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5 Jul, 2009

Assumption University seminar pinpoints why globalisation is failing

Originally Published: 05 Jul 2009

If globalisation is not delivering on its lofty promises, it is largely because it has been pursued from a purely economic, top-down perspective, without ever factoring a bottoms-up social and cultural dimension into the equation.

That was pretty much the outcome of discussions at a seminar on “Religion, Politics and Globalisation – Implications For Thailand And Asia”, held between 25-26 June 2009 at Assumption Business Administration College and organised by the Graduate School of Philosophy and Religion.

The seminar was funded by Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Foundation as part of its objective to build cooperation and dialogue and encourage debate about the ways in which religion and politics should relate to each other, about how to reconcile faith and globalisation.

Said Dr Canan Atilgan, the foundation’s Resident Representative in Bangkok, “We consider dialogue as an important component of our core mission and try to contribute to a greater understanding between nations, countries and religions through our programs and projects in more than a hundred countries on four continents.”

She said that the nexus between religion and politics under the conditions of globalisation “has been a controversial issue of debate among academicians, philosophers and politicians.” She quoted Mahatma Gandhi thus: “I can say without the slightest hesitation . . . that those who say that religion has nothing to do with politics do not know what religion means.”

“Basically, there is nothing totally new in the combination of religion and politics; new are the renewed strength of religions and their globalised aspect. What exacerbates the present situation is that the stable structures of life and governing power have visibly broken down in many quarters of the globe.

“Many respond to the challenges of modernity and globalisation by moving religions into the centre of their lives and political preferences. It is the position of people who feel they are losing the fight and, in desperation, supplanted religion by radical reformulation, as also happened in earlier episodes.

“This allows religious movements to capture the mantle of populist, anti-imperialist nationalism, easily the most powerful political resource formerly controlled by secular nationalist and leftist movements.

“In fact, religion or religiosity serves as substitute to nationalism. However, what is characteristic to religions today is neither its local particularity nor its bounded nationality but, rather, its multifaceted globality,” Dr Atilgan said.

ABAC President Rev. Bro. Bancha Saenghiran said the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Berlin wall marked the beginning of a new age of globalisation.

Noting that the relationship between religion and international relations has played an important role throughout history, he added, “The existence of trade routes led to the merging of civilisations and ultimately led to the colonisation of the Asia, Africa, Central and South America. In the modern era that followed the fall of communism, globalisation has affected, and at times was seen as a threat to traditions of religion and culture.

“This caused changes in their belief systems, serving to disintegrate the traditional social fabrics and shared norms by the invasion of consumerism, social fads, and changing work ethics as well as work rhythms. Through the disruptions of traditions and customs there occurred threat to traditional identities.

“These traditions continue to be, as they have always been, central to these identities. The advance in communications technologies has increased the free flow of information between cultures and this cannot have failed to contribute to the massive economic, political, and social transformations that have taken place in Asia.”

Rev Bancha noted that the four major religions — Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam — have particularly played a significant role in the transformation.

“Instead of being more secularised, religion is becoming more politically involved and politics is becoming more religiously involved. There has been an increasing link between religion and politics and religion is becoming a political resource. The reason is that religion, rather than secularism, provides identity, meaning, and purpose in the midst of massive changes.

“The fear of religions becoming irrelevant, according to the predictions of Western enlightenment liberalism, has not only aroused religious nationalism but also compelled these religions to adapt to the new and emerging sociopolitical realities and to exert their political influence.

“With the collapse of other ideologies, religion has played a role in giving ground to political and national life. Consequently, the political use of religion has become an important issue that religious and state institutions in this region have to deal with.”

He said this situation has become more complex due to the economic consequences of globalisation which “has led to economic progress of some and an economic catastrophe for others.”

“The misuse of power acquired through economic dominance has increased with globalisation. The monopoly of Multi-National Companies and Foreign Direct Investment of first world nations in third world nations has given them a substantial level of authority which extends from economic control to shaping political policies. These issues can also interact with religion, as in the disputes about political and religious disputes of the Middle Eastern region.

“In Thailand and Asia, there is evidence in both public and private sectors that the rich reap the benefits whilst the poor do not. The question regarding authoritarianism and democracy of a given culture is far more complex and that the battle for change is now not between civilisations but rather within civilisations.”

Rev Bancha noted that globalisation also has a positive side, in that it has brought about a culture of pluralism, which plays an important part in all religious teachings.

“With globalisation, we also have seen the emergence of interest in human rights and concern for the global environment. International organisations have treated global issues such as poverty, terrorism, and hunger. With the free movement of population and immigration, we have seen the development of multi-culturalism and perhaps mutual understanding and respect.

“As political and religious institutions achieve a fair degree of autonomy, and the undifferentiated societies give way to conscious free choices about political and religious matters, a certain tension arises which can resolve into this kind of suspicion by each side.

“Religions have addressed these issues directly through inter-religious dialogue and ecumenical action. Political forces have done so through standards of religious freedom. In an age of globalisation, the attractiveness of mutual recognition for global politics is evident, but not automatically assured.

On the whole, Rev Bancha said, the role of universal or global religions and of religion in general, seems to be changing.

“The global religions provide a renewed source of identity as state boundaries and national societies become more porous. These changes are affecting both nation-states and religions. Historical patterns of the spread of religions have been transformed as new religious movements and new media of communication impact global society in criss-cross patterns. It is important that we understand these factors.”