Akbar Ahmed: When Honor is Threatened

Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, explains globalization’s surprising effect on traditional societies.

September 13, 2002

Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, explains globalization's surprising effect on traditional societies.

What effect does globalization have on the traditional societies in the Middle East? Akbar Ahmed, former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, provides a surprising answer to this question. In this Globalist Interview, he points out that the key impact of globalization on traditional societies may not be on their economy — but on their sense of honor and dignity.

How do you view globalization before — and after — September 11?

Until September 11, globalization was assumed to be an irreversible process. Everybody assumed that traditional societies, tribal societies and local communities were becoming subordinated to this global vision.

September 11 shattered this conceptual framework. Everything we saw on September 11 and afterwards was related globally to notions of honor, revenge, belief — and ethnicity.

In a sense, the destruction of the World Trade Center and smashing into the Pentagon reversed the process of globalization in a far more dramatic manner than I think we are acknowledging so far.

What about the absence of widespread economic opportunity?

Economics is important. But the notion of honor or dignity is more important. What you are seeing in many societies throughout the world is the reaction to perceptions of dishonor. Indignation results. If you talk to a Muslim, for example, he will discuss the loss of dignity and honor in Muslim communities.

What people don't appreciate is that this is a common feeling in all traditional societies. If you were to talk to the Hindus who destroyed a Mosque and then rioted against the Muslims, they would say that their behavior was rational.

Those Hindus would claim that 1,000 years ago, Muslims came to India, destroyed their temples and humiliated them and ravaged their women — and that Muslim rulers had continued to do so since then.

Therefore, they were taking revenge. They were redeeming honor. The notion of honor always comes back.

How would most Americans react to notions like honor and dignity?

Even a "modern" state can fall back to acting on these notions. In Israel, for example, there is a feeling of being under siege.

An Israeli could be sitting in a café or a discothèque or a wedding — and suddenly there is an explosion and half a dozen innocent people are killed. The only emotion then is to take some kind of terrible revenge. So we are back to very primordial emotions.

Let me add that the notion of honor is very developed in the United States as well. To me, President Bush's response after September 11 was very much couched in honor terms. Mr. Bush sees himself as the sheriff — you go out and get the bad guys. The vocabulary he is using is "dead or alive."

It is very much straight out of Hollywood films with Gary Cooper or John Wayne. You know your standard Western sheriff who has been hired to clean up the town — and get rid of the bad guys and restore honor in the town. Even the leader of America is involved in traditional interpretation of honor.

We are talking about something innate in human beings, which is the notion of self and dignity. So we must not assume that highly developed post-industrial societies no longer have that interpretation or understanding of honor.

What then is the message from the developing world about globalization?

What you are seeing after September is a kind of rear-guard action. It is a challenge to the thesis where society is saying we want change and economic development — but not at all costs.

Instead, people in the developing world are saying: "We want change but we want to hold onto our sense of self. We want dignity — and we want our honor. Too much change is shattering our lives. It is changing us beyond recognition."

Is this battle of honor and dignity inevitable?

Let's reexamine the whole notion of culture and honor in terms of when civilizations clash. The first major clash between the West and Asia didn't come during the Crusades. It came over a thousand years earlier — during the time of Alexander the Great.

When Alexander defeated Porus, then the ruler in today's India, he asked Porus how he expected to be treated. Porus replies, "Like a king."

Here is a very interesting moment in the clash between the cultures. Alexander could have killed him for being cheeky.

Instead Alexander said, "You shall be treated like a king," and made Porus Alexander's governor — after all, the regional equivalent of a king.

This is an example of civilizations clashing and understanding each other to some extent. Alexander, although he predated Islam, made a huge impact on Islam because of a certain kind of compassion or spirit that he demonstrated.

He did not come to say, "You're Asians and I am coming to rule you because you are inferior. And I will teach you about the wonderful ways of the Greeks." He rather said, "I want to learn and interact with you. I want to learn with you, live with you — and marry into your family."

My own younger brother is named Sekander, which is Persian for Alexander. I often wonder why my father would name all his other sons after the usual Muslim names, except for one? The answer: Because of the impact Alexander made. That is a great lesson for us today.

Is there a solution for the tensions between the developed and developing worlds today?

I believe civilizations have to be much more sympathetic, much more understanding and much more appreciative of other cultures. Otherwise, the globalization process acts like a steamroller on honor and dignity. It just comes and just crushes you and your local community's identity — and leaves nothing behind.