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Religious Objectors to Globalization

What motivates religious radicals — and why do even the fiercest opponents always have one thing in common?

November 2, 2003

What motivates religious radicals — and why do even the fiercest opponents always have one thing in common?

Among all the various anti-globalization groups, one is easy to understand.

The Buddhists who put nerve gas in the subways of Tokyo, the Hindus who tear down ancient Muslim mosques in India.

Then, there are Christians who blow up government buildings in Oklahoma, the Muslims who attack the World Trade Center in New York — and Jewish fanatics who machine gun down praying Muslims in Israel.

They all know exactly what they want — and why they are against globalization. They want the creation of a religious utopia, their religious utopia — not some other religious utopia — in their area.

As we have seen in Iran and are now seeing in Iraq, Shiite clerics want to set up inward-looking theocracies that shun the rest of the world. They want to withdraw from globalization into a spiritual ghetto.

Religious extremists do not like globalization because they see it as carrying ideas that threaten their view of the world.

They are not alone. On a Polish Catholic radio station, Radio Maryja, globalization is declared to be "the communism of the 20th century." Since via the Internet and the electronic media it seduces Polish youth — and leads them to secularization.

Those with these religious views want to control what is seen on the TV set — and how much their people know about the rest of the world.

Otherwise, as we have seen in Iran, the young grow restless and start to see their religion as their oppressor. There is no doubt that parts of the world are going to stand aside from globalization to practice their religious beliefs. How much of the world falls into this category remains to be seen.

There are always religious leaders who want to withdraw themselves — and their followers from — this earthly world. That is what monasteries are all about.

The real question is why these religious leaders are sometimes listened to and influential — and at other times not listened to and not influential. Why does the option to withdraw into a theocracy look attractive to the potential followers?

That is the real question. Understanding why people follow such religious leaders is much more important than understanding the motivation of the leaders themselves.

In many ways, the rise of religious fundamentalism is simply the return of the world that existed two or three centuries ago. Religious wars were common between the fall of the Roman Empire and the first industrial revolution.

Starting in the 7th century with the collapse of the Sassanian rule in Egypt, Muslim military conquests spread Islam to North Africa, central and southern Asia — and southern Europe. Christians fought back at the time of the Crusades and later against the Moors and the Turks.

Hindus fought back against Muslim rule in India — and are still winning elections today by being anti-Muslim. Who can count how many wars were fought between Protestants and Catholics after the Reformation?

These religious wars were not brought to an end by settling religious issues about central truths (who has the right way to heaven) — or by a rise in religious tolerance. The religious fires of earlier centuries were extinguished in the ideological battles between capitalism and socialism that arose in the 19th and 20th centuries.

How to organize a geographic area economically became the fighting issue that replaced the battles over how to organize that area religiously. Hitler justified his invasion of the USSR as a war against communism.

The Cold War between communism and capitalism dominated the last half of the 20th century. Hot wars between capitalism and communism were fought in Korea and Vietnam. The virtues or vices of socialism versus capitalism fueled almost all of the third world wars in the last century.

The United States organized several invasions (Cuba, Grenada) — and revolutions in Latin America (Chile, Guatemala) under the rubric of fighting communism.

It is not surprising that the death of communism brought with it the return of religious conflicts. If things are not going as we would like, we all seek an ideological banner under which to fight.

To be willing to die, we must have a cause that is bigger than we are. This requires an overarching ideology. Without an overarching ideology, potential revolutionaries are simply criminals — even to themselves. The need for an ideology is more important than the precise content of the ideology.

The fact that today's fanatical religious leaders have followers is also not surprising. What a religious guru offers is "certainty.” Do what I say — and you will go to heaven.

Certainty is what the average person wants in a period of uncertainty. And in the middle of globalization, the third industrial revolution and the worldwide shift to capitalism, uncertainty is everywhere. Certainty is precisely what the secular world cannot offer.

The earthly world is not certain. The only certainty to be found is in a heavenly world. That certainty is very appealing to many in both the first and third worlds. The 9/11 terrorists used religion as their ideology. A few decades earlier, they would have used socialism as their ideology.

Adapted from "Fortune Favors the Bold. What We Must Do to Build a New and Lasting Global Properity" by Lester Thurow. Copyright © 2003 by Lester Thurow. Used by permission of HarperCollins.