Today's date:



MTV has gone where the CIA could never penetrate

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ, the journal of social and political
thought published by Blackwell, and the Global Viewpoint service of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate/Tribune Media. His latest book is "The Changing Global Order: World Leader's Reflect" (Blackwell, 1998)

By Nathan Gardels

Thanks to the information revolution the American occupation has brought with it to Iraq, let's suppose that Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite leader, watched the half time show of the recent Superbowl. As he sat contemplatively stroking his long white beard in his sparse room at the seminary in Najaf, what could he have been thinking? It is bad enough that the secular West wants to ban the headscarf for Muslim girls in France, he no doubt mused. But, worse, isn't there an inexorable continuum from that imposition of immodesty to Janet Jackson exposing her breast before 800 million people?

Is that what we want for our Islamic democracy? Did we give up Saddam for Hip-Hop strip performances in which our sisters and daughters are goaded to shed their clothes?

Yes, the ayatollah might recall, America is a Christian country, more religious by far than its decadent European cousins. But while Janet Jackson was invited to perform her stunt at the biggest venue offered by the global mass media, Mel Gibson's film about the passion of Christ has been driven to underground distribution through local churches, as if this were ancient Rome. Mainstream Hollywood won't touch it.

The truth is, the ayatollah might conclude, there is indeed a clash of civilizations, as Harvard professor Sam Huntington has proposed. Maybe it is not between Islam and Christianity per se, but between the Pope and Madonna, Britney and Christine Aguilerra. That is, between the socially conservative culture of mainstream Christianity and Islam and the sensate liberalism of postmodern society that comes across pervasively in the American mass media. It is hard enough for most American parents to take, no less an ascetic cleric.

All this might lead the great Shiite guardian to shepherd his restless flock toward an illiberal democracy. Getting American troops to leave Iraqi soil may be the first task; but preventing the occupation of the Iraqi soul by American mass culture is the ultimate issue. That is certainly what Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran thought, and tried to do.

The same week of the Janet Jackson escapade, Margaret Tutweiler, the former US ambassador to Morocco charged by the State Department with investigating America's bad image in the Islamic world, reported that image was so damaged it would take decades of public diplomacy to repair it.

Unfortunately, public diplomacy is a clueless response in a global order where MTV has gone where the CIA could never penetrate.

America's postmodern mass culture has transcended the boundaries of our traditional foreign policy and military institutions in the way it impacts the world. For better and worse, that can't be rolled back. But we shouldn't pretend that this is not a central answer to "why they hate us", the question so urgently asked after 9/11 but now largely forgotten. Let's don't be too surprised if Ayatollah Ali Sistani reminds us of this once the American liberators hand over power to him.

(c) Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release. Distributed 2/9/04