Today's date:
Winter 2008

Civilizations Out of Sync

Winter 2002

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 —are 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-authoriarianism—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 flow of information, or the world of Fed Ex, where planes swoop down at 90-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 in sync.

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.