War on terror's other front: cleaning up US pop culture
RANCHO SANTA FE, CALIF. — Anti-Americanism comes in different varieties. The European kind emphasizes the "evils" of "red" America: a shoot-first, ask-questions-later cowboy in the White House, and Bible- toting fundamentalists walking around the corridors of power.
The Muslim variety is very different. Many Muslims point to the "horrors" of "blue" America: homosexual marriage, family breakdown, and a popular culture that is trivial, materialistic, vulgar, and, in many cases, morally repulsive.
This latter view is dangerously – and justifiably – common in many traditional cultures across the globe. Because it feeds their perception that American values are inimical to their way of life, this attitude can blossom into the kind of anti- American pathology that partly fueled the 9/11 attacks. Any serious effort to shore up American's security must include steps to edify American culture.
Both the European and Muslim brands of anti-Americanism, of course, are focused on only one side of America. They are reacting not so much to America per se as to the often distorted projections of US policy and culture across the globe. Americans know that there is a big difference between US pop culture and the way they actually live. But most foreigners don't. The America they see in movies and on television is often the only one they know.
Critics of globalization complain that the US is corrupting the world with its multinational corporations and its trade practices. But surveys such as the Pew Research Center studies of world opinion 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 McDonald's or Microsoft but to America's cultural values.
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 TV. 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."
The most powerful of all the American offenses recited in the lands of Islam, argues preeminent Middle East expert Bernard Lewis, "is the "degeneracy and debauchery of the American way of life."
A major reason why some Muslims focus their anger on the United States is because 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 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 America represents. The radicals have been remarkably successful in convincing traditional Muslims that America represents a serious threat to the Islamic religion.
In one of his post-9/11 propaganda videos, Osama bin Laden said that Islam faces the greatest threat it has faced since the time of Muhammad. How could he possibly think this? Not because of US troops that were 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 lives of Muslims, transforming their society and destroying their traditional values and 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 tempter who whispers into the hearts of men."
These concerns prompt a startling thought: Are the radical Muslims right? Surely, some American parents can at least sympathize. Consider the profane language on prime-time TV, or the salacious themes so prevalent in movies and music. Need I even mention the vulgarity of some rap lyrics, or the Jerry Springer and Howard Stern shows?
The Muslim indictment extends to "high culture," to liberal culture that offers itself as refined and sophisticated. In America, Eve Ensler's play, "The Vagina Monologues," has won rave reviews and generated a pop culture phenomenon. But if its in-your-face focus on female genitalia makes some Americans uncomfortable, just imagine the reaction the performance and accompanying book is getting abroad, in places such as China, Turkey, Pakistan, and Egypt. Can foreigners be blamed for feeling defiled by this American export?
To many American liberals, pop culture reflects the values of individuality, personal autonomy, and freedom of expression. Thus, it is seen as a moral achievement. But viewed from the perspective of people in the traditional societies of the world, notably the Muslim world, these same trends appear to be nothing less than the shameless promotion of depravity.
So it is not surprising to see pious Muslims react with horror at the prospect of this new American morality seeping into their part of the world. They rightly fear that this new morality will destroy their religion and way of life.
So what should America do about this? First, it must recognize the global implications of the culture wars. Indeed the culture war and the war on terror are linked. The restoration of America's culture will be a moral boost to its children – and it will help the nation's image abroad.
As a practical matter, of course, such a cultural restoration will not be easy. At the very least, it is a task that will take decades.
The best we Americans can do is to show Muslims, and traditional people around the world, the "other America" that they often don't see. Bush and his administration spokespersons should in their speeches do more to highlight the values of conservative and religious America. They should not be afraid to speak out against American cultural exports that are shameless and corrupting.
Moreover, we should do what we can to stop the export of debased American values abroad. In the United Nations, for example, America should work with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and others to block the efforts of leftist groups around the world who promote radical feminism, homosexuality, prostitution, and pornography as "rights" under international law. Instead, the US should align itself with social decency and traditional family values.
As citizens, we should not hesitate to tell traditional Muslims and others that there are many of us who are working to reverse the tide of cultural depravity in our society and around the world.
By proclaiming our allegiance to the traditional values of Judeo-Christian society, we can reduce the currents of anti-Americanism among the Muslims, and thus undercut the appeal of radical Islam to traditional Muslims around the world.
• Dinesh D'Souza's latest book, "The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11," was published this month. He is the Rishwain Fellow at the Hoover Institution.