Radical Islam: Globalization for losers

Posted: Apr 28, 2006 12:05 AM

Osama bin Laden's ratings are falling. His latest pronouncement was a yawn. His scripts could use a rewrite. "Infidels" this, "crusaders" that. Blah, blah, blah. We've heard it all before.

However, one new wrinkle in bin Laden's diatribe deserves more attention, as it illuminates the nature of the West's struggle against radical Islam. "I call on the mujahedin and their supporters in Sudan ... and the Arabian Peninsula to prepare all that is necessary to wage a long-term war against the crusaders in western Sudan," bin Laden declared. The crusaders in question are United Nations peacekeepers, who aren't even in Sudan yet but who are going to stop genocide there - we hope. Bin Laden suspects a Western plot to install U.S. bases and destroy Islam in Sudan, and he wants to fend off the U.N., which he calls an "infidel body" and "a tool of crusader-Zionist resolutions." If he thinks the U.N. is a tool of the Zionists, clearly he needs to get out of his cave more.

Nonetheless, bin Laden's call to open a new front in Sudan highlights some underappreciated aspects of the jihadist mission. First, most of the people being slaughtered by Sudan's Arab-controlled government are Muslims. Bin Laden wants his holy warriors to fight for a Sudanese right to exterminate indigenous Muslim tribes. In this, bin Ladenism represents a perverse form of globalization.

In the West, we tend to talk about globalization as if it's a euphemism for Americanization. But there are many competing forms of globalization. Even anti-globalization activists favor the "right" kind of globalization, one driven by the U.N. and "progressives" instead of corporations and markets.

Radical Islam is globalization for losers. It appeals to those left out of modernization, industrialization and prosperity, particularly to young men desperate for order, meaning and pride amid the chaos of globalization. Radical Islam provides it, but at a terrible price.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported the sad tale of the demise of Mak Yong, an ancient form of dance and theater in Southeast Asia drawn from pre-Islamic faiths, including Hinduism. But such traditional cultural influences are now considered "un-Islamic."

"Many Southeast Asian Muslims now navigate by guideposts from the Arab world," the Journal reported. "Young men in Indonesia are starting to wear turbans and grow beards. In Malaysia, Malays have adopted the Arab word for prayer, salat, to replace the Malay word, sembahyang, which literally means 'offer homage to the primal ancestor.'"

This is merely an extension of trends that have already transformed the Middle East. As Fareed Zakaria writes in "The Future of Freedom," until the 1970s most Middle Easterners "practiced a kind of village Islam that adapted itself to local cultures and to normal human desires. Pluralistic and tolerant, these villages often worshipped saints, went to shrines, sang religious hymns and cherished art - all technically disallowed in Islam." This indigenous form of Islam was bulldozed by urbanization and radicalization. The Iranian Revolution was a harbinger of the transformation toward a more "universal" Islam that was also more doctrinaire; "Islam of the high church as opposed to Islam of the street fair," Zakaria writes.

Reihan Salam, a co-author of one of the smartest blogs going right now, theamericanscene.com, is an American of Bengali descent who argues that the death of Mak Yong represents "globalization at its worst." He rightly notes that if the choice is between the globalization of "crass Arabization" and the globalization of "crass Westernization," then it should be no choice at all.

Although Western-style globalization may force certain technological and economic changes on indigenous cultures, it also provides those cultures with the tools and flexibility to keep much of their culture. The hard Islam coming out of Riyadh and Tehran offers no such freedom. Recall that Afghanistan was a Muslim country for centuries, but it wasn't until the jihadi thugs of the Taliban took over that the historic Bamiyan Buddhas were deemed an offense to Islam and destroyed.

Bin Laden's call to kill U.N. peacekeepers is consistent with the Islamist desire to impose a harsh, "one true Islam" across the Muslim world (and, someday, they hope, the non-Muslim world too.)

Too many intellectuals and commentators take the ignorant and condescending view that because jihadism is exotic, it is also "authentic." On the right, this often translates into the view that all strains of Islam are alike - and equally dangerous. And on the left, we get the usual knee-jerk defense of any seemingly "indigenous" foreign movement that casts America as a global villain. The reality is that in the war on terrorism, America is on the side of freedom and diversity. Bin Laden & Co. are the real crusaders.