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Rethinking Globalization
Apr 1, 2005

Although globalization is a helpful category, there is considerable disagreement about its precise meaning. Many commentators, while conceding an economic aspect, want to see it defined much more broadly. For example, Roland Robertson writes: “For present purposes, globalization may be defined simply as the compression of the world. This notion of compression refers both to increasing sociocultural density and to rapidly expanding consciousness. Globalization itself has been a long-term process extending over many centuries, although only in recent centuries has it, with increasing rapidity, assumed a particular, discernible form. Globalization is, it should be clearly recognized, a multidimensional process. It is simultaneously cultural, economic, and political.”1

The availability of CNN worldwide (media), the growth in international organizations (political), and McDonald’s (economic and cultural) illustrate the diverse factors driving globalization. In addition, it is important to recognize that globalization, as an issue, is linked to capitalism’s triumph in the Cold War. The United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, pointed out that its opponents see globalization as “an ideology of predatory capitalism.”2

Hardt and Negri: Empire

Michael Hardt is a professor of literature at Duke University, and Antonio Negri is currently an inmate at Rebibbia Prison, Rome.3 Their book Empire, a post-Marxist attempt to analyze capitalism/globalism proposes the following simple thesis: “Globalization is a symptom of the new Empire. The new Empire is a result of the demise of the sovereignty of the nation state. However, ‘throughout the contemporary transformations, political controls, state functions, and regulatory mechanisms have continued to rule the realm of economic and social production and exchange. Our basic hypothesis is that sovereignty has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule. This new global form of sovereignty is what we call Empire’...4 As national sovereignty declines, however, ‘Empire’ emerges. Empire, or globalization, is the latest strategy of the wealthy and powerful to control the weak and powerless. It has a number of advantages over the traditional nation state that it has displaced. First, it has no boundaries. Second, it is attempting to create this myth that it is simply the logical expression of certain economic laws. Third, it wants to shape every aspect of human life. And finally, it shelters behind the rhetoric of peace.”5

The study makes much of the decline of state sovereignty. It documents, with some care, the distinctive set of historical and social conditions that gave birth to the idea that a particular people within a particular boundary are sovereign over their actions. It notes that this was often a device that protected tyranny, and that the European Enlightenment had strong tendencies toward racism and colonialism.

Where traditional national sovereignty was grounded in a “transcendent” ruler (e.g., the king over his people), the Empire uses capital to operate on the plane of immanence “through relays and networks of relationships of domination, without reliance on a transcendent center of power.... In the passage of sovereignty toward the plane of immanence, the collapse of boundaries has taken place within each national context and on a global scale.”6 Capitalism is not simply about power over resources; it is also about the relationship of religion and ethics to economic life.

The danger in this debate about globalization is that we confine our reflections to the political left (i.e., those with socialist sympathies) and the political right (i.e., those with capitalist sympathies). To prevent this, we turn to Said Nursi. If I am right in stressing the religious factors at the heart of capitalism and globalization, we should expect to learn something from Nursi.

Four Themes in Said Nursi

It is dangerous to apply the ideas of great thinkers to problems that they did not experience. Said Nursi (1877-1960) experienced the concluding years of the Ottoman Caliphate, the First World War, and the establishment of the aggressively secular Republic of Turkey (1923). He responded to modernity’s challenge to belief with the Risale-i Nur (the Treatise of Light).

Although he does not mention globalization, his work contains four relevant themes. The first of these is that it is appropriate to build bridges between Western scientific culture and the Islamic world. Nursi believed that the best of modernity is compatible with and anticipated in Islamic thought. For example, he writes: “Things like the airplane, electricity, railways, and the telegraph have come into existence as wonders of science and technology as the result of humanity’s progress in science and industry. Surely the All-Wise Qur’an, which addresses all of humanity, does not neglect these. Indeed, it has not neglected them.”7

He argues that the Qur’an anticipates such technological advances. This enthusiasm for scientific achievement underpins his “natural theology” (i.e., the world itself provides good and decisive arguments for God’s Existence). After discussing various scientific disciplines, he concludes: “Through the certain testimony of hundreds of sciences like these, the universe has been adorned with innumerable instances of wisdom, purposes, and beneficial things within a faultless, perfect order. And the order and wisdom given through that wondrous, all-encompassing wisdom to the totality of the universe have been included in small measure in seeds and in the tiniest living creatures. It is clear and self-evident that aims, purposes, in-stances of wisdom, and benefits can only be followed through choice, will, intention, and volition, not through any other way. Just as they could not be the work of unconscious causes and Nature, which lack will, choice, and purpose, so too they could not interfere in them.”8

Nursi saw science as part of God’s intended purpose for humanity: “The miracles of the other prophets all indicate a wonder of human art or craft, and Adam’s miracle indicates in concise form, besides the fundamentals of those crafts, the index of the sciences and branches of knowl-edge, and of the wonders and perfections, and urges humanity toward them.”9

His confidence that Islam endorses modern-ity’s technological dynamic, a major feature of globalization, is reflected in this vision of the future. Writing about Nursi, one author states: “Indeed, as we shall see when examining the [Damascus] Sermon, Bediuzzaman [Nursi] predicted that, according to all the signs, Islam and Islamic–or, true–civilization would prevail in the future, and that the majority of mankind would accept and join the religion of Islam. He said: ‘In the future when reason, science and technology hold sway, that will surely be the time the Qur’an will gain ascendancy, which relies on rational proofs and makes the reason confirm its pronouncements.’”10 In other words, the truth of the Qur’an will be recognized when reason, science, and technology hold sway in the world.

Many who are sympathetic to religion tend to see modernity, as well as the growth of technology and globalization, as evils to be opposed. However, Nursi argues that the achievements of science, modernity, communication, and globalization need to be recognized as representing the best of the human spirit and humanity’s creativity. In addition, they are made possible by the God-designed order of the universe.

Themes two to four are far more critical. The second theme is that society must accommodate in a just way the inequalities of wealth. While Nursi assumes that some inequality is inevitable, he maintains the need for balance:

“. . . just as the source of mankind’s revolutions is one phrase, so another phrase is the origin of all immorality. First Phrase: ‘So long as I’m full, what is it to me if others die of hunger.’ Second Phrase: ‘You work so that I can eat.’ Yes, the upper and lower classes in human society, that is, the rich and the poor, live at peace when in equilibrium. The basis of that equilibrium is compassion and kindness in the upper classes, and respect and obedience in the lower classes. Now, the first phrase has incited the upper classes to practice oppression, immorality, and mercilessness. And just as the second has driven the lower classes to hatred, envy, and to contend the upper classes, and has negated human tranquility for several centuries, so too this century, as the result of the struggle between capital and labor, it has been the cause of the momentous events of Europe well-known by all. Thus, together with all its societies for good works, all its establishments for the teaching of ethics, all its severe discipline and regulations, it could not reconcile these two classes of humanity, nor could it heal the two fearsome wounds in human life. The Qur’an, how-ever, eradicates the first phrase with its injunction to pay zakat, and heals it. While it uproots the second phrase with its prohibition on usury and interest, and cures that. Indeed, the Qur’anic verse stands at the door of the world and declares usury and interest to be forbidden. It reads out its decree to mankind, saying: ‘In order to close the door of strife, close the door of usury and interest!’ It forbids its students to enter it.”11

There are two strategies for balancing inequal-ity: obligatory charity, which falls heavier on the rich, and forbidding usury. Implied in this is the fact that economic globalization becomes problematic when inequality is not managed. Some nations are fortunate and benefit from globalization, while others struggle with it. Nursi’s proposal has much to commend it: fortunate nations are obliged to help unfortunate ones, and IMF loans should not require a prohibitive repayment schedule. Also, debt cancellation is appropriate, given the detrimental contracts negotiated in the mid-1970s by Western financial institutions. The overall point is that inequality needs to be managed with considerable care.

The third theme is that all wealth and property ultimately should be entrusted to God. Nursi speaks of a king with two subjects. One allows the king to hold the property in trust; the other insists on sole ownership. The first subject experiences positive results; the second one eventually becomes an object of pity. According to Nursi: “Transient property becomes everlasting. For this waning life, when given to the Eternal and Self-Subsistent Lord of Glory and spent for His sake, it will be transmuted into eternity. It will yield eternal fruits. The moments of one’s life will apparently vanish and rot like kernels and seeds. But then the flowers of blessedness and auspiciousness will open and bloom in the realm of eternity, and each will also present a luminous and reassuring aspect in the Intermediate Realm.”12

This fundamental religious insight should shape our view of globalization. As life is transitory, we can see possessions as ends in themselves or as a means to serve God’s purposes. In the latter case, we seek to make globalization feed the hungry, educate the ignorant, bring hope to the hopeless, and so on by entrusting what we have to God.

The fourth theme is that not all of the West’s achievements should be seen as part of the march of progress. He has harsh words for uncritical supporters of European progress, especially when it is at the cost of religion: “O miserable pseudo-patriot who fervently encourages Muslims to embrace this world and forcibly drives them to European industry and progress! Beware, do not let the bonds with which certain members of this nation are tied to religion be broken! If thus, foolishly, blindly imitating and crushed under foot, their bonds with religion are broken those irreligious people will become as harmful for the life of society as fatal poison.”13 The meaning is clear: Together with the third theme, globalization should not become the goal in itself, but rather should serve a vision of social organization that allows humanity’s spiritual dimension to grow and develop.

Concluding Reflections

Unlike the entrenched positions of Hardt and Negri, Nursi offers a far more nuanced approach. To interpret capitalism simply as the tool of the powerful to retain control of as much wealth as possible distorts reality. Capitalism has its roots in certain religious dispositions and has generated vast wealth. It offers many dangers as well as many possibilities.

This is also true of globalization. Nursi certainly would recognize globalization’s technological and scientific underpinning as good. However, he also would want to make sure that globalization works for the good by creating strong safeguards against the vast inequality engendered by so much wealth. I believe that he would have strongly supported the debt-cancellation campaign and agreed that the world’s economic life is intended to serve humanity’s spiritual vision. Generating wealth for itself is madness; generating wealth so that all people can live full God-directed lives is a vision. Globalization might make the latter possible, and all of us should work toward that end.

* Ian Markham is Dean of Hartford Seminary, Hartford, Connecticut.


  1. Robertson, R., “Globalization and the Future of ‘Traditional Religion,” in God and Globalization, eds. Max L. Stackhouse with Peter J. Paris, Harrisburg, PA, Trinity Press International: 2000, Vol. I, pp. 53-54.
  2. As quoted in ibid., Vol. I, p. 5.
  3. A writer, professor at the University of Padua and Marxist political activist, Negri was arrested on 7 April 1979 on the charge of “armed insurrection against the powers of the State.” Acquitted and released after 4 years in jail, he fled to France to avoid re-imprisonment. He returned to Italy in 1997, turned himself in, and received a 13-year sentence. (
  4. Hardt, M., Negri, A., Empire, Harvard University Press: 2000, p. xii.
  5. Ibid., pp. xiv-xv.
  6. Ibid., pp. 326-32.
  7. Nursi, S., The Second Station of the Twentieth Word, The Words, Sozler Publications, Istanbul: 2002
  8. Ibid., 3:408.
  9. Ibid., 1:272.
  10. Sukran Vahide, Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, Sozler Publications, Istanbul: 1992, p. 90.
  11. Nursi, S., The Words, Sozler Publications, Istanbul: 2002, p.421.
  12. Ibid., 1:38.
  13. Ibid., 3:168.