Civilizations Out of Sync
Efforts by the Bush Administration to launch an international
public relations campaign-under the guidance of the marketing guru behind
the Uncle Ben's rice advertisements-is a bit naive. "If the Muslim
world only understood our good intentions, all would be ok," seems
to be the idea. And Hollywood has been enlisted to tell the world, "This
is not a war against Muslims."
Well, the propaganda of postmodern America has been out there a long time
already and is understood by the Muslim world. MTV has gone where the
CIA could never penetrate; Madonna is the muzak of globalization.
The problem is not that Muslims don't understand America, but that they
do. They understand that the faithless, materialistic, sexually immodest,
liberal message-or meme-of the American mass media is a threat to the
conservative and pious civilization of Islam.
The "material girl" is the very opposite of what conservative
Muslim culture prescribes for its young women. Just as for many American
parents Britney Spears is a threat to decency, in many Islamic families
Britney idolatry is an affront no less disrespectful than Salman Rushdie's
Satanic Verses. They know she would not have gotten nearly so far in life
if she covered her head and body modestly as Islamic stricture calls for.
Above all, the impiety and secularism that is the face of America presented
by the mass media-even if the soul of American society itself is a kind
of religio-secular hybrid-is a challenge to a civilization based on faith,
a civilization where praying is more important than shopping.
This is what the Pakistani scholar and diplomat Akbar Ahmed means when
he talks about the "media Mongols" being "at the Gates
of Baghdad" -a reference to the Mongol hordes in 1258 who shattered
the greatest Arab empire in history.
But this time, as Akbar and many Muslims see it, the challenge is not
one of armies and territories, but worse-a challenge to the very idea
of a life centered around faith.
What we see as the positive messages of the American media-pluralism,
diversity, the liberation of women and anti-authoritarianism-can be seen
differently from within conservative cultures. Pluralism and diversity
can be seen as indifference to values, even nihilism-in short, the disbelief
of the infidels. This should not be such a strange perception to grasp,
since it is the same as Pope John Paul II's view of postmodern culture
as laid out in the encyclical, The Splendor of Truth.
Indeed, our fragmented, culturally hybrid postmodern society lives by
a code of "modus vivendi" that is literally pagan-that is, it
accepts all gods in the name of civil peace.
Liberation of women can be seen as sexual, not gender, freedom. The Turkish
sociologist Nilüfer Göle in fact argues that modernity means
"the freedom of seduction." Conversely, Masoumeh Ebtekar, the
highest-ranking woman in the Iranian government, told me, as she recoiled
from my instinctive offer to shake hands, covering up should be considered
superfeminism because it frees women from sexual objectification and harassment
in the workplace.
Anti-authoritarianism can be seen as ridicule of any rules to live by;
the dissing of all authority, from mom to imam.
DOUBLE MESSAGE | So, America's message to the world is twofold-it
is a beacon of hope to the huddled masses who risk their lives to get
here across the scorching desert from Mexico or in the holds of rusty
cargo ships from China; but it is also a satellite signal that inflames
the pious and mobilizes the militant.
Those who want it but can't get it are stuck in their hopeless lives with
corrupt governments. On the other hand, those who don't want it can't
escape it. The images of the Hollywood-MTV-CNN-Madison Avenue propaganda
machine are ubiquitous, peering out from every corner like statues of
Lenin in the old Soviet Union.
Either way there is combustible resentment and anger across the Muslim
world that, as V.S. Naipaul sees it, "their misfortune is due to
the success of another civilization."
In this context, the political theorist Immanuel Wallerstein has spoken
of three options: the individual option of migration; the Khomeini or
Taliban option, which is the defensive ideology of an alternative system,
in effect a protectionist culture; or the Saddam option of confrontation
with the West.
Today, we must add a fourth option: the Osama bin Laden option, which
is a combination of Khomeini and Saddam.
OUT OF SYNC | The literary journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who
has reported his whole professional life from the Third World, has talked
of going to villages in Africa where people live as primitively as they
did 2,000 years ago. When I would ask him what happens when this world
meets with the world of Bill Gates, who has made billions speeding up
the ?ow of information, or the world of Fed Ex where planes swoop down
at 30-second intervals in Memphis to deliver just-in-time packages, he
would argue that these worlds never meet, and that is the tragedy.
But, alas, these worlds do meet now through political Islam, the last
systemic alternative to globalization. It is the transmission belt of
resentment and anger onto the world stage, the vehicle of resistance,
a world-historical agency of mobilization.
Evidently, then, there is a clash of civilizations going at two speeds.
And when the same experience is lived across different historical time
zones there is friction. The West speeds forward (for good and ill) while
Islamic societies remain stagnant. Because the conflict is between dynamism
and stagnation, friction will decrease only when they are sufficiently
Coming into sync for the West perhaps means spiritual development. Many
conservatives, starting with the Pope, believe, like pious Muslims, that
value relativism and materialism are a threat to the soul of the West,
leading to moral chaos. More balance, more equilibrium of spiritual and
material life, is certainly something the West can take from Islam.
For Islam, material and scientific development must take place. But Allah
has yet to meet Galileo. Without a Thomist revolution and Reformation
like that of the West, it is difficult to see how Islam can develop materially
and technologically. That requires the individual autonomy and secular
pluralism that comes not just from separation of religion and state, but
faith and reason.
Whether these two worlds can reconcile with each other without losing
their essence is the grand historical question. But that is the issue,
not whether we can convince Muslims through a slick ad campaign that we
mean them no harm.
Nathan Gardels, editor, NPQ