Strengthening Local Economies: The Path to Peace?

Those who argue that governments should respond to conflict with military force have, at first glance, their strongest case with regard to the group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. However, if we look at the root causes of fundamentalist extremism, it becomes clear that a nonviolent response to groups like ISIS offers a much greater likelihood of lasting success, in addition to being more acceptable morally.

Women in Ladakh walk past an advertisement featuring a blonde model. “The undermining of cultural self-worth is an implicit goal of many marketers,” Norberg-Hodge writes. Credit: Tomasso Galli.

While people around the world have been horrified by the beheadings and similar acts of wanton violence perpetrated by ISIS, most seem mystified by the origins of the anger that can lead to such atrocities. Even more confounding is ISIS’s allure for young men in the industrialized West, particularly Europe: over the years we have been told that ethnic and religious violence can be cured by so-called “development,” education, and the opportunities provided by free markets. Apparently not.

The fighting in Syria and Iraq is not the only ethnic or religious conflict underway. Most of us are only dimly aware, if at all, of the conflicts that simmer and periodically boil over into acts of terror and warfare in Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nigeria, Guatemala, Kashmir, and many other regions. These conflicts are generally most “newsworthy” when they are uncomfortably close to Western industrial countries—Ukraine, for example—or when they offer exciting YouTube and television imagery—as is the case with ISIS. But unbeknownst to most Westerners, fanaticism, fundamentalism, and ethnic conflict have been growing for many decades—and not just in the Islamic world.

Failure to recognize this trend can lead to the belief that terrorism is a product of nothing more than religious extremism and will end when secular market-based democracies are established throughout the world. Unfortunately the reality is far more complex, and unless we address the underlying causes of terrorism, a more peaceful and secure future will remain elusive.

To really understand the rise in terrorism associated with religious fundamentalism and ethnic conflict we need to look at the deep impacts of the global consumer culture on living cultures throughout the planet. Doing so allows us not only to better understand ISIS and similar groups, but also to see a way forward that lessens violence on all sides.

My perspective comes from nearly fifty years of experience in numerous cultures in both the Global North and the Global South. I studied in Austria in 1966, when the Tyrol conflict was raging; I was a resident in Spain in the 1980s and 1990s, when the Basque separatist group ETA was active; I have lived in England where I saw the effects of the IRA’s long-running battles with the UK government; and I’ve worked for almost four decades on the Indian subcontinent, where I’ve seen terrorist acts in Nepal, as well as ethnic tensions and open conflict in India and Bhutan.

Most important of all, since 1975 I have witnessed the emergence of tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority in Ladakh, a region of India in the western Himalayas that has close cultural and historical ties to Tibet. I founded a project called Local Futures more than forty years ago in Ladakh to support local efforts to protect the regional economy and maintain cultural integrity in the face of economic globalization, and I have witnessed sobering changes in the area during these decades.

For more than 600 years Buddhists and Muslims lived side by side in Ladakh with no recorded instance of group conflict. They helped one another at harvest time, attended one another’s religious festivals, and sometimes intermarried. But over a period of about fifteen years, tensions between Buddhists and Muslims escalated rapidly, and by 1989 they were bombing each other’s homes. One mild-mannered Buddhist grandmother, who a decade earlier had been drinking tea and laughing with her Muslim neighbor, told me, “We have to kill all the Muslims or they will finish us off.”

How did relations between these two ethnic groups change so quickly and completely? The transformation is unfathomable unless one understands the complex interrelated effects of globalization on individuals and communities worldwide.
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