[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]
Even as the world population has grown, globalization has made our planet shrink. Travel options have expanded, more people are living in cities, and the products we use daily are increasingly made and distributed by multinational corporations. Mass production and its economic advantages have been expanded to nearly all corners of the world, to the point where one can find familiar food, clothing, tools and services wherever people gather in large numbers. Change, such as the worldwide use of mobile smartphones, now spreads with amazing speed. For people of faith who live in accordance with established traditions, the velocity of change can feel threatening and provoke violent backlash in defense.
Resistance to Change
Venerated social values are resistant to change. The dominant religious traditions today — Christianity, Islam and Hinduism — have existed for centuries, their core tenants preserved and passed on through generations. When rapid change ripples outward, it generates friction as it collides with deeply held religious beliefs. Occasionally this friction flares into violence.
In September 2005, a stark example began in Denmark, where the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten broke an Islamic taboo by publishing mocking images of the prophet Muhammad. The images quickly appeared in other newspapers around the world, sparking widespread riots. This violent reaction also became a global phenomenon. Buildings burned and an estimated 200 people died soon after publication because news is now globalized through the internet.
Elements of Conflict
In his book “Religious Violence in the Age of Globalization”, Hans G. Kippenberg observes that conflict is never caused by religion alone. Rather, violence results from the complex interaction of economic interests, political division, cultural discord and social upheaval. Sometimes tensions with a surface appearance of religious or ethnic strife may mask more basic disagreements.
An example is the ongoing conflict in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has been blamed on differences between ethnic Sunni Kurds, Turkish forces and Iraqi Shi’a Muslims. However, the region is rich with oil, and this has been another major focus of contention. Much to Baghdad’s consternation, the semi-autonomous Kurds have done oil survey and extraction deals with several multinational firms. Thus, it may be misleading to simply attribute conflict to ‘religious violence’, as it is likely that more than just religious faith is involved.
The most casual study of history shows conquest has often been accomplished by violence. Empires have subjugated, enslaved and annihilated peoples, cultures and faiths. But trade has played a role as well. It can have the effect of normalizing cultural exchange, and globalized trade has delivered many benefits. But it has also prompted accusations of cultural hegemony — cultural domination by economically powerful nations — as Western influence expands in tandem with the growth and spread of market economies. The primarily Western members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development account for 59 percent of global gross domestic product.
Incoming trade and migrants can expose people to conflicting values, and the secular decoupling of religion and government in the West is anathema to some cultures. Resistance to this perceived hegemony is another factor that has motivated religious fundamentalists to commit horrendous acts of aggression — witness the 9/11 attacks in the United States.
Globalization of Violence
The globalization of information and travel has provided radical militants and smaller, less-developed nations with new levels of agility and lethality. The weaponization of biology is becoming increasingly feasible, and the potential for small groups of religious fundamentalists to instigate a nuclear and/or biological attack against nations in response to real or perceived injustice is aided by these developments.
Embassy attacks, seemingly-routine roadside and suicide bombings, and other violence — some of which has a religious component — has shaken parts of the Middle East, Africa and other regions over the decades. Those attacks provide abundant reason to believe that globalized technologies can be leveraged by small angry groups, both religious and secular, in any part of the world. No place on earth is invulnerable to that possibility.
Violence is sparked by conflict. Trade requires cooperation. For better or worse, both conflict and cooperation are now globalized. Humanity’s future depends on how we manage these opposing influences.