Department under Madeleine Albright has been embraced by the Bush Administration and will continue to sponsor meetings of democratic governments and democratic NGOs. International economic reform lobbies like the Millennium Summit's development goals project, established by the UN to provide responses to global poverty, illiteracy and disease; Inter Action, devoted to increasing foreign aid; Global Leadership, a start-up alliance of corporations and grassroots organizations; and the Zedillo Commission, which calls on the rich countries to devote 0.7 percent of their GNP to development assistance (as compared to an average of 0.2 percent today and under 0.1 percent for the United States), are making serious economic reform an issue for governments. Moreover, and more important, they are insisting with Amartya Sen and his new disciple Jeffrey Sachs that development requires democratization first if it is to succeed.

George Soros's Open Society Institute and Civicus, the transnational umbrella organization for NGOs, continue to serve the global agenda of civil society. Even corporations are taking an interest: Hundreds are collaborating in a Global Compact, under the aegis of UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to seek a response to issues of global governance, while the World Economic Forum plans to include fifty religious leaders in a summit at its winter meeting in New York in late January.

This is only a start, and without the explicit support of a more multilateralist and civic-minded American government, such institutions are unlikely to change the shape of global relations. Nonetheless, in closing the door on the era of sovereign independence and American security, anarchic terrorism has opened a window for those who believe that social injustice, unregulated wild capitalism and an aggressive secularism that leaves no space for religion and civil society not only create conditions on which terrorism feeds but invite violence in the name of rectification. As a consequence, we are at a seminal moment in our history--one in which trauma opens up the possibility of new forms of action. Yesterday's utopia is today's realism; yesterday's realism, a recipe for catastrophe tomorrow. If ever there was one, this is democracy's moment. Whether our government seizes it will depend not just on George Bush but on us.

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