The discussion of how the people of this region should confront globalization came no closer to resolution Wednesday when leading thinkers Sadek al-Azm and Hassan Hanafi debated the topic in Beirut.
Their presentations came during a session on cultural heritage and globalization, part of a three-day conference at UNESCO sponsored by the Beirut Heritage Committee.
Although the session was supposed to focus on “culture,” al-Azm and Hanafi discussed globalization in broad terms, and treated political and economic factors as well.
Al-Azm, a leading secular thinker who authored the seminal 1960s works, Self-Criticism After the Defeat and a Critique of Religious Thought, said the Arab world should keep away from conspiracy theories and simplistic “fast food” descriptions of globalization.
“The countries that are driving globalization are production-oriented, not consumer-oriented,” he argued, stressing that developing countries were more deserving of the “consumerist” term because they consumed what others produced.
Al-Azm remarked that foreign-made products, like watches, computer programs and airplanes were allowing Muslims to monitor prayer times and travel to the Hajj, implying that people were fooling themselves if they sought to ignore the impact of the West when deciding to embrace “authentic” religion.
The Syrian thinker’s citing of remarks earlier this year by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad about the Muslim world now experiencing its lowest point ever did not go down well with Hanafi, an Egyptian Islamist.
Hanafi said it was now time for people in the region to determine the path they should take, after “liberal” politics lost the 1948 Palestine War and Arab nationalism lost the 1967 war.
He rejected the idea that globalization represented a bringing together of civilizations and cultures, arguing instead that it just meant “concentration” of power of the countries driving it and the possibility of further “fragmentation” on the periphery.
“It’s not my culture,” Hanafi said, rejecting what he said were Western-decided issues of importance in the Arab world, like rights for women and minorities.
When al-Azm asked if the implication was that all problems came from the West, Hanafi said that local problems did exist, but were being “framed” in ways that suited the West.
While Hanafi terms globalization the latest form of Western dominance, al-Azm hinted that developing countries needed to work as hard as they could to secure a share of the spoils.
But Hanafi rejected the idea that the Arab or Islamic worlds were at their lowest point ever, arguing that Lebanon’s liberation from Israeli occupation was a victory by a “strong state and strong society.”
In a paper distributed at the seminar, Hanafi says the way to defend Arab culture is “not to close ourselves off and reject ‘the other,’” but strengthen it by “renewing our language” and moving “our analysis from the level of divine and supernatural to one that is humanist and liberating.”
Hanafi also rejected “being dazzled by the West,” and he is presumably not intending to attend next month’s Francophone Summit, as he criticized the idea and remarked it was time to “celebrate Arabophone” values.
Al-Azm commented on the same phenomenon, but from a pessimistic viewpoint: “I would have expected a kind of ‘Arabization’ response to globalization, but this doesn’t seem to have taken place,” as opposition to globalization has come from the countries that are driving the phenomenon.