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Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 26.1 (2006) 22-35

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In the Eye of the Storm:

Islamic Societies and Muslim Women in Globalization Discourses

The theoretical understanding of the economics of globalization outstrips the effort to theorize its political and cultural dynamics. Explanations of globalization have focused largely on the development of global capitalism shaped by a new international division of labor and an information technology that contributed to greater communication and integration among different regional economies and accelerated the flow of capital, goods, and people.1 This much is clear and established. The transfer of political and cultural discourses and practices largely from the North to the South has left its imprint on the states of the South, but there have been no attempts to analyze how the transfer of these discursive views has been used by the states in the South and the nongovernmental voices within them to respond to the political and cultural dynamics of global change.

The universal discourses produced on globalization in the 1990s singled out Islamic societies and Muslim women as obstacles, threats, or exceptions to this new world, subjecting them to withering intellectual and physical attacks. In the first half of this essay, I review some of these discourses, produced in the United States, as powerful examples of global intolerance of multiculturalism and its drive to homogenization. My concern here is not with the defense or the attack of Islamic cultures, which is where the debate on these societies is stuck. Like other complex cultures, Islamic cultures have blind spots—problematic relationships and practices—that should be criticized if these cultures are to continue to develop. In the second half of the essay, I show how these discourses have provoked unexpected state and nongovernmental responses. They have been successfully used by the Egyptian state to consolidate its authoritarian grip on the Islamists and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that represent women and human rights groups in the name of protecting its interests and those of its Western allies. Finally, I examine the multiple voices of Muslim women who have used the new global context to reexamine their cultural traditions from within, to redefine the relations between the West and other cultures, and to offer meaningful solutions to the problems facing these women. [End Page 22]

Northern Political and Feminist Discourses on Globalization, Islam, and Muslim Women

The Clash of Civilizations

Samuel Huntington offered one of the earliest attempts to address the cultural and political dynamics of globalization. In his initial presentation of the "clash of civilizations" thesis, he argued that in the post–Cold War global world, nation-states were no longer relevant categories of analysis. Civilizations emerged as the larger and more primary politico-cultural entities contributing to a new source of conflict. Huntington did not suggest that the conflict might be a response to a new form of capitalist domination facilitated by the global transition to and the spread of new markets increasingly open to American transnationals and American fast food, movies, music, language, information technology, and fashions. Instead, he focused on the cultural bases of conflict in this global world: "People of different civilizations have different views on the relations between God and man, the individual and the group, the citizen and the state, parents and children, husband and wife, as well as differing views of the relative importance of rights and responsibilities, liberty and authority and hierarchy. These differences are the product of centuries. They will not soon disappear. They are more fundamental than differences among political ideologies and political regime."2

The discussion of civilizational differences as the sources of global conflict posited the existence of old fundamental and essential differences among these large cultural groupings. The quote hinted at a familiar binary opposition between the Occident and the Orient even though Huntington did not use these specific categories. In response to Edward Said's critique of orientalism, he declared that the cultural bifurcation of the world into West...


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