It's the Culture, Stupid

Posted: Apr 09, 2007 9:45 AM
It's the Culture, Stupid

Anti-Americanism comes in different varieties. Speak to Europeans who dislike the United States, and they point to what they see as the evils of conservative America: a shoot-first, ask-questions-later cowboy in the White House, Bible-toting fundamentalists walking around the corridors of power. Speak to Muslims who are hostile to America, however, and the typical complaint is very different. Many Muslims point to what they view as the horrors of liberal America: homosexual marriage, family breakdown, and a popular culture that is trivial, materialistic, vulgar, and in many cases morally repulsive. So while many secular Europeans abhor "red America," many religious Muslims dislike and fear "blue America."

Both the Europeans and the Muslims, of course, are only seeing one side of America. They are reacting not so much to "America" as to projections of American policy and American culture across the globe. We in the U.S. know that there is a difference between American popular culture and the way that Americans actually live. But foreigners cannot be expected to know this. The America that they see in the movies and on television is often the only America they know.

We have heard a great deal from critics of globalization about how the United States is corrupting the world with its multinational corporations and its trade practices. But world opinion surveys by the Pew Research Center and other groups show that non-Western peoples are generally pleased with American products. In fact, the people of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East want more American companies, more American technology, and more free trade. Their objection is not to McDonalds or Microsoft but to America's cultural values as transmitted through movies, television and music.

Huge majorities of more than 80 percent of people in Indonesia, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, and Turkey say they want to protect their values from foreign assault. The Pew study concludes that there is a "widespread sense" that American values, often presented as the values of modernity itself, "represent a major threat to people's traditional way of life." These sentiments are felt very keenly in the Muslim world. As an Iranian from Neishapour told journalist Afshin Molavi, "People say we want freedom. You know what these foreign-inspired people want? They want the freedom to gamble and drink and bring vice to our Muslim land. This is the kind of freedom they want."

Muslim critics of American culture are quick to concede its fascination and attraction, especially to the young. Some time ago I saw an interview with a Muslim sheikh on television. The interviewer told the sheikh, "I find it curious and hypocritical that you are so anti-American, considering that two of your sons are living and studying in America." The sheikh replied, "But this is not hypocritical at all. I concede that American culture is appealing. If you put a young man into a hotel room and give him dozens of pornography tapes, he is likely to find those appealing as well. What America appeals to is everything that is low and disgusting in human nature."

There seems to be a growing belief in traditional cultures that America is materially prosperous but culturally decadent. It is technologically sophisticated but morally depraved. As former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto puts it, "Within the Muslim world, there is a reaction against the sexual overtones that come across in American mass culture. America is viewed through this prism as an immoral society." In his book The Crisis of Islam, Bernard Lewis rehearses what he calls the "standard litany of American offenses recited in the lands of Islam" and ends with this one: "Yet the most powerful accusation of all is the degeneracy and debauchery of the American way of life."

As these observations suggest, the main source of Muslim rage is not American foreign policy but American popular culture as it is projected around the world.

One reason the Muslims focus their anger on America is that it is American culture—not Swedish culture or French culture—that is finding its way into every nook and cranny of Islamic society.

There is a cultural blowback against America that is coming from all the traditional cultures of Africa, South America, the Middle East, and Asia. This resistance is summed up in a slogan often used by Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew: "Modernization without Westernization." What this means is that traditional cultures want prosperity and technology, but they don't want the values of American culture. The Islamic radicals are the most extreme and politically-mobilized segment of this global resistance, and they are recruiting innumerable ordinary Muslims to their proclaimed jihad against the values represented by America.

Islamic radicals have been remarkably successful in convincing traditional Muslims that America represents a serious threat to the Islamic religion. Bin Laden in one of his videos said that Islam faces the greatest threat it has faced since Muhammad. How could he possibly think this? Not because of U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. Not even because of Israel. The threat Bin Laden is referring to is an infiltration of American values and mores into the life of Muslims, transforming their society and destroying their religious beliefs.

Even the term "Great Satan," so commonly used to denounce America in the Muslim world, is better understood when we recall that in the traditional understanding, shared by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Satan is not a conqueror; he is a tempter. In one of its best-known verses, the Koran describes Satan as "the insidious one who whispers into the hearts of men."

So what should America do about this? I'm not suggesting that we change our way of life to appease the mullahs. But I do think we should show Muslims, and traditional people around the world, the other America that they often don't see on TV and in the movies. The Bush administration must do more to highlight the presence, and values, of conservative and religious America. Moreover, we must do what we can to export this America to the rest of the world. This would undercut Bin Laden's accusation that the United States is an anti-religious, immoral society. While we can't change the minds of the Islamic radicals, we can diminish their appeal to traditional Muslims.