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Resistance to Empire and Interfaith Solidarity

by Carmencita Karagdag

Speech presented by Carmencita P. Karagdag, Coordinator, Peace for Life, at the international seminar on “Alternatives to Globalization and Resistance”, sponsored by Institute for Global Networking, Information and Studies (IGNIS), in Oslo on June 16, 2006.

In my response to Dr. Rogate Mshana's reflection on “Globalization and the Role of the Church”, I shall make no effort to differentiate economic globalization from globalization per se. My view is that the word globalization, as currently understood in both academic and business circles or among both progressive and conservative groups, invariably calls to mind essentially economic phenomena like market integration, liberalization of trade, deregulation of financial markets, and privatization of government corporations especially public utilities, which have caused massive ruin not only to entire economies in the South but also to our ecology and very life-support system.

It is important to stress at the outset, however, that the economic process at work in globalization is clearly linked with political power and largely determined by those in power. According to Professor William Tabb, in his speech in an international conference convened by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines (NCCP) in Manila in September 2002 on the theme, “Terrorism in a Globalized World”, “globalization is driven by the transformative agenda of the most internationalized actors of capital and the most powerful governments.” John Sweeney is even more direct. Globalization, he says, has been shaped “by powerful governments, envisioned by conservative ideologues, and enforced by corporate muscle.” Tabb adds that it is also enforced by “not so smart bombs and the full force of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Hence, globalization is not a value-neutral, technology-driven, historical process nor is it simply propelled by blind market forces or Adam Smith's “invisible hand”. It is a political project based on the ideology of neo-liberalism and serving to perpetuate, nay, further strengthen, the historical subordination of the South to the North. It is driven by an ideological construct in which the market becomes all-powerful while social control or government intervention is substantially diminished. Hence, while the economic base is arguably central to the understanding of globalization, the latter cannot be fully comprehended when divorced from the dominant political and ideological superstructure.

While in the past globalization still managed to conjure the alluring vision of a global village, a rosy scenario of globally interlinked communities and nations living in prosperity and harmony, the experience of the past years has all but shattered this myth and exposed the mirage for what it is. Since the unraveling of the so-called Asian miracle in the late 90s, the upsurge of communal, sectarian and religious conflicts, and now the war on terror; it has become amply clear that globalization is not really about eliminating barriers: it actually draws borders that divide, that fragment, societies. It is about exclusion and marginalization, where there is unspeakable hunger, disease and destitution amidst unprecedented wealth and plentitude.

The reality of division, dichotomy and polarization is best captured in Robert Kaplan's description of a bifurcated world in which the advanced industrialized countries of the North occupy a luxurious limousine traveling the smelly and pot-holed streets teeming with homeless beggars. “Inside the limo are the air-conditioned post-industrial regions of North America, Europe and the emerging Pacific Rim, a few other isolated places, with their trade summitry and computer-information highways. Outside is the rest of mankind going in a completely different direction.” A similar picture emerges from Viggo Mortensen's description of globalization: “A rising tide of wealth is supposed to lift all boats. But some are more seaworthy than others. The yachts and ocean liners are indeed rising in response to new opportunities, but the rafts and rowboats are taking on water. And some are sinking fast.”

In a similar vein, Samir Amin lays stress on contemporary globalization as characterized by increasing and sharpening polarization between the heartlands or core industrialized countries, on the one hand, and the peripheral industrialized countries as well as the non-industrial or non-competitive peripheral countries of Africa, most of Asia, and the Arab world, on the other. He speaks of the latter, in fact, as the Fourth World which, unlike the Third World, does not even qualify as a player in the global game of competition.

I shall attempt in this presentation to simply build on the central thesis propounded by Dr. Mshana, drawing extensively from the Asian and Philippine experience. There are three major points I wish to highlight. The first is the inextricable nexus between globalization, on the one hand, and gross human-rights violations and militarization or war, particularly the US war on terror, on the other. The second point I wish to stress is that given the symbiotic relationship between globalization and militarization and the ideological, religious and cultural apparatus that cements this relationship, what we now confront is an even bigger, more powerful evil, empire. My third and final point is that the search for alternatives to globalization and empire-building cannot but go hand in hand with active and militant resistance and that there are resources in our faith (both religious and secular) that can be harnessed and mobilized for this immense undertaking.

Symbiotic Relationship Between Globalization and Militarization

Major world developments, especially since September 11, have clearly illustrated that globalization has become increasingly militarized, so that we now speak not only of economic globalization but of militarized globalization. Globalization precisely creates the very conditions that promote war and violence: economic exploitation, iniquity, disempowerment, enmity, polarization, dislocation, fragmentation of communities.

As the message issued by Asian participants to the World Council of Churches Pre-assembly Gathering in Leilem, Indonesia late last year underscored, Asia at the turn of the 21st century has become a “principal battlefield for geopolitical and geo-economic hegemonic domination.” The past decade has witnessed renewed and increasingly pernicious US political and military presence in Asia-Pacific due largely to the expansionist and hegemonic drive of global capital. It may thus be said that economic globalization and military expansionism are two sides of the same coin, each reinforcing and drawing sustenance from the other. Indeed, this borderless and permanent war has been increasingly exposed as but a pretext to protect the lone superpower's economic sphere of influence and further enlarge its market. A major objective of the US preemptive strike in, and continuing occupation of, Iraq is to effect a reconfiguration of the Middle East, which contains the largest oil reserves in the world, for the further control of the global oil market and the flow of oil to other regions where the lone superpower seeks to maintain hegemonic control. Moreover, continuing US war preparations and accelerated arms race have served to strengthen and secure the central place of the US military-industrial/corporate complex in the global economy. Not surprisingly, the hegemon's military involvement and increasingly bare-faced aggression have largely focused precisely on geographical areas that are rich in raw materials and strategic resources.

The unmitigated plunder of local economies and resources by corporate globalization, aided by US military muscle, has exacerbated the deteriorating human-rights situation and growing military repression.

The above is true not only in the Middle East but also in the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Thailand and the Philippines, whose rich oil and gas reserves have yet to be fully tapped and exploited. As much as 20 per cent of the world’s liquefied natural gas exports come from Indonesia alone and, based on 1999 figures, nearly half of the world’s trade passed through the Strait of Malacca and Lombok. Moreover, Southeast Asia is the fifth largest trading partner of the US.

The unmitigated plunder of local economies and resources by corporate globalization, aided by US military muscle, has exacerbated the deteriorating human-rights situation and growing military repression. Ethnic, communal and sectarian wars have been complicated by religious conflicts and rendered more intractable by the war on terror. Particularly opprobrious is the global behemoth's hand in the escalating human-rights abuses since the onset of the war on terror. In the Philippines, a US-funded counter-insurgency plan to crush the communist insurgency, the longest-running in the world, has resulted in unprecedented numbers of political assassinations, summary executions and abductions victimizing not only political activists and leaders of mass-based political parties and sectoral organizations but also lawyers, journalists, human-rights workers, and church people. To date, five pastors and priests, not to mention scores of church workers, have been butchered by death squads let loose by the military. The scale and enormity of the killings prompted the WCC and the Christian Conference in Asia on the initiative of NCCP and Peace for Life in June last year to send a high-level delegation to the Philippines in hopes of generating local and international attention to the culture of impunity being cultivated by the local implementers of the US war on terror.

The Escalation of Empire-Building in Asia

The war on terror has simply enabled the US to ride roughshod over nationalist sensitivities and people’s hostility in Southeast Asia to more overt US military presence and more aggressive economic penetration. As a result, the US has regained a strategic foothold in the entire Asia-Pacific region. It now has strengthened political and military relations with the South Asian countries of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka which in the past had been largely outside the US orbit of control.

In Northeast Asia, September 11 provided Japan, Asia's dominant power and junior partner of the US in the region, a convenient excuse to accelerate its agenda of remilitarization, restrained in the past by the no-war provision of the Japanese constitution. It is now moving towards full security normalization, significantly expanding its military budget while embarking on a comprehensive upgrading and expansion of military forces’ structure capacities. Already, Japan has participated in multilateral coalitions to increase international police and intelligence cooperation, border and movement controls, and domestic security. To the consternation of many peace-loving Japanese, it deployed air and sea forces in support of the Afghanistan war and sent a contingent of Self-Defense Forces to Iraq. These can only renew fears of Japanese recolonization, which is not unwelcome to US geo-strategists who see Japan as the fulcrum in the region from which to project American power aimed at neutralizing North Korea, labeled by Bush as part of the Axis of Evil, and at containing China, perceived as the main strategic threat to US hegemony in the region. All these have raised tensions in Northeast Asia, particularly the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan straits, and undermined the project of peaceful Korean reunification.

US Defense Strategy

Thus, the four key tenets of our [US] defense strategy today are:

  • to assure allies and friends by strengthening existing security ties and developing new partnerships;
  • to dissuade military competition by influencing the choices of key states, raising the costs of military competition, and experimenting with transformed forces overseas;
  • to deter aggression and coercion forward by increasing our capabilities for swift military action within and across critical regions; and
  • to defeat any adversary if deterrence fails.

Prepared Statement for the Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, House International Relations Committee Hearing: U.S. Security Strategy in the Asia-Pacific Region By Assistant Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs, Peter Rodman


June 26, 2003

Since the Vietnam War, the Philippines has traditionally served as staging ground for the projection of US military power in the Asia-Pacific region. Despite the dismantling of its bases in the early 1990s following a surge of nationalism in its former colony, the US continues to harbor an interest in maintaining a strong presence (including permanent bases and deployment of ground troops), so that when opportunities present themselves, it has been quick to seize them. That opportunity surfaced anew when Southeast Asia, particularly the Philippines, was designated in 2002 by the Bush administration as the “second front of the war on terror” after its invasion of Afghanistan. Washington and the Pentagon have since aggressively pressed for greater military concessions from its client regime in Manila, including the re-entry of thousands of American troops, numbering close to 5,000 at its height, under the guise of so-called joint military exercises invariably conducted in critical areas considered strongholds of Moslem or communist insurgent forces. It is, however, in the resource-rich southern island of Mindanao, where the local Moslem population in predominantly Christian Philippines is concentrated, that the war on terror has been ruthlessly played out. The declaration of the open-ended “state of emergency” and “state of lawlessness” in many areas in Mindanao has led to indiscriminate raids and bombardment of Moslem communities, arrest and summary execution of suspected terrorists and hamleting of whole villages.

In this new post-Cold War global configuration, one country has emerged as lone superpower, unrivalled by any other power or constellation of powers. In fact, today's unchallenged hegemon is much more insidious and pervasive than in the past, encompassing every facet of social reality and every realm of ecological and cosmic life. In Porto Alegre early this year, the WCC assembly appropriately addressed the theme, “God in your Grace Transform the World”, drawing attention to this deformed world that desperately cries for transformation. There is one word that best describes this deformity and sums up the global disorder into which our planet has fallen: Empire. The Peace for Life Covenant for Self-understanding and Purpose defines empire as: “the combined economic, military, political and cultural domination by a powerful state, assisted by satellite states and aided by the local elites of dominated countries to advance its own interests on a global scale. US military dominance conjointly with transnational corporate power makes up the heart of today's Empire.”

A spirituality of resistance is by its very nature political... It is therefore open to a creative and dynamic interplay with ideology, one that is at the service of the poor and the oppressed.

As the pre-eminent economic power, the US is home to the largest multinational corporations, generates more than a fifth of the world's domestic product and a fourth of world's energy consumption. Its military preponderance is even more telling. It accounts for 50% of global military spending. Its annual military budget is larger than that of the next nine countries combined and its military strength exceeds that of the next fourteen military powers put together. Equipped with twelve aircraft carrier battle groups which are integrated into five major fleets deployed in Europe, the Middle East, the Atlantic and the Pacific, its naval and aerial power is unchallenged. It maintains bases or base rights in at least 40 countries across the globe. Its encompassing military power has been aptly described as extending from the depths of the ocean to the outer reaches of space.

The escalation of empire-building in the context of globalization and in the aftermath of September 11 are best exemplified by imperial arrogance, that is, US unilateralism and disregard for international law and conventions; imperial aggression as in the now blatant and undisguised wars of conquest and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan; and imperial manipulation to use and distort libertarian values and religion to justify and consolidate its self-serving and immoral project of empire.

Empire-building needs ideological justification and claims to cultural superiority for its project of domination. Freedom, democracy, and now humanitarian intervention (a euphemism for regime change) have been invoked to justify the hegemonic drive. Under the influence of the American Religious Right, these are garbed in the religious language of good versus evil. Related to this is the untrammeled influx of a western monoculture that idealizes individualism and which is fast eroding traditional Asian values of community and solidarity. As a result, we in the South face cultural extinction and denial of our God-given gift of diversity and pluralism.

Spirituality of Resistance and Imperatives of the Faith

Given the dire and real threats to life posed by market fundamentalism and militarized globalization, private as well as state-sponsored terrorism and the onslaughts of empire, resistance becomes an imperative of the faith. The problem with ecumenical bodies and churches is that in their preoccupation with moderation, i.e. the need to appear balanced and objective, and the importance it attaches to being able to dialogue with the very instruments of globalization and empire—the WB and the IMF—they have exhibited little of that overpowering sense of outrage, indignation and passion necessary to overcome evil.

It is thus incumbent on progressive faith-based communities to reclaim religious space for radical transformative action...

Yet Christians are impelled by the vision of a New Heaven and a New Earth, not only to provide alternatives to globalization and war, but to mobilize the transformative power of faith in resisting all death-dealing and life-threatening forces in our midst. This resonant theme is echoed by Latin American theologian Leonardo Boff who, confronted with a world that has fallen into deep disorder, underlined the need for liberation theology which presupposes spiritual rebellion. Searing questions he and other theologians raised in the first World Forum on Theology and Liberation held last year in Porto Alegre may be paraphrased thus: What does it mean to be Christian when you see two thirds of humanity dying of hunger, disease and destitution or living a life not too dissimilar from that of beasts with nary a hope for escape or deliverance? How cannot a Christian seeing and experiencing oppression and exploitation, marginalization and exclusion, commodification of women, youth and children, vicious competition for power and profit, and now massive deaths and destruction wrought by outright wars of plunder, not be outraged and rebel?

In the same vein, former WCC president for Latin America, Bishop Federico Pagura, in his sermon to the inaugural assembly of Peace for Life held in Davao, Philippines in 2004, called for no less than evangelical insurrection to subdue the forces of evil, embodied in a global order that has doomed the world's majority to unbearable poverty, hunger, disease, war and violence. A spirituality of resistance is imperative if the ecumenical movement is to effectively address the US project of global hegemony and empire, which at this time is the one single, most formidable force that impedes the realization of the very values of life, peace, justice and human dignity.

A spirituality of resistance is by its very nature political. It addresses the crucial issue of power and powerlessness, precisely providing the inner force and impetus to challenge powers and principalities, empower the voiceless and disenfranchised, transform an iniquitous social order and create life-enhancing alternatives. It is therefore open to a creative and dynamic interplay with ideology, one that is at the service of the poor and the oppressed. Our Christian spirituality can be enriched through a dynamic interaction with ideologies based on mutual challenge and critique. For ideology needs to be critiqued by a spirituality rooted in love, caring and compassion, while spirituality can be challenged by an ideology with unshakeable commitment to alter an unjust and inhumane social order.

Related to this is the notion that a spirituality of resistance acknowledges our common humanity. That is, the fundamental ethical values of life and dignity, of justice and equality, of peace and community, of integrity of creation are a common human heritage and not the monopoly of Christians alone nor of organized religions. The same inner force that impels religious believers to transcend the self and sacrifice for the common good is found in other philosophical and ideological traditions. Thus we speak here of a spirituality that is shared by other faith-based traditions and secular ideological movements. This opens the way for interfaith and inter-ideological solidarity in the broader social movement for transforming and renewing social systems.

Interfaith Solidarity in the Face of Empire

Progressive faith communities are challenged—as never before—to reassert our prophetic voice and witness, that is, to speak boldly to power on behalf of the oppressed and condemn in no uncertain terms empire and global hegemony. Moreover, churches and religious communities are called to reclaim the language and essence of radicalism and militancy against injustice. As long as the religious extremists are seen as the only credible and militant opposition to empire and western hegemony; mindless terrorism, wanton violence, obscurantism and religious fascism will continue to gain adherents and widespread sympathy. Mainstream secularism has so far proven ineffectual, unable to give effective voice to the subalterns of the earth and respond to their stirring for religion, and, along with so-called moderate Islam, has been rejected by growing numbers of Moslem who have rightly or wrongly associated it with uncritical westernization and subservience to the ruling elites.

It is thus incumbent on progressive faith-based communities to reclaim religious space for radical transformative action, a terrain which, if left uncontested and abandoned solely to so-called religious extremists, can only give free rein to the very forces that would in the end destroy life and demolish the hard-won gains of human civilization. If there is anything to be learned from the upsurge of religious fundamentalism and political Islam, it is that there really are no clear-cut dichotomies between the religious and secular, the spiritual and the mundane, the theological and the ideological. In this context, revisiting liberation theology, i.e., re-reading the Bible, the Koran and other holy texts from the perspective of the underside of history and engaging in action-reflection, is the singular call of the hour.

Turning from condemnation to dialogue among other religions, another world may yet be possible
Turning from condemnation to
dialogue among other religions,
another world may yet be possible

In Asia as in other parts of the world, the empire inexorably marches on, sowing terror, death and destruction wherever it rears its ugly head. But like earlier empires, the present one will not last. Already its resources are severely strained, having lost thousands of American troops in its war on terror and with recruitment of soldiers for deployment to occupied Iraq and Afghanistan registering a considerable shortfall in the past two years.

Moreover, social movements across the globe have surged dramatically, emerging as potent forces against both globalization and the war on terror. It is this growing alliance among the anti-corporate globalization protesters, the anti-war movement, the human rights advocates, the ecological activists, and the people’s organized resistance which has nurtured hopes that in the midst of this global disorder, another world may yet be possible.

Indeed, today an emergent global uprising is beginning to challenge the death-dealing power of empire—with resistance movements in US-occupied Iraq and Afghanistan gaining strength and anti-war rallies reaching unprecedented heights especially in the very belly of the beast, North America and Europe. Not to be forgotten is the recent dramatic victory of the people's movement in Nepal against monarchical tyranny and the globalization agenda enforced by empire. Without foreign meddling and intervention, the Nepalese people may yet chart their own destiny and build a radically transformed society.

The participation of progressive religious movements in these social struggles, grounded in liberative faith, tranformative praxis and interfaith solidarity, may yet help thwart the inexorable march of empire and reverse the trend both towards exclusionary, homogenizing, life-denying and war-inducing globalization as well as obscurantist, regressive and death-dealing religious revivalism.