Hazem Saghieh

Reading Our World Through an Old Book

Around thirty years ago, six years before 9/11, "Jihad vs. McWorld" was published and widely read. It was printed in two editions, each with a different subtitle: "How Globalism and Tribalism Are Reshaping the World" and "Terrorism's Threat to Democracy."
The author of the book is the American political theorist Benjamin Barber (who died in 2017), and his fundamental theory is that our single world is divided in two: "Jihad" and "McWorld." By "Jihad," Barber was not only referring to militant Islamic political movements, but broader phenomena entrenching tribalism among vast segments of the global population through violence, bloodshed, and the spread of various forms of protectionism, religiosity, nationalism, and narrow local and identitarian loyalties. Similarly, "McWorld" transcends McDonald's. It encompasses all the products and symbols of globalization, from mobile phones and computers to communication technologies, to fast music...

"McWorld" is turning our world into a global network led and controlled by large corporations, in which commerce and interests dominate and goods are standardized, rendering it a highly homogenous network. As for "Jihad World," it is fueled by local grievances that stem from the hatred for anything that falls outside "our" group, "our" region, or "our" values.

"McWorld" is characterized by the prioritization of the market. Here, capitalism crushes nationalism in the way that Marx and Engels said it does in their 1848 Communist Manifesto. Every country, no matter how large, must trade with others in search of resources it does not possess. Information technology has also become among the engines powering "McWorld," through its modern, rational formation and its enlightenment symbols (which postmodernists are skeptical of). The entire world shares environmental concerns, as we all share the same environment and it affects us all, and must all share the concern of keeping it clean.

However, "McWorld's" claim that enlightenment and rational universality would create a more optimized global society driven by globalization has been contested. Indeed, globalization has come to us in a commercial guise, bearing highly homogenized, politicized, and bureaucratized fruit. Once we add the states of exception imposed by its conflict with "Jihad World," we are left with globalization that has little concern for the spread of modern values, justice, or equality in the world.

At the end of the day, the only thing it seeks from the world is trade and the profits of that trade. In turn, capitalism can coexist with all kinds of political and value systems, so long as they do not obstruct its pursuit of profit and capital accumulation. Today, we see China presenting us with one of the latest and most robust testament to this fact.

As for "Jihad World," or "the Lebanonization of the world," its forces, now called "cultures," are fractious: doctrines, sects, and communities have a stronger presence here than religions, states, and nations. Unlike the old nationalisms that unified countries and created peoples, here, we are faced with factions that fight, exchange hatreds, and splinter relentlessly. Thirty major or minor wars are raging in our world today (1995) - most of them religious or ethnic conflicts and the figure is rising.

The Jihadist zeitgeist, therefore, is one of wars that stem from identities and elevate those identities to an end in themselves, without war being politics by other means. Religion, in this world, is an arena for war to the death in which the belligerents seek to subjugate and dominate souls, as the Crusaders had. Moreover, the prevalence of fundamentalism leads to fragmentation and leaves religions with nothing left of their supposed capacity for unifying people. While "Jihad World" nurtures a sense of community among members of the in-group, outside this group, it has risen through the exclusion, persecution, and subjugation of the other.

Today's (1995) nation-states are all threatened with "Lebanonization," whereby culture is pitted against culture, people against people, and tribe against tribe. The banner of jihad is raised by countless numbers of faiths, each denouncing social links, integration, civil cooperation, and any give and take with those who differ.

These two worlds are at odds with one another, and they differ on almost everything. However, they come together around democracy, which faces a bleak future. One is openly opposed to democracy, while the other is not concerned with saving it. For instance, it was notable that only months after the Soviet Union and the other countries in its bloc fell, the question of democracy took the back seat to preoccupations with markets and integration into "McWorld," just as the countries of former Yugoslavia and the Asian segments of the Soviet Union were plunged into vicious identitarian civil wars.

Barber's premise was a forerunner. It is undoubtedly more intelligent and nuanced than the simplifications offered by Francis Fukuyama and Thomas Friedman at the time, though it opened the door to other questions that crystallized over the years since its publication. Nonetheless, we are still faced with a world that is unified and divided at the same time. The conflicts of our planet, including the war on Gaza, can be placed into what the categories (among many others) presented by the book. As for those who agree with Barber's thesis, their location dictates how they should protest: those who live in the "McWorld" should directly oppose "McWorld", and those who live in the "Jihad" part should oppose "Jihad" first.