Global Politics

by Andrew Heywood

Chapter 8 Notes: Identity, Culture and Challenges to the West

  • Why has identity politics become a prominent feature of world affairs?
  • Has culture displaced ideology as the organizing principle of global politics?
  • Is there an emerging 'clash of civilizations'?
  • How important is religion in modern global politics?
  • Is conflict between Islam and the West unavoidable?
  • How has the West sought to deal with the 'Muslim question'?

The end of the Cold War, and particularly developments such as September 11 and the 'war on terror', has altered thinking about global order and the balance between conflict and cooperation in world affairs in an important way. In addition to – and, some would argue, in place of – a concern with shifting power balances between and among states, global order appears to be increasingly shaped by new forces, especially those related to identity and culture. Some even argue that culture has replaced ideology as the key organizing principle of global politics, reflected in the growing significance in world affairs of factors such as ethnicity, history, values and religion. How can this trend towards so-called 'identity politics' best be explained, and what have been its implications? Most importantly, does the increasing importance of culture mean that conflict, perhaps conflict between different civilizations, is more likely, or even inevitable? The growing salience of culture as a factor affecting world affairs has been particularly evident in relation to religion. Not only has there been, in some cases, a revival in religious belief, but more radical or 'fundamentalist' religious movements have emerged, preaching that politics, in effect, is religion. To what extent has religious revivalism, and especially the trend towards religious fundamentalism, affected global politics? Finally, issues of identity, culture and religion have played a particularly prominent role in attempts to challenge and displace the politico-cultural hegemony of the West. The process through which former colonies have tried to establish non-western and sometimes anti-western political identities has affected Asia, but it has been especially crucial in the Muslim world, encouraging some to talk in terms of a civilizational clash between Islam and the West. What is the basis for conflict between Islam and the West, and can this conflict be overcome?

  • Western societies have conventionally been portrayed as 'developed' or 'advanced' societies, implying that they offer a model that will, over time, be accepted by all other societies. Westernization is linked to the growth of a market or capitalist economy, the advance of liberal democracy, and the spread of values such as individualism, secularism and materialism.
  • Politics since the end of the Cold War has been structured less by ideological rivalry and more by issues of cultural difference, especially those related to identity. Identity politics, in its various forms, seeks to challenge and overthrow oppression by reshaping a group's identity through a process of politico cultural self-assertion.
  • 'Clash of civilizations' theorists argue that twenty-first century global politics will increasingly be characterized by conflict between nations and groups from 'different civilizations'. However, such a view ignores, amongst other things, the complex and fragmented nature of civilizations, and the extent to which different cultures have coexisted peacefully and harmoniously.
  • The most prominent aspect of the growing political importance of culture has been the rise of religious movements. This has been most evident in the fundamentalist upsurge, in which fundamentalism is expressed through a religio-political movement sometimes, but not necessarily, linked to a belief in the literal truth of sacred texts.
  • The issues of identity, culture and religion have acquired particular prominence through their association with attempts to challenge and displace the politico-cultural hegemony of the West. This has been reflected in the general phenomenon of postcolonialism, but it has also been expressed through the idea that there are distinctive Asian values and cultural beliefs.
  • The most significant challenge to the West has come from the rise of political Islam. The image of a clash between Islam and the West may nevertheless be based either on the implacably anti-western ideas of Islamism or on the extent to which Islam, and especially the Arab world, have consistently been a victim of western intervention and manipulation.