For people in the modern world, there may be nothing more difficult to comprehend than the group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIS. The beheadings, rapes, and other acts of cruelty seem beyond understanding, as does the wanton destruction of priceless ancient monuments. Perhaps most mystifying of all is the way ISIS has been able to recruit young men — and even some young women — from the industralized West, particularly Europe: the conventional wisdom is that the cure for ethnic and religious violence is “development,” education, and the opportunities provided by free markets. This seems not to be the case.
Because of the mainstream media’s narrow and often misplaced focus, it’s not surprising that most Westerners believe that religious extremism is primarily a problem of Islam. But the fighting in Syria and Iraq is not the only ethnic or religious conflict underway. There has been violence between Sinhalese and Tamils in Sri Lanka, Buddhists and Hindus in Bhutan, Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab, Eritreans and Ethiopians in the Horn of Africa, Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, ethnic Russians and Ukrainians in the former Soviet Union, and many more. The fact is, fanaticism, fundamentalism, and ethnic conflict have been growing for many decades—and not just in the Islamic world.
Failure to recognize this trend can lead to the belief that terrorism is a product of nothing more than religious extremism and will end when secular market-based democracies are established throughout the world. Unfortunately the reality is far more complex, and unless we address the underlying causes of conflict and terrorism, a more peaceful and secure future will remain elusive.
To really understand the rise of religious fundamentalism and ethnic conflict we need to look at the deep impacts of the global consumer culture on living cultures throughout the planet. Doing so allows us not only to better understand ISIS and similar groups, but also to see a way forward that lessens violence on all sides.
My perspective comes from nearly fifty years of experience in numerous cultures in both the Global North and the Global South. I studied in Austria in 1966, when the Tyrol conflict was raging; I was a resident in Spain in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Basque separatist group ETA was active; I lived in England when pitched battles between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland spilled over into bombings on the streets of London; and I’ve worked for almost four decades on the Indian subcontinent, where I’ve seen terrorist acts in Nepal, as well as ethnic tensions and open conflict in India and Bhutan.
Most important of all, since 1975 I have witnessed the emergence of tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority in Ladakh, a region of India in the western Himalayas that has close cultural and historical ties to Tibet. More than 40 years ago I founded the Ladakh Project — which has since grown into Local Futures — to support local efforts to maintain Ladakh’s cultural integrity in the face of economic globalization, and I have witnessed sobering changes in the area during these decades.
For more than 600 years Buddhists and Muslims lived side by side in Ladakh with no recorded instance of group conflict. They helped one another at harvest time, attended one another’s religious festivals, and sometimes intermarried. But over a period of about 15 years, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims escalated rapidly, and by 1989 they were bombing of each other’s homes. One mild-mannered Buddhist grandmother, who a decade earlier had been drinking tea and laughing with her Muslim neighbor, told me, “We have to kill all the Muslims or they will finish us off.”
How did relations between these two ethnic groups change so quickly and completely? The transformation is just as unfathomable as the emergence of ISIS, unless one understands the complex interrelated effects of globalization on individuals and communities worldwide.
Throughout the world, globalized “development” generally entails an influx of external investments that are then used to build up an energy and transport infrastructure. This new infrastructure then shifts the locus of economic and political life from a multitude of villages and towns to a handful of large urban centers. This is what happened in Ladakh. Suddenly, villages that had previously provided food, energy, medicine, and skills born of generations of local knowledge were struggling to survive. They were no longer able to compete with the city, where subsidized imported food, petroleum, pharmaceuticals, and designer clothes were available for the lucky few. The destruction of the local economy and culture by the global economy also created what can best be described as a cultural inferiority complex.
When I first arrived in Ladakh forty years ago, there was no indication that people thought of themselves as poor or inferior. Instead they regularly described themselves as having enough and being content with their lives. Though natural resources were scarce and the climate difficult, the Ladakhis had, in fact, a remarkably high standard of living. Most of the region’s farmers only really worked four months of the year, and poverty and unemployment were alien concepts.
In one of my first years in Ladakh, I was shown around a remote village by a young Ladakhi named Tsewang. Since all the houses I saw seemed especially large and beautiful, I asked him to show me the houses where the poor lived. He looked perplexed for a moment, then replied, “We don’t have any poor people here.”
In part, the Ladakhis’ confidence and sense of having enough emanated from a deep sense of community: people knew they could depend on one another. But in 1975—the year Tsewang showed me his village—the Indian government decided to open up the region to the process of development, and life began to change rapidly. Within a few years the Ladakhis were exposed to television, Western movies, advertising, and a seasonal flood of foreign tourists. Subsidized food and consumer goods—from Michael Jackson CDs and plastic toys to Rambo videos and pornography—poured in on the new roads that development brought. Ladakh’s local economy was being swallowed up by the global economy, and its traditional culture displaced by the consumer monoculture.
A new form of competition began to separate Ladakhis from one another. As the artificially “cheap,” subsidized goods from outside destroyed the local economy, Ladakhis were forced to fight for the scarce jobs of the new money economy.
Competition also increased for political power. In the past, most Ladakhis wielded real influence and power within their own economy. But in the late 1970s, when the Ladakhis were absorbed into India’s national economy of 800 million and a global economy of 6 billion, their influence and power were reduced almost to zero. The little political power that remained was funneled through highly centralized institutions and bureaucracies, dominated by the Muslims in Kashmir.
Competitive pressures increased further as development replaced plentiful local materials with the scarce materials of the global monoculture: thus stone gave way to concrete and steel; wool to imported cotton and polyester; and local wheat and milk to imported wheat and milk. The result was artificial scarcity: people who had managed well for centuries on local materials were now, in effect, in fierce competition with everyone else on the planet.
In Ladakh and elsewhere in the Global South, these economic pressures are reinforced by the media and advertising, whose images consistently portray the rich and the beautiful living an exciting and glamorous version of the American Dream. Satellite television now brings shows like Sex and the City to the most remote parts of the world, making village life seem primitive, backward, and boring by contrast. Young people in particular are made to feel ashamed of their own culture. The psychological impact on Ladakh was sudden and stark: eight years after Tsewang told me that his village had no poor people, I overheard him saying to some tourists, “If you could only help us Ladakhis, we’re so poor.”
The undermining of cultural self-worth is an implicit goal of many marketers, who promote their own brands by imparting a sense of shame about local products. An American advertising executive in Beijing admitted that the message being drummed into Third World populations today is “Imported equals good, local equals crap.”
But it is not just local products that are denigrated by advertising and media images: it is local people as well. In Ladakh and around the world, the one-dimensional media stereotypes are almost invariably based on an urban, blonde, blue-eyed Western consumer model. If you are a farmer or are dark-skinned, you are supposed to feel backward and inferior. Thus, advertisements in Thailand and South America urge people to “correct” their dark eye color with blue contact lenses: “Have the color of eyes you wish you were born with!” For the same reason, many dark-skinned women throughout the world use dangerous chemicals to lighten their skin and hair, and some Asian women have operations to make their eyes look more Western. These are profound acts of capitulation to a global social and economic order that offers material and social rewards to those who come closest to the West’s commodified standards of beauty.
Few in the Global South have been able to withstand this assault on their cultural and individual self-esteem. A few years ago I visited the most remote part of Kenya’s Masailand: I had been told that this was a region that had withstood the pressures of the consumer monoculture, where people still retained an untarnished dignity and pride. So I was horrified when a young Masai leader introduced me to his father saying, “Helena is working in the Himalayas with people who are even more primitive than we are.” The old man replied, “That is not possible: no one could be more primitive than us.”
The Rise of Fundamentalism in Ladakh
In the past, Ladakhis would rarely identify themselves as Buddhists or Muslims, instead referring to their household or village of origin. But with the heightened competition brought by development, that began to change. Political power, formerly dispersed throughout the villages, became concentrated in bureaucracies controlled by the Muslim-dominated state of Kashmir, of which Ladakh was part. In most countries the group in power tends to favor its own kind, while the rest often suffer discrimination. Ladakh was no exception. Political representation and government jobs—virtually the only jobs available to formally-schooled Ladakhis—disproportionately went to Muslims. Thus ethnic and religious differences—once largely ignored—began to take on a political dimension, causing bitterness and enmity on a scale previously unknown.
Young Ladakhis, for whom religion had been just another part of daily life, took exaggerated steps to demonstrate their religious affiliation and devotion. Muslims began requiring their wives and daughters to cover their heads with scarves. Buddhists in the capital began broadcasting their prayers over loudspeakers, so as to compete with the Muslim prayer call. Religious ceremonies that were once celebrated by the whole community—Buddhist and Muslim alike—became instead occasions to flaunt one’s wealth and strength. In 1987 tensions between the two groups exploded into violence. This in a place where there had been no group conflict in living memory.
Over the next few years I met a number of young Ladakhis who said they were ready to kill people in the name of Islam or Buddhism. These were young men who hadn’t had much exposure to the traditional teachings of their respective religions. Instead, they tended to be those who had studiously modeled themselves on Rambo and James Bond, and who were the most psychologically insecure. On the other hand, those who managed to maintain their deeper connections to the community and to their spiritual roots in general seemed psychologically strong enough to remain gentle and tolerant.
It may be surprising to some people to know that the Ladakhis most prone to violence were generally those with exposure to Western-style schooling. This feature of development—usually seen as an unequivocal good—pulled the young away from the skills and values most suited to life on the Tibetan Plateau, substituting instead an education suited to a consumer lifestyle that will lie forever beyond the reach of the majority. Battered by the impossible dreams foisted on them by their schools, the media, and advertisements, many youth ended up unwanted, frustrated, and angry.
Ladakh’s story is not unusual. The rise of divisions, violence, and civil disorder around the world are a predictable effect of the attempt to force diverse cultures and peoples into a consumer monoculture. The problem is particularly acute in the Global South, where people from many differing ethnic backgrounds are pulled into cities where they are cut off from their communities and cultural moorings and face ruthless competition for jobs and the basic necessities of life. In the intensely demoralizing and competitive situation they face, differences of any kind become increasingly significant, and tension between differing ethnic or religious groups can easily flare into violence.
Since rural communities and local economies in the Global North are being ripped apart by many of the same destructive forces at work in the Global South, it should be no surprise that the effects are similar here too. Christian fundamentalism, for example, has taken root in America’s rural heartland, as has increased hostility toward immigrants, Muslims, and other ethnic minorities. Across Europe, there has been hostility to immigrants and their children—not just the recent influx from Syria, but also those who have been in Europe for decades. Many of these immigrants live on the tattered edges of glamorous cities whose affluence is like a cruel taunt. Moreover, neo-Nazi movements have gained strength in places like Greece, where the Golden Dawn party blames the country’s economic woes on “illegal immigrants”—rather than on the “structural adjustments” that were the price for recent bailouts.
At the same time, we can see—even in our own culture—that robbing men of self-respect and the ability to provide for themselves and their family is a recipe for violence. That violence is usually directed at “the other” — whether it’s refugees, different religious or racial groups, or even women and children from their own community.
Despite the clear connection between the spread of the global monoculture and ethnic conflict, many in the West place responsibility at the feet of tradition rather than modernity, blaming “ancient hatreds” that have smoldered beneath the surface for centuries. Certainly ethnic friction is a phenomenon that predates colonialism and modernization. But after four decades of documenting and analyzing the effects of globalization on the Indian subcontinent, I am convinced that becoming connected to the global consumer economy doesn’t just exacerbate existing tensions—in many cases it actually creates them. The arrival of the global economy breaks down human-scale structures, destroys bonds of reciprocity and mutual dependence, and pressures the young to substitute their own culture and values with the artificial values of advertising and the media. In effect this means rejecting one’s own identity and rejecting one’s self. In the case of Ladakh, it is clear that “ancient hatreds” didn’t previously exist and cannot account for the sudden appearance of violence.
Lessening the Violence
The best long-term strategy to stop the spread of ethnic and religious violence is to reverse the policies that now promote growth-at-any-cost development. Today, free trade treaties—one of the prime engines of globalization—are pressuring governments to invest in ever larger-scale infrastructures and to subsidize giant, mobile corporations to the detriment of millions of smaller local and national enterprises.
The creation of a global monoculture in the image of the West has proven disastrous on many counts, none more important than the violence it does to cultures that must be pulled apart to accommodate the process. When that violence spins out of control, it should remind us of the heavy cost of leveling the world’s diverse multitude of social and economic systems, many of which are better at sustainably meeting people’s needs than is the system that aims to replace them.
Until about 500 years ago, local cultures throughout the world were the products of a dialogue between humans and a particular place, growing and evolving from the bottom up in response to local conditions. Cultures have absorbed and responded to outside influences such as trade, but the process of conquest, colonialism, and development that has affected so much of the world is fundamentally different: it has forcefully imposed change from the outside. And since the end of World War II, the forces dismantling local economies have grown far more powerful. Today, speculative investment and transnational corporations are transforming every aspect of life—people’s language, their music, their buildings, their agriculture, and the way they see the world. That top-down form of cultural change works against diversity, against the very fabric of life.
In any case, the Western model that is being pushed on the world is not replicable: the one-eyed economists who look at electronic signals to tell them whether economies are healthy or “growing fast enough” don’t do the arithmetic needed to see if the earth has enough resources for their abstract models to work. It is little more than a cruel hoax to promise the poor of the world that development and free trade will enable them to live like Americans or Europeans, who consume ten times their fair share of resources. For all but a small minority, the American Dream is a physical impossibility. No wonder then that increased poverty and breakdown lead to rising resentment of Westerners—particularly Americans, who are seen as the main proponents and beneficiaries of the global economy. This despite the fact that the American Dream is now beyond the reach of most Americans, as well.
It is vital that we in the West shift to a decentralized, less resource-intensive economic model immediately. But equally urgent is a shift in development policies for the less industrialized, less oil-dependent South, where a strategy based on decentralized, renewable energy would be far easier and less expensive to implement than continuing to pursue a centralized, carbon-intensive energy path. By improving conditions in villages, towns and small cities, this strategy would also help stem the unhealthy tide of urbanization—the depopulation of rural areas that is structurally linked to corporate-led globalization. We also need to look critically even at those well-meaning proposals, like the UN’s recent Sustainable Development Goals, that call for further “aid” to the Global South to alleviate poverty (a presumed cause of terrorism). The elimination of poverty is certainly a worthy goal, but most aid is export-oriented and actually increases real poverty while tying people more tightly to a global economy over which they have no control. It undermines the ability of communities and whole nations to produce for their own needs, maintain their own culture, and determine their own future. It cannot prevent either poverty or terrorism. Like further trade deregulation, most development aid primarily enables global corporations to exploit labor, resources, and markets worldwide.
What is needed is a shift away from globalization towards economic localization, along with what I call “counter-development”—efforts that increase self-reliance while providing information to balance the romanticized images of the consumer culture disseminated by western style schooling and the media.
For forty years, Local Futures has been running a range of initiatives with those goals in mind. Our efforts have included a program to demonstrate renewable energy technologies—primarily small-scale solar and hydro—that improve living standards without tying people into the fossil fuel economy. Importantly, our work has also sought to deglamorize the consumer culture. We have painted a fuller picture of modern urban life, sharing information about the serious problems of crime, unemployment, loneliness, and alienation in the West. At the same time we have highlighted the various movements that seek to strengthen local economies and community, regenerate healthier agriculture, and foster a deeper connection to the living world.
Paradoxically, these efforts have involved a closer connection between Westerners and people from the Global South—we have even sponsored some to come on reality tours to the West. In Ladakh we have run programs that enable Westerners to experience traditional village life. The interest and involvement of these Westerners in Ladakh’s culture and in farming has helped to counter the derogatory messages transmitted by Western media.
Working closely with indigenous leaders, our efforts have essentially been about countering and providing alternatives to global development models based on debt and fossil fuels. For this approach to be replicated, we urgently need major educational campaigns as well as closer dialogue between grassroots organizations in the North and the South. We need a movement that will lobby governments and the UN, making it clear that the most effective way for governments to contribute to a reduction in both poverty and violence is not to scale up funding for development, but to scale back the forces of globalization. Those forces are underwritten by governments through free trade treaties, investments in trade-based infrastructures, a wide range of subsidies and tax breaks for global corporations, and much more. Withdrawing that support is a necessary step toward reversing the wave of resentment and anger spreading through much of the Global South.
Tragically, the primary “solutions” to the problem of terrorism have involved smart bombs, drone attacks, and wall-to-wall surveillance programs. At the same time, governments continue to undermine cultural identity through policies promoting a worldwide monoculture for the benefit of global corporations and banks. Such policies will only breed further desperation and fanaticism among people who already feel betrayed and disenfranchised. Encouraging instead a deeper dialogue between people in the Global North and the Global South, while shifting our economic policies to support local and national economies, would set us on the path toward a more harmonious world.
Originally published at the Local Futures blog.