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The future of religious and ethnic politics in a global world

Emerging movements of ethnic and religious politics are therefore ambivalent about globalization. To the extent that they are nationalistic they often oppose the global reach of world government, at least in its secular form. But the more visionary of these movements also at times have their own transnational dimensions, and some dream of world domination shaped in their own ideological images. For this reason one can project at least three different futures for religious and ethnic nationalism in a global world: one where religious and ethnic politics ignore globalization, another where they rail against it, and yet another where they envision their own transnational futures.

Non-globalization: new ethic and religious states

The goal of some ethnic and religious activists is the revival of a nation-state that avoids the effects of globalization. Right-wing movements in Europe and the United States that reject regional and international alliances usually imagine that their nations could return to a self-sufficient economic and political order that would not rely on global networks and transnational associations. 

Where new religious states have emerged, they have tended to be isolationist. In Iran, for instance, the ideology of Islamic nationalism that emerged during and after the 1979 revolution, and that was propounded by the Ayatollah Khomeini and his political theoretician, Ali Shari'ati, was intensely parochial. It was not until some twenty years later that new movements of moderate Islamic politics encouraged its leaders to move out of their self-imposed international isolation (Wright 2000). The religious politics of Afghanistan during the reign of the Taliban was even more strongly isolationist. Led by members of the Pathan ethnic community who were former students of Islamic schools, the religious revolutionaries of the Taliban established a self-contained autocratic state with strict adherence to traditional Islamic codes of behavior (Marsden 1998).

Yet religious politics need not be isolationist. In India, when Hindu nationalists in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), "Indian People's Party," came to power in 1998 — a victory that was consolidated in the national elections of 1999 — some observers feared that India would become isolated from world opinion and global culture as a result. The testing of nuclear weapons as one of the BJP's first acts in power did little to dispel these apprehensions. But in many other ways, including its openness to economic ties and international relations, the BJP has maintained India's interactive role in the world community. Credit for this may be due, in part, to the moderate leadership of the BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of the country's most experienced and temperate politicians. The rise of a modern Muslim government in Indonesia has also adopted a tolerant and international stance.

Guerrilla antiglobalism

In other regions of the world it is not the creation of new religious states that is at issue but the breakdown of old secular states with no clear political alternative. In some instances, religious and ethnic activists have contributed to these anarchic conditions. In the former Yugoslavia, for instance, the bloodshed in Bosnia and Kosovo was caused by the collapse of civil order as much as by the efforts to create new ethnic and religious regions. Because these situations have been threats to world order they have provoked the intervention of international forces such as NATO and the UN.

It is, however, world order that many of these religious and ethnic nationalists oppose. They note that the increasingly multicultural societies of most urban communities around the world have undermined traditional cultures and their leaders. They have imagined the United States and the United Nations to be agents of an international conspiracy, one that they think is hell-bent on forming a homogenous world society and a global police state. It was this specter — graphically described in the novel, The Turner Diaries — that one of the novel's greatest fans, Timothy McVeigh, had hoped to forestall by attacking a symbol of federal control in America's heartland. His assault on the Oklahoma City federal building, and other terrorist attacks around the world — including Osama bin Laden's alleged bombing of U.S. Embassies in Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000 — were acts of what might be considered "guerrilla antiglobalism."    

Transnational religious and ethnic alliances

Although the members of many radical religious and ethnic groups may appear to fear globalization, what they distrust most are the secular aspects of globalization. They are afraid that global economic forces and cultural values will undercut the legitimacy of their own bases of identity and power. Other aspects of globalization are often perceived by them as neutral, and in some instances, useful for their purposes.

Some groups have a global agenda of their own, a transnational alternative to political nationalism. Increasingly terrorist wars have been waged on an international and transnational scale. When the World Trade Center was demolished in the dramatic aerial assaults of September 11, 2001, it was not just America that was targeted but also the power of the global economic system that the buildings symbolized. Osama bin Ladin’s al Qaeda network was itself a global structure. Its world-wide attacks may be seen as skirmishes in a new Cold War, or, more apocalyptically, a "clash of civilizations," as Samuel Huntington termed it (Huntington 1996).

Another form of religious transnationality may emerge from the international relations of kindred religious states. According to one theory of global Islamic politics that circulated in Egypt in the 1980s and 90s, local movements of Muslim politics were meant to be only the first step in creating a larger Islamic political entity — a consortium of contiguous Muslim nations. In this scenario, religious nationalism would be the precursor of religious  transnationalism. Transnational Islam would lead to Islamic versions of such secular consortia as NAFTA and the European Community. In the Islamic model, however, the divisions among states would eventually wither away when a greater Islamic union is formed.

A third kind of transnational association of religious and ethnic activists has developed in the diaspora of cultures and peoples around the world. Rapid internet communication technologies allow members of ethnic and religious communities to maintain a close association despite their geographic dispersion. These "e-mail ethnicities" are not limited by any political boundaries or national authorities. Expatriate members of separatist communities — such as Irish Republicans, Indian Sikhs, and both Sinhalese and Tamil Sri Lankans — have provided both funding and moral support to their compatriates' causes. In the case of Kurds, their "nation" is spread throughout Europe and the world, united through a variety of modern communications technologies. In some cases these communities long for a nation-state of their own; in other cases they are prepared to maintain their nonstate national identities for the indefinite future.

Identity, power and globalization

Each of these futures contains a paradoxical relationship between the national and globalizing aspects of ethno-religious politics. This suggests that there is a symbiotic relationship between certain forms of globalization and religious and ethnic nationalism. It may appear ironic, but the globalism of culture and the emergence of transnational political and economic institutions enhance the need for local identities. They also create the desire for a more localized form of authority and social accountability.

The crucial problems in an era of globalization are identity and control. The two are linked, in that a loss of a sense of belonging leads to a feeling of powerlessness. At the same time, what has been perceived as a loss of faith in secular nationalism is experienced as a loss of agency as well as identity. For these reasons the assertion of traditional forms of religious and ethnic identities are linked to attempts to reclaim personal and cultural power. The vicious outbreaks of religious and ethnic terrorism that has occurred at the beginning of the 21st century can be seen as tragic attempts to regain social control through acts of violence. Until there is a surer sense of citizenship in a global order, therefore, ethno-religious visions of moral order will continue to appear as attractive though often disruptive solutions to the problems of identity and belonging in a global world.