Religious Identity and Globalisation

Anwar A Khan

26 April, 2019 12:00 AM printer

God has set the rules and has made them difficult to challenge, religion provides answers to questions concerning self-identity. However, in providing such answers, religion also institutes a notion of truth which implies an automatic exclusion of the one—called an “abject”—who does not adhere to such truth. In times of uncertainty like globalisation, therefore, collective identity is reduced to a number of cultural religious characteristics —“them” and “us” and “they” and “our.” In other words, the abject suddenly becomes recognised as a threat.

For example, since the 9/11 attacks, there has been a tendency of the West to link the religion of Islam with terrorist practices while Al-Qaeda links the US as Christian or a Judeo-Christian nation. On the one hand, Al-Qaeda men who hijacked the planes on 9/11 saw the passengers and those working in the World Trade Centre and Pentagon as “abjects” of Islam. On the other hand, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq turned into wars of “Islamofacism” and a “crusade” to the divine in getting rid of evil. Moreover, other attacks on innocent people based on cultural religious characteristics occur today: Muslims in the United States, Western Europe, or India, Kurds in Iraq, and Jews in France. In other words, though socially constructed, these cultural religious characteristics become a unifying force against others not adhering to a particular truth.

Interestingly then, the idea of religious identity in this era of globalisation may hold in-line with Huntington’s thesis. According to Huntington, while conflict during the Cold War occurred between the Capitalist West and the Communist Bloc East, current and future conflicts are most likely to occur between the world’s major civilisations, and not the states, including Western, Latin American, Islamic, Chinese, Hindu, Orthodox, Japanese, and the African. In a broader sense, having paved the way for religions to come in direct contacts with one another, globalisation has, indeed, brought religions to a circle of competition and conflicts. As long as religions see themselves as “world religions” and reinforce their specific identities, the chance for religions to avoid conflict among one another is grey.

In a time in which globalisation has yet to fully complete its process, religions must use the communication easily available through advanced technology to focus more on the humane and pluralistic forms of their teachings—values such as human dignity and human freedom—as means to manage religious diversity and avoid violence. In other words, religious should be open to other traditions and what they can teach. In fact, though having fixed texts, the major world religions do not have fixed beliefs and only fixed interpretations of those beliefs meaning their beliefs can be rediscovered, reinvented, and reconceptualised.

As interesting examples, in their attempt to create the tradition of non-violence from diverse religions and cultures, three paradigmatic individuals—Leo Tolstoy, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.—have, indeed, rediscovered, reinvented, and reconceptualised the beliefs of the world’s major religions. The three individuals indicate that it is possible for narrative diversity to generate a shared ethic without sacrificing the diversity of particular religions.

For instance, although coming from a gentry class in Russia and receiving fame and fortune from his novels, Tolstoy converted to Christianity in part after reading a story about how a Syrian monk named Barlaam brought about the conversion of a young Indian prince named Josaphat, who gave up his wealth and family to seek an answer to aging, sickness, and death. Deeply indebted in Buddhism for his conversion to Christianity, Tolstoy, attempting to live his life by the teachings of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, gave away all his wealth and spent the rest of his life serving the poor. Nevertheless, the story about Barlaam and Josaphat has worked its way into virtually all the world’s religions.

Similarly, Gandhi, when he encountered Tolstoy’s writings, drew his attention to the power of the Sermon on the Mount. In encountering Jesus’ Sermon, Gandhi became motivated to turn the great Hindu narrative from the Mahabharata, the Bhagavad Gita, in order to find the message of non-violence within his own religion and culture. By finding that Tolstoy’s understanding of the Sermon on the Mount lacked non-violence as an active rather than a passive virtue . . . capable of producing an active resistance to evil, he found it present in the Bhagavad Gita. As a result, Ghandi transformed the Bhagavad Gita from a story that authorised killing to one of non-violence reflected from the story of Jacob wrestling with the stranger and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

Lastly, Martin Luther King, Jr. also drew insight from Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, and Judaism. For instance, connecting Gandhi with Jesus Christ, he saw Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence as similar to Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Therefore, King’s theological theme was the idea that unmerited suffering is redemptive, meaning he constantly reminded blacks that they would experience a season of suffering before they would achieve justice. In general terms, King’s theology focused on values grounded in religion—justice, love, and hope. In short, as Tolstoy, Ghandi, and King illustrate, “narrative traditions are not mutually exclusive.” They are connected through themes and, therefore, allow religions to engage in inter-religious dialogue.

As a further example, religious leaders gathered at the UN’s Millennium Peace Summit in September 2000 to mark the turn of the millennium. A milestone in itself, as the UN is not a common ground in the sense of an ecumenical meeting inside a church, synagogue, or mosque but rather a global common ground, the Summit’s conversation encouraged that world’s religious communities stop fighting and arguing amongst themselves and begin working together for peace, justice, and social harmony. As the-then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan addressed to the Summit, “Whatever your past, whatever your calling, and whatever the differences among you, your presence here at the United Nations signifies your commitment to our global mission of tolerance, development, and peace.”

Moreover, as transnational corporations increasingly become actors in the international system, one could argue that religious communities have agreed on the emerging global ethic which consists of three major components: 1) corporations are prohibited from involving in bribes and corruption, 2) corporations are prohibited from discriminating on the grounds of race, religion, ethnicity, or gender in the conduct of business, and 3) corporations are prohibited from activities that pose a significant threat to human life and health. Simply put, these components are, in themselves, religious values used to regulate the way transitional corporations increasingly engage in the global market.

The bottom line is that the pieces of inter religious dialogue to manage religious diversity and to avoid violence are there, but the problem may be of globalisation’s intentional and/or unintentional consequence of making religions more conscious of themselves as world religions, as well as the undesirable consequences of disrupting traditional communities, causing economic marginalisation, and bringing individuals mental stress—all reinforcing religious cultural characteristics and identities. Hence, the relationship between religion and globalisation has brought new possibilities but also furthering challenges.

Since globalisation is considered as the first truly world revolution, all revolutions disrupt the traditions and customs of a people—that is, people’s very security, safety, and identity. As globalisation disrupts traditional communities, causes economic marginalisation, and brings mental stress, individuals feel these less desirable consequences of globalisation. With religion’s power to convey a picture of security, stability, and simple answers through stories and beliefs—unlike economic plans, political programmes, or legal regulations—individuals turn to religion.

In giving individuals a sense of belonging, religious groups help them to find themselves in modern times. For instance, religious leaders, pointing to modern society’s loss of ethical values and increased corruption, preach, “the only answer to the current ‘decay’ is a return to traditional values and religious norms.” Hence, religion supplies these individuals with a feeling of being a part of a group that represents their interests and allows them to regain their traditional sense of who they are.

Last but not least, globalisation causes mental stress. Although globalisation allows for crisscrossing borders, it also leaves individuals worrying about losing work, status, or other privileges. Moreover, since globalisation favours material prosperity as the aim of life over inner peace, individuals focus on attaining some material possession such as a house, car, game, or simply any object. When they attain such item(s), however, they find themselves empty inside and, therefore, realise that inner peace can never be achieved through material possessions.


The writer is a senior citizen, writes on politics, political and humanist figures, current and international affairs