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COMMENTARY: The Gods of Globalization

c. 2004 Religion News Service (Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.) (UNDATED) In this uncertain and anxiety-charged world, we either take comfort in the traditional figures of our religions […]

c. 2004 Religion News Service

(Professor Akbar S. Ahmed, Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington, D.C., is author of “Islam Under Siege: Living Dangerously in a Post-Honor World,” published by Polity Press.)

(UNDATED) In this uncertain and anxiety-charged world, we either take comfort in the traditional figures of our religions or create new icons.

Television, Hollywood films, documentaries, plays and the print media have repeatedly projected certain extraordinary individuals, and their images are perpetuated globally through the MTV culture.

There is a continuous, even morbid, fascination with every aspect of their lives. The characteristics of these lives _ with some variations _ are: physical beauty of an androgynous quality; extraordinary achievement and the glamour associated with it; an appeal that transcends national, racial and sexual boundaries; and, in many cases, early death.

When commentators refer to a famous figure in the media as a “god” or “goddess,” what do they mean?

Clearly they are not suggesting the individual in question has supplanted the notion of the Abrahamic God. Indeed, many of these figures are part of the Abrahamic tradition. Some are known to be devout followers of the Abrahamic God. But in their capacity to move their supporters and in the intense adulation and commitment of their following, commentators see an almost divine inspiration.

The influence and therefore responsibility of these figures goes beyond their circle as pop icons or political figures. Their message and their behavior resonate with millions of people across the world. Through developments in technology, their films and images are kept alive at the click of a button. Death in that sense is therefore neither terminal nor a bad thing for their careers.

Elvis Presley is one example. For the skeptical, a visit to Graceland on the annual anniversary of his death will be instructive: candlelight vigils, solemn music, communal prayers and people in wheelchairs praying for miracles.

A short list that I have derived from several informal surveys would include other figures like James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Che Guevara, John Lennon and Princess Diana. They have become the inheritors of the message of Jesus. Many of them have died prematurely while expressing passion for ordinary people, and in the public mind they have become instant saints. We do not know them personally, but their deaths leave a void because we identify with their pain.

We know them and love them as human in spite of their flaws, and these flaws add to our trust of them as real people. Their imperfection allows people to relate to them. The supporters of Elvis may enjoy the music of his early life, but it is the last sad years that create a bond _ divorce, drugs, loss of purpose, reaching out in an attempt to find spiritual answers, the drama of a frustrated life lived in public.

Diana is another example. British royalty has always fascinated the world media. A British royal who not only looked the part of a goddess and was called Diana but went through the heartache of a public divorce, faced a media campaign to discredit her and was eventually tragically killed in a car accident with her lover was destined for mythological status.

It is in this context that we are to understand John Lennon’s controversial remark in the 1960s when he said the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. He was in fact unwittingly identifying a new kind of “divine” figure for our age.

It is no coincidence that the gods of globalization are often cast in atavistic images: One of Diana’s most famous pictures is of her holding a small ailing Pakistani boy in her lap. This is the classic Madonna. The picture is made more powerful by the knowledge that the boy was dying of cancer and Diana was deliberately crossing several boundaries _ class, racial, religious and national.

The gods of globalization are not bringing a new faith but are allowing people to express their faith in new ways. These gods and goddesses are a product of globalization and yet they are rebels against it. They revel in the materialist culture that defines and drives the consumerism in society while expressing disquiet about the directions it is taking.

Author Thomas Friedman argues in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree” that globalization is little more than a decade old and translated means Americanization.

If we accept the definition, then it follows that the gods and goddesses of globalization will be from within American culture. It is notable that there are no Muslims among these gods and goddesses. There are a few non-Abrahamic and non-American figures _ Gandhi is a remarkable exception, but an emaciated, half-naked, bald, toothless 70-year-old does not sit comfortably with those who worship at the altar of youth and physical beauty. Yet Gandhi’s towering moral authority has created a global glow around him.

Gods and goddesses identified by commentators are more than just symbols in our times. Many of them represent substantial political positions and achievement. President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. are examples. Both men succeeded in changing the way people look at politics, race and society.

DEA/PH END AHMED