The resistance to globalization runs deep by Ralph Peters

The Weekly Standard

The resistance to globalization runs deep.
by Ralph Peters
09/04/2006, Volume 011, Issue 47

Globalization is real, but its power to improve the lot of humankind has been madly oversold. Globalization enthralls and binds together a new aristocracy--the golden crust on the human loaf--but the remaining billions, who lack the culture and confidence to benefit from "one world," have begun to erect barricades against the internationalization of their affairs. And, from Peshawar to Paris, those manning the barricades increasingly turn violent over perceived threats to their accustomed patterns of life. If globalization represents a liberal worldview, renewed localism is a manifestation of reactionary fears, resurgent faiths, and the iron grip of tradition. Except in the commercial sphere, bet on the localists to prevail.

When the topic of resistance to globalization arises, an educated American is apt to think of a French farmer-activist trashing a McDonald's, anarchist mummers shattering windows during World Bank powwows, or just the organic farmer with a stall at the local market. But the swelling resistance to globalization is far more powerful and considerably more complex than a few squads of drop-outs aiming rocks at the police in Seattle or Berlin. We are witnessing the return of the tribes--a global phenomenon, but the antithesis of globalization as described in pop bestsellers. The twin tribal identities, ethnic and religious brotherhood, are once again armed and dangerous.

A generation ago, it was unacceptable to use the word tribes. Yet, the tribes themselves won through, insisting on their own identity--whether Xhosa or Zulu, Tikriti or Barzani, or, writ large, French or German. In political terms, globalization peaked between the earnest efforts of the United Nations in the early 1960s and the electoral defeat of the European constitution in 2005 (the French and Dutch votes weren't a rebuff, but an assassination). In Europe, which was to have led the way in transcending nationalism, the European Union will stumble on indefinitely, even making progress in limited spheres, but its philosophical basis is gone. East European laborers and West European farmers alike will continue to exploit the E.U.'s easing of borders and transfers of wealth, but no one believes any longer in a European super-identity destined to supplant one's self-identification as a Dane or Basque.

Far from softening, national and other local identities are hardening again, reverting to ever-narrower blood-and-language relationships that Europe's dreamers assumed would fade away. Who now sees himself as fundamentally Belgian, rather than as a Fleming or Walloon? Catalans deny that they are Spaniards, and the Welsh imagine a national grandeur for themselves. In the last decade, the ineradicable local identities within the former Yugoslavia split apart in a bloodbath, while a mortified Europe looked away for as long as it could. The Yugoslav disaster was written off as an echo from the past--anyway, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Kosovars were "not our kind"--but the Balkan wars instead signaled a much broader popular discontent with pseudo-identities concocted by political elites. The collapse of Yugoslavia hinted at the future of Europe: not necessarily the bloodshed, but the tenacity of historical identity.

Even as they grabbed from one another in Brussels, European elites insisted that continental unification was desirable and inevitable. Until the people said no.

Now, in 2006, we see one European state after another enacting protectionist measures to prevent foreign ownership of vital industries (such as yogurt-making). France paused, as hundreds of thousands of its best and brightest protested the creation of new jobs for the less-privileged in a spectacular defense of the ancien régime. And a new German chancellor has called for saving the European project by destroying it--or at least by hewing down the massive bureaucracy in Brussels that alienated the continent. The future of Europe lies not in a cosmopolitan version of the empire of Charlemagne, but in a postmodern version of the feudal fragmentation that succeeded the Frankish empire. Brussels may be the new medieval Rome, its bureaucratic papacy able to pronounce in limited spheres, but there is ever less fear of excommunication.

Elsewhere, the devolution of identity from the state to the clan or cult is more radical, more anxious, and more volatile. In Iraq, religious, ethnic, and tribal identities dictate the composition of the struggling national government--as they do in Lebanon, Canada, Nigeria, and dozens of other countries (we shall not soon see a Baptist prime minister of Israel--or a Muslim Bundeskanzler, despite those who warn of Eurabia). Even in the United States, with our integrative genius, racial, religious, and ethnic identity politics continue to prosper; we are fortunate that we have no single dominant tribe (minorities might disagree).

Still, the success of the United States in breaking down ancient loyalties is remarkable--and anomalous. While the current American bugbear is Hispanic immigration, most Latinos establish worthy lives in the American grain, just as the Irish and Italians, Slavs and Jews, did before them. American Indians may still think in tribal terms (especially when casino profits are involved), and there is no apparent end to the splinter identities Americans pursue in their social and religious lives, but not even Rome came remotely so close to forging a genuinely new, inclusive identity.

Our peculiar success blinds us to failures abroad. Not only have other states and cultures failed to integrate Einwanderer or to agree upon composite identities, they do not desire to do so. The issue of who and what a Frenchman or German is appeared to idealists to have been resolved a century ago. It wasn't. Now, newly forged (in both senses of the word) identities in the developing world are dissolving in fits of rage.

European-drawn borders have failed; European models of statehood and statecraft have failed, and, in global terms, European civilization has failed. Unable to see beyond those models, the United States fails to exert influence commensurate with its power, except in the field of popular culture (even Islamist terrorists like a good action flick). With the end of the colonial vision and the swift crack-up of postcolonial dreams--not least, of a socialist paradise--there is a worldwide vacuum of purpose that the glittering trinkets of globalization cannot fill. From the fear-mongering of our own media to the sermons of Moktada al-Sadr, the real global commonality is the dread of change. Whether in Tehran or Texas, the established orders have gone into a defensive crouch.

Men dream of change, but cling to what they know. Far from teaching the workers of the world to love one another (or at least to enjoy a Starbucks together), the economic and informational effects of globalization have been to remind people how satisfying it is to hate. Whether threatened in their jobs, their moral code, or their religion, human beings dislocated by change don't want explanations. They want someone to blame.

The new global aristocracy

There is, indeed, a globalizing class, and hundreds of millions of human beings share the consumer tastes that announce their membership: Prada handbags for the striving women of Tokyo and Manhattan; the poverty-born music of Cesaria Evora for well-off fans from Frankfurt to San Francisco; the Mercedes sedan and the credit card; voyeuristic leftism for professors in Ann Arbor, Buenos Aires, and Vienna; computers for the literate and solvent from Budapest to Bangalore; wine from the region-of-the-week for London suburbanites or Shanghai's nouveaux riches; media conglomerates that eschew patriotism; and, for the platinum specks on that golden crust of humanity, private jets and $30,000-per-week vacation rentals when they weary of their own three or four homes.

Such people may well be more at home with foreigners of their own cultural stratum than with their less-fortunate countrymen. For the upper-tier of these new aristocrats of globalization, place of residence and citizenship are matters of convenience, tastes, and tax codes. This is a nobility with no sense of responsibility to the serfs, and its members are shielded as never before from life's inconveniences.

For the billions remaining, globalization and its consort, the information revolution, merely open a window into an exclusive shop they are not allowed to enter. A second-hand Pittsburgh Steelers shirt on a Congolese beggar isn't globalization, but only the hind end of global trade. The new awareness of the wealth of others is hardly pacifying. On the contrary, it excites the conviction (which local demagogues are delighted to exacerbate) that they can only be so rich because they stole what was ours.

The uneven ability to digest the feast of information suddenly available even in the globe's backwaters doesn't bring humanity together (even if Saudi clerics and American bureaucrats visit the same online porn sites). Rather, it disorients those whose lives previously had been ordered, and creates a sense simultaneously of being cheated of previously unimagined possibilities while having one's essential verities challenged. Feeling helpless and besieged, the victim of globalization turns to the comfort of explanatory, fundamentalist religion or a xenophobia that assures him that, for all his material wants, he is nonetheless superior to others.

The confident may welcome freedom, but the rest want rules. The conviction that a new man freed of archaic identities and primitive loyalties can be created by human contrivance is an old illusion. Rome believed that the new identity it offered not only to its citizens, but also to its remote subjects, must be irresistible. Yet imperial Rome faced no end of revolts from subject tribes, from Britain to Gaul to Palestine. In the end human collectives with stronger, undiluted identities conquered the empire. From the brief, bloody egalitarianism of the French revolution, through socialist visions that promised us the brotherhood of man and an end to war (a conviction especially strong in 1913), to the grisly attempt to create Homo Sovieticus and export him to the world, there has been no shortage of visions of globalization.

Even the most powerful attempts to unite humanity failed: the monotheist campaigns to impose one god.

One god, one way, one world

Monotheism replaced Rome's law codes with the law of God. The first near-success of globalization was the bewildering survival and spread of Christianity, the transitional faith between the exclusive tribal monotheism of Judaism and the universal aspirations of Islam. Beginning as a cult uncertain of the legitimacy of proselytizing among those of different inheritances, Christianity quickly developed a taste for salesmanship, adapting its message from one of local destiny to one of universal possibility. Furthermore, its message to the poor (a constituency contemporary globalization ignores) had as exemplary an appeal among the less-fortunate of the bygone Mediterranean world as it does today in sub-Saharan Africa. Christianity was an outsider's religion co-opted by rulers, while Islam meant to rule--and include--all social classes from the years of its foundation.

Globalization really got moving with the advent of Islam. Open to converts from its earliest days, Islam moved rapidly, in just a few centuries, from voluntary through coerced to forced conversions. While the latter were never universally demanded, they were frequent (as were forced conversions to Christianity elsewhere). The immediate and enduring conflict between Christianity and Islam involved different visions of globalization, a competition of quality, design, and power (think of it as Toyota vs. Ford in a battle for souls). Those Christian and Muslim visions continue to experience drastic mutations in the battle for new and local loyalties, having now reached every habitable continent. Their success has blinded us to their weakness: Neither religion has been able to subdue their old antiglobalist nemesis: magic.

When we speak of religion--that greatest of all strategic factors--our vocabulary is so limited that we conflate radically different impulses, needs, and practices. When breaking down African populations for statistical purposes, for example, demographers are apt to present us with a portrait of country X as 45 percent Christian, 30 percent Muslim, and 25 percent animist/native religion. Such figures are wildly deceptive (as honest missionaries will admit). African Christians or Muslims rarely abandon tribal practices altogether, shopping daily between belief systems for the best results. Sometimes, the pastor's counsel helps; other times it's the shaman who delivers.

The Anglican priest in South Africa decries witchcraft, but fails to see that his otherworldly belief system offers no adequate substitute for solving certain types of daily problems. Quite simply, Big Religion and local cults are inherently different commodities. From Brazil to Borneo, local Christians don't see imported and traditional belief systems as mutually exclusive, any more than a kitchen fortunate enough to have a refrigerator should therefore be denied a stove.

There's an enormous difference between Big Religions--Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and the others--and the local cults that endure long beyond their predicted disappearance. This distinction is critical, not only in itself, but also because it is emblematic of the obstacles that local identities present to globalization as we imagine it. Big Religion interests itself in a world beyond this world, while the emphasis of local faiths has always been on magic (bending aspects of the natural world to the will of the practitioner of hermetic knowledge). Magic affects daily life in the here and now, and its force and appeal can be far more potent than our rationalist worldview accepts: What we cannot explain, we mock. (An advantage Christianity enjoys among the poor of the developing world is the image of Jesus the Conjure-Man, turning water into wine and walking on water--he's a more-promising shaman than Muhammad.)

Another aspect of identity that we, the inheritors of proselytizing world religions, fail to grasp is that local cults are exclusive. They not only do not seek new members, but can't imagine integrating outsiders (the politicized tribal beliefs of the Asante in Ghana are a limited exception, since they were devised to confirm the subjugation of neighboring tribes). Cult beliefs are bound to the local soil, the trees, the waters. Tribal religions are about place and person, an identity bound to a specific environment. While slaves did take voodoo practices with them to the new world, the rituals immediately began to mutate under the stress of transplantation. Tribal religions form an invisible defensive wall, as local practices do today, from the Andes to the Caucasus.

Even ancestor worship, one of the commonest localist practices, supposes the intervention of the dead in the affairs of living men and women. Built on bones, local religions are cumulative, rather than anticipatory. While both Big Religions and local belief systems proffer creation myths, universal faiths are far more concerned with an end-of-times apocalypse (in the Hindu faith, with recurring apocalypses), while local cults rarely see beyond the next harvest. The great faiths lift the native's heart on one day of the week, while local beliefs guide him through the other six.

What we lump together under the term "religion" is better divided into the distinct categories of religion and magic. The reason that so many local cults, from Arizona to Ghana, persist under Christianity or Islam, and why they remain a source of endless frustration to Wahhabi and evangelical missionaries alike, is that they answer different needs. Big Religion is about immortal life. Magic is about acquiring a mate, avoiding snakebite or traffic accidents, gaining wealth. African tribes, as well as the indigenous populations of the Western Hemisphere, can accept a global faith with full sincerity, while seeing no reason to abandon old practices that work.

Even as they change their names, the old gods live, and our attempts to export Western ideas and behaviors are destined to end in similar mutations. Our personal bias may be in favor of the frustrated missionaries who try to dissuade the Christians of up-country Sulawesi from holding elaborate, bankrupting funerals with mass animal sacrifices (death remains far more important than birth or baptism), but the reassuring counter is that in the Indonesian city of Solo, where Abu Bakr Bashir established his famed "terrorist school," the devoutly Muslim population drives Saudi missionaries mad by holding a massive annual ceremony honoring the old Javanese Goddess of the Southern Seas. Likewise, Javanese and Sumatran Muslims go on the hajj with great enthusiasm (on government-organized tours), but continue to revere the spirits of local trees, Sufi saints, and the occasional rock.

In Senegal, I found local Muslims irate at the condescending attitudes of Saudi emissaries who condemned their practices as contrary to Islam. With their long-established Muslim brotherhoods and their beloved marabouts, the Senegalese responded, "We were Islamic scholars when the Saudis were living in tents."

From West Africa to Indonesia, an unnoted defense against Islamist extremism is the loyalty Muslims have to the local versions of their faith. No one much likes to be told that he and his ancestors have gotten it all wrong for the last five centuries. Foolish Westerners who insist that Islam is a unified religion of believers plotting as one to subjugate the West refuse to see that the fiercest enemy of Salafist fundamentalism is the affection Muslims have for their local ways. Islamist terrorists are all about globalization, while the hope for peace lies in the grip of local custom.

Uninterested in political correctness, a Muslim from Côte d'Ivoire remarked to me, "You can change the African's dress, you can educate him and change his table manners, but you cannot change the African inside him." He might have said the same of the Russian, the German, or the Chinese. By refusing to acknowledge, much less attempting to understand, the indestructible differences between human collectives, the 20th-century intelligentsia smoothed the path to genocide in Rwanda, Bosnia, and Sudan, as well as to the age of globalized terror. Denied differences only fester; ignored long enough, the infection kills.

Our insistence that human beings will grow ever more alike defies the historical evidence, as well as practical and spiritual needs. Paradoxically, we make a great fuss of celebrating diversity, yet claim that human values are converging. We, too, have our superstitions and taboos.

Magic vs. jihad

The spread of Islam into Europe and Africa struck very different, but equally potent, barriers in the north and south. In Europe, it could not overcome a rival monotheist faith with its own universalist vision. In West Africa, Islam stopped, roughly five centuries ago, when it left the deserts and grasslands to enter the African forest, that potent domain of magic.

It should excite far more interest than it has that a warrior faith with an unparalleled record of conquest and conversion dead-ended when it reached the realms of illiterate tribes that had not mastered the wheel: In the forests of sub-Saharan Africa, Islam could not conquer, could not convert, and could not convince. On their own turf, local beliefs proved more powerful than a faith that had swept over "civilized" continents.

Forests are the abodes of magic. Look to forested areas for resistance to innovation. Even European fairy tales insist on the forest's mystery. Islam, with its abhorrence of magic, had nothing to offer African forest tribes to replace the beliefs that enveloped them. In northern Europe, too, monotheism faced its greatest difficulty in penetrating forested expanses, and the persistence of essentially pagan folk beliefs in the forested mountains of eastern Europe can startle a visitor today.

The forest, with its magic, is the opponent of globalization. Unlike the monotheist faiths with their propulsive desert origins, it only menaces those who insist on entering it. Now the worrisome question is whether the vast urban slums of the developing world are the world's new forests--impenetrable, exclusive, and deadly. From Sadr City to Brazil's favelas, slum-dwellers are converting the great monotheist religions back into local cults, complete with various forms of human sacrifice. Far from monolithic, both the Muslim and Christian faiths are splintering, with radical strains emerging that reject the globalization of God and insist that His love is narrow, specific, and highly conditional. The great faiths are becoming tribal religions again.

The limits of globalization

After approximately a century of Christian expansion inward from its coasts, Africa remains a jumble of faiths: Muslim in the north states such as Nigeria, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Sudan, or Kenya, while Christian in the south--and persistently fond of local beliefs throughout. Christian televangelists (the real advance guard of globalization) rail against traditional practices in Ghana, while, at the continent's other extreme, on remote islands off the coast of Mozambique, the population remains strictly Muslim by day, but brings out the drums and incantations at night.

The attitude of missionaries, Christian or Muslim, is that such beliefs and practices are a combination of bad habits, naive superstitions, and general ignorance. But the conviction has grown in me as I travel that the missionaries themselves are--willfully--ignorant of systems they cannot respect and so refuse to understand. Religions are like businesses in the sense that they must provide products that work with sufficient regularity to keep customers coming back. Results matter. The psychological comfort and beyond-the-grave promises of Christian ity and Islam function transcendently, but leave immediate needs unanswered.

In developed societies, civil, commercial, and social institutions fill the gap; elsewhere, magic must. Magic endures because local populations experience sufficient evidence of its power. This is hard for Westerners to accept, but, whether training African militaries or running an aid program in Peru, those who ignore the role of magic in the lives of others will always fall short in their results: When Global Man goes home, the shaman returns.

We laugh at this "mumbo-jumbo" from the safety of our own parochial worlds, but the hold of magic remains so tenacious that it continues to inspire human sacrifice in up-country Ghana and self-mutilation from New Mexico to Sulawesi. One way to read the grave discontents of the Middle East is that Sunni Islam, especially, annihilated magic, but, unlike Western civilization, failed to substitute other means to satisfy human needs. There is a huge void in the contemporary human experience in the Islamic heartlands: no reassuring magic, no triumphant progress. Islam in the Sunni-Arab world--the incubator of global terror--is all ritual and no results, while even modern, Western Christianity imbues its rituals with satisfying mysticism, from the experience of being "born again" to the transubstantiation of bread and wine into body and blood.

What if magic--ritual transactions that address spiritual, psychological, and practical needs--is a strategic factor that we've missed entirely? We would not wish to send our troops anywhere without good maps of the local terrain, but we make no serious effort to map the spiritual world of our enemies or potential allies. Even if magic and local beliefs are merely a worthless travesty of faith, our convictions are irrelevant: What matters is what the other man believes.

The power of local beliefs and traditions will continue to frustrate dreams of a globalized, homogenized society beyond our lifetimes. If we can recognize and exploit the power of local customs, we may find them the most potent tools we have for containing the religious counterrevolution of our Islamist enemies. If, on the other hand, we continue to deny that local traditions, beliefs, and habits constitute a power to be reckoned with, we will lose potential allies and many a well-meant assistance project will falter as soon as we remove our hand.

As for the potential for violence from insulted local beliefs, consider this statement: "They can preach holy war, and that is ever the most deadly kind, for it recks nothing of consequences."

This doesn't refer to mad mullahs and postmodern suicide bombers. It's a quotation from a historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth. Published half a century ago for adolescents, it describes a Druid revolt against the Romans in Britain.

Globalization isn't new, but the power of local beliefs, rooted in native earth, is far older. And those local beliefs may prove to be the more powerful, just as they have so often done in the past. From Islamist terrorists fighting to perpetuate the enslavement of women to the Armenian obsession with the soil of Karabakh--from the French rejection of "Anglo-Saxon" economic models to the resistance of African Muslims to Islamist imperialism--the most complex forces at work in the world today, with the greatest potential for both violence and resistance to violence, may be the antiglobal impulses of local societies. From Liège to Lagos, the tribes are back.

Ralph Peters, a retired Army officer, is the author of 21 books, including, most recently, Never Quit the Fight. He has traveled extensively in Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Indonesia.