A Long History of Injustice Ignored:  The Contemporary Epoch

Chandra Muzaffar

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The Contemporary Epoch

By Chandra Muzaffar**

July 04, 2005
The third epoch, or the contemporary epoch, begins with the end of formal colonial rule in 1946. That was the year Indonesia proclaimed its independence from the Dutch. For the last four decades or so, most of Asia has been independent, in the legal and constitutional sense. Has independence resulted in intercultural and intercivilizational dialogue among Asian communities and religions? Is there greater interest in, and commitment towards, developing better understanding among the myriad religions and civilizations of Asia?

There is certainly much more interaction among Asian governments today than in the colonial or the autochthonous epochs. This is a product of a growing realization among the continents political elites that their nationsҒ destinies are closely intertwined and that they must endeavor to cultivate good, neighborly relations, however immense the odds. It is out of this awareness that a multicivilizational regional grouping like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has managed to sustain itself. [1] It comprises all the 10 states of Southeast AsiaIndonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Burma. ASEAN, at least in terms of its background, embodies 5 religious civilizationsחBuddhist, Christian, Confucian, Hindu and Muslim. There is also the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) consisting of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives and, in a sense, reflecting the religious diversity of the region, with its Hindu, Muslim Buddhist, Christian and Sikh populations. The former has been far more viable than the latter as a regional organization.

If governmental ties have expanded within regions and between regions in the Asian continent, it is largely because of trade and economics. There is much more intra-ASEAN trade today, for instance, than 10 years ago. With increasing business ties comes exchange in the technological and educational spheres, and even in the cultural arena. Independent of this exchange, has been the continuous interaction among Asians in the field of sports and, to a much lesser extent, in the entertainment sector.

In spite of this upward trend in intra-Asian ties, it is undeniably true that there have been very few attempts by Asian governments or entrepreneurs or universities or cultural elites to consciously focus upon inter-civilizational understanding. There are only a handful of universities within ASEAN, for instance, that offer courses related to intercivilizational or even intercultural and interreligious issues. [2] Religious and cultural nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may espouse causes connected with a particular religious and cultural community but seldom engage in serious interreligious or intercultural dialogue. Governments, even when they are presiding over heterogeneous societies, may provide support to the religious or cultural activities of a particular group but have not been known to be active, enthusiastic patrons of intercivilizational dialoguewith one or two exceptions which we shall discuss later.

Why is this so? Perhaps the most important reason is the global system that prevails today and the process that is conterminous with it, namely, globalization. Globalization is, in a sense, a process that has grown out of the colonial epoch. If, as we have seen under colonialism, individual Western powers dominated and controlled Asian societies, thus crippling the development of their potential and circumscribing the scope for interstate, intercultural exchange, today, there are global centers of power and global elites located mainly in the West, exercising tremendous influence over the direction of the global economy, global politics, and global culture. [3] Once again, their overwhelming power has stifled and suffocated the capacity of Asian civilizations to identify and articulate ideas and values from their own heritage and to present them as the bases for dialogue and mutual understanding. Unlike the colonial past, these new centers of power and new elites are not just linked to nation-states like the United States of Americaחthe worlds only superpowerҗbut are also connected to international institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to transnational corporations (TNCs) and money markets (Alexander).

Globalization has benefited some but intensified the poverty of many others

It is the TNCs and the money markets that set the tone and tenor of the global economy and indeed of most domestic economies. 500 corporations, for instance, account for 70 per cent of world trade. Many small and middling economies in the South are very dependent upon TNCs for investments, technology, skills, and, most of all, market reach. If the WTO succeeds in pushing its investment agenda, TNCs will be able to exercise even greater control over national economies, since there would be hardly any restrictions on their right to expand domestic operations or to repatriate profits (Korten). Likewise, currency trading now dominates global financial transactions. Only two to three percent of transactions are connected directly to real commerce and industry. Currency trading, on the other hand, which is indistinguishable from sheer speculation, runs to something like 1.5 trillion dollars a day. This is almost equivalent to the total annual output of the German economy or to four times total world expenditure on crude oil. [4] The volume and value of speculative capital has become so huge that no economy today can insulate itself from money markets and their operations.

What this means is that there is very little room for independent economic initiatives. And yet scope for autonomous action and organization is important for economic globalization carries with it practices, attitudes, and values that are diametrically antithetical to some of the cardinal principles and precepts contained in most religious philosophies. The incessant drive to produce and to expand production, often stimulated by the constant titillation of the senses through seductive advertisementsa feature of TNC operationsחis at variance with the Buddhist and Muslim ethic of restraint and self-control. Similarly, the consumer culture, so much a part of contemporary capitalism, would not harmonize with either Hinduism or Christianity or any of the other religions with their emphasis upon limiting our wants and desires. Neither would religion approve of the pronounced materialistic thrust of economic globalization. Since economic globalization seeks to deregulate, liberalize. and privatize in order to allow for the untrammeled flow of capital and the unbridled accumulation of wealth, it would run contrary to the moral teachings of all great faiths, which have always admonished those who are obsessed with the possession of riches. In Islam, as in Judaism, it is the equitable distribution of wealth and the alleviation of poverty that are regarded as acts of piety. Economic globalization, in contrast, has resulted in both the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and the widening of disparities between rich and poor. [5]

There is yet another characteristic of economic globalization that would go against the grain of religion. The preponderant power of speculative capital in todays economyҗwhich had prompted an economist to describe the present phase of capitalism as casino capitalism[6]would be condemned by Islam and Christianity on the one hand, and Hinduism and Buddhism on the other. In Islam, for instance, money is a medium of exchange, not a commodity to speculate upon or gamble with. [7]

By showing how economic globalization violates some of our most fundamental moral and spiritual values, one is not denying that certain countries where the rituals of Buddhism and Confucianism are widely practiced also tend to promote and propagate casino capitalism. After all, East Asian and Southeast Asian דHas the preoccupation with civil and political liberties served to sideline economic, social, and cultural rights?

countries such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are acknowledged as important digits in the global economy. And it is true that sections of the populace in other parts of Asia have also benefited from economic globalization. But this has happened only because they have adjusted to the demands and dictates of globalization without any regard for some of the contrarian values and principles in their religious and cultural philosophies.

How does political globalization fare in relation to spiritual and moral values found in religion? The rapid spread of the democratic form of government with the emphasis upon human rights, in particular civil and political liberties, periodic elections, multi-party competition, and peaceful, orderly change has been one of the most remarkable developments of our time. On the whole, the triumph of democracy as a global phenomenon in the wake of the end of the cold war, has been a boon to humankind, including the people of Asia.

Nonetheless, democracy as interpreted by the forces of globalization, has also marginalized certain ideas and notions of governance associated with Asian spiritual traditions. Has the preoccupation with civil and political liberties served to sideline economic, social, and cultural rights?[8] WouldnԒt a more holistic vision of rights make more sense, both from the standpoint of the concept of the human being in some of our philosophies and from the perspective of the realities in Asian societies, where economic rights such as the right to food, social rights such as the right to education and cultural rights such as the right to study ones mother tongue are as basic as freedom of expression and assembly? Equally vital, isnҒt it true that in almost every Asian philosophy, be it Confucianism or Hinduism, rights cannot be separated from responsibilities? [9] Are responsibilities given any weight at all in globalizations democracy? In like manner, by making the individual and individual freedom the foundation of a just and fair society, has political globalization downplayed the communitarian dimension, which figures so prominently in the value systems of various Asian societies? Does inter-party competition and the significance attached to partisan politics transgress the principle of unity in Islam and other religions, since unity within the community is rooted in the concept of Divine Unity?

The gist of the matter is this: if it were not for globalization and its push for partisan politics and elections, would Asian societies have evolved alternative forms of governance? Would institutions have emerged that were more representative of values such as consultation and consensus, harmony and integration? Since these and other such values are shared by a number of culturesҗThai, Javanese, and Malay to name a fewwould they have provided a basis for intercivilizational dialogue in a world that did not have to face the challenge of globalization? There are, of course, other perhaps more important issues that political globalization has brought to the fore, which are not really within the purview of this essay. For instance, how can the advocates of democracy espouse the cause of human rights and political freedoms within the sphere of domestic politics and yet ignore the palpably undemocratic, unjust global structures which deny representation and participation to the vast majority of humankind, including the citizens of Asia? (Falk)

From political globalization we turn to cultural globalization. In a sense, the impact of cultural globalization has been much more penetrative and much more pervasive than either political globalization or economic globalization. Over the last three or four decades in particular, television programs, films, videos, comics, and cartoons, apart from music, drama, and dance forms mainly from the United States have found eager ears and eyes in the remotest corners of the earth. The international fame of top Hollywood and CNN personalities is proof of how ubiquitous American culture is. Add to this Coca-Cola and McDonalds, t-shirts, and Reebok shoes and one will get some idea of how America has conquered the world. [10]

The preeminence of American culture it should, however, be emphasized, has not resulted in the extermination or even the marginalization of other cultures. Hindi movies, as a case in point, like their Hong Kong counterparts, remain as popular as ever. Japanese, Chinese, and Indian cuisine are relished by American and British palates. Women in the capital cities of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam continue to don their traditional attire. In other words, American films and fast foods may have a global reach but they are not the only fare in town.

The issue is not whether facets of other cultures will survive in the midst of American driven globalization. The real question is whether underlying values and norms are beginning to change as a consequence of the cumulative, continuous impact of American television and media, in particular, and the popular projection of an American way of life in general. Is stark American individualism, for instance, beginning to take root in parts of urban Asia? Are family relationships beginning to change, as the young in certain Asian cities imitate American kids on television in their brusque behavior towards their parents and elders? Is the increasing preoccupation with sensate pleasures within segments of the urban middle-class in Asia also due to the influence of the American media, specifically television? Or, are the changes that are occurring the inevitable consequence of other more fundamental transformations that are taking place in the economy and the social structure of various Asian countries and not because of cultural globalization per se?

Whatever the real reasons, it is quite apparent that time-tested values connected with individual, family, and community in Asian cultures and religions are being challenged in the present epoch. Since values such as the primacy accorded to family relationships are so central to Confucianism, Hinduism, and Islam, among other religions, one wonders whether the changes that are happening will erode yet another principle of living that could have provided a basis for intercivilizational communication.

The political, economic, and cultural dimensions of globalization, which we have analyzed, and other aspects of the process that we have not discussed, taken together, represent an overwhelmingly powerful system. To reiterate, it is a system which emerged from Western colonial dominance but whose impact, influence and authority is much greater than the power exercised by individual colonial powers. Modern communication technologies have undoubtedly played a big part in facilitating this. It is a truism that without television, the computer, and the Internet, globalization would not have become such a powerful phenomenon. Since the computer revolution is a product of scientific and technological advancements associated with the United States, one can understand why that country is in the forefront of globalization.

But technology alone cannot explain the power of globalization. The ideas and instruments of globalizationחwhether it is individual freedom or the Internethave an appeal of their own. Besides, as we have noted, it is a process that has brought some benefits to sections of humanity.

This is why globalization, unlike colonialism, is not perceived as dominance and oppression in some quarters. The centers of power and the elites in the West have succeeded in making it appear as if it is integral to development and progress. But not everyone is convinced. A lot of people in Asia, and elsewhere, know that globalization has not only marginalized the poor and powerless but it has also, as we have shown, subordinated non-Western civilizations, their ideas and ideals, their values and visions (Falk). This has now provoked a reaction in a number of Asian societies.


Alexander, Titus. Unraveling Global Apartheid, Britain: Polity Press, 1996.

Falk, Richard. Human Rights Horizons, New York/London: Routledge, 2000.

Predatory Globalization, New York/London: Routledge, 2000.

Korten, David C. When Corporations Rule the World, USA: Kumarian Press, 1995.


[1] ASEANגs viability is examined in ASEAN Towards 2020: Strategic Goals and Future Directions Stephen Leong, Ed. Kuala Lumpur: ISIS Malaysia, 1998.

[2] The Center for Civilizational Dialogue at the University of Malaya is one of them. Established in March 1997, the Center offers undergraduate and postgraduate programs aimed at enhancing understanding of the primary issues involved in civilizational dialogue in the age of globalization.

[3] The dark side of globalization is brought to the fore in Richard Falks Predatory Globalization: A Critique, USA: Polity Press, 1999.

[4] See Hans-Peter Martin and Harald Schumann, The Global Trap : Globalization and the Assault on Prosperity and Democracy, London: Zed Books, 1997.

[5] See Chandra MuzaffarҒs Globalization and Religion: Some Reflections in Globalization: the Perspectives and Experiences of the Religious Traditions of Asia PacificӔ Joseph A. Camilleri & Chandra Muzaffar, eds. Petaling Jaya: International Movement for a Just World, 1998. See also Chandra Muzaffars ғThe Global Rich and the Global Poor: Seeking the Middle Path Commentary in Petaling Jaya: International Movement for Just World, No. 40, New Series, September 2000.

[6] This is the term popularized by Susan Strange in Casino Capitalism, Manchester: University Press, 1997.

[7] This is discussed in Chandra MuzaffarԒs The Economic Crisis Rights, Religion and Reform, London: Curzon 2001.

[8] Asian perspectives on human rights are put forth in Debating Human Rights: Critical Essays from the United States and Asia, Peter Van Ness, ed. London: Routledge, 1999.

[9] This point was lucidly articulated by Mahatma Gandhi decades ago. See his comment in UNESCO, Human Rights: Comments and Interpretations, London: Allan Wingate, 1949.

[10] There is some discussion of this trend in Cess J. HamelinkҒs Trends in World Communication, Penang: Southbound/Third World Network, 1994.

Read Also:

The Autochthonous Epoch

The Colonial Epoch

The Contemporary Epoch


The Alternative


** Chandra Muzaffar is the President of the International Movement for a Just World http://www.just-international.org/ , which seeks to raise public awareness of the moral and intellectual basis of global justice. A political scientist, he was the first Director of the Centre for Civilisational Dialogue at the University of Malaya and has also written numerous books on religion, human rights, Malaysian politics, and international relations, including most recently, Rights, Religion, and Reform (Routledge Curzon, 2002.) Additionally, he sits on the boards of several international non-governmental organizations concerned with social justice and civilizational dialogue.

Originally published on IslamOnline at http://islamonline.net/English/artculture/2005/07/03.shtml and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.