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Cross-culture wars

Islam | The Bush administration is reviewing its Iraq policy in 2007, but a longer-range dilemma looms: Are problems in American culture making the international war on terror harder to win?

Issue: "Endings & beginnings," Jan. 13, 2007

Some Muslims complain about U.S. activities in the Middle East or support for Israel, but an even more widespread concern is cultural: what Muslims see as an American descent into homosexual marriage, family breakdown, and a popular culture that is often morally repulsive. We in the United States know that there is a difference between movies/television/music and the way that Americans actually live, but many Muslims abroad see the America of popular culture as the real thing.

Surveys show more than 80 percent of people in Indonesia, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal, Egypt, and Turkey saying they want to protect their values from foreign assault. Their objection is not to McDonalds or Microsoft-they usually want more American companies, more American technology, and more free trade-but to what they see as degrading cultural products.

Muslim critics of American culture are quick to concede its fascination and attraction, especially to the young. When one television interviewer told a 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."

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Many in traditional cultures see America as materially prosperous but culturally decadent, technologically sophisticated but morally depraved. Former Pakistani prime minister Benazir Bhutto noted a Muslim "reaction against the sexual overtones that come across in American mass culture." 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."

It's in this respect that the term "Great Satan," so commonly used to denounce America in the Muslim world, doesn't seem so zany. Muslims share with Jews and Christians the understanding that Satan is primarily a tempter, not a conqueror; the Quran describes Satan as "the insidious one who whispers into the hearts of men." Osama bin Laden said in one of his videos that Islam faces the greatest threat it has faced since Muhammad-and that's not because U.S. troops were in Saudi Arabia but because he feared American values and mores grabbing the hearts of Muslims.

Many Americans are also concerned about the cultural ascent of the coarse, trivial, and disgusting. Many complain about huge doses of vulgar language on prime-time television, salacious themes in popular movies, and extreme brutality in rap music. From Jerry Springer and Howard Stern to The Da Vinci Code and Brokeback Mountain, the war against traditional religion and morality seems unremitting.

The Muslim indictment doesn't just apply to American "mass culture" but also to liberal "high culture" that offers itself as refined and sophisticated. For example, Eve Ensler's obscene play, "The Vagina Monologues," has won rave reviews and Hollywood accolades; it's performed regularly on American college campuses but also in Turkey, and bookstores in Pakistan, India, and Egypt sell the book version of the play. Muslims consider the public recitation of Ensler's themes and language a grotesque violation of manners and morals.

The debate over popular culture points to a deeper issue. For the past quarter-century Americans have viewed our "culture war" as one with only domestic ramifications-but the global consequences are now becoming clear. When we debate hot-button issues like abortion, school prayer, divorce, gay marriage, and so on, we are debating two radically different views of liberty and morality. Issues like divorce and family breakdown are important in themselves and are symptoms of a great moral shift in American society, but that shift also is at the root of the anti-Americanism of traditional cultures.

The cultural shift can be described in this way: Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation describes the virtues of the World War II generation, but was that generation greater than the generation of the American founding or the Civil War generation? Or does the World War II generation stand out because it was the last one to embrace an external code of traditional morality? The code seems astounding to subsequent generations that don't have that self-disciplined, deferred-gratification moral code.

Laws and social norms during the first half of the 20th century typically reflected this moral consensus: Go to church. Be faithful to your wife. Support your children. Go when your country calls. And so on. Some did not live up to the prevailing norms, but they supplied a standard, accepted virtually throughout society, for how one should act.

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