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."
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.
That consensus is now gone. The morality of the inner self, of self-fulfillment-a secular liberal morality-now dominates our popular culture. Liberals often do not approve of all the grossness and sensuality of contemporary popular culture, but their promotion of autonomy, individuality, and self-fulfillment as moral ideals makes it difficult to question or criticize or place limits on these cultural trends. In the moral code of self-fulfillment, "pushing the envelope" or testing the borders of sexual and moral tolerance becomes a virtue, and fighting for traditional morality becomes a form of repression or vice.
Many American liberals view the great social revolution of the past few decades-freedom for abortion, divorce, and homosexuality-through the prism of an expansion of civil liberties, "freedom of choice," and personal autonomy. But from the Muslim perspective these same trends appear as 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 and potentially destroying their religion and way of life.
So what should America do about this? First, we should recognize how our domestic culture war and the war on terror are linked. The restoration of American culture will not only be better for our children, but will help America's image abroad. As a practical matter, of course, such a restoration will not be easy. At the very least, it is a task that will take a couple of decades. The best we can do is to show Muslims, and traditional people around the world, the other America that they often don't see. The Bush administration should do more to highlight the presence, and values, of conservative and religious America. Moreover, we should do what we can to export this America, which is good America, to the rest of the world.
When the other America shows its ugly face, as it inevitably will in many cases, we should not hesitate to speak out against it and say that this is not the America of which we are proud. We should not hesitate to tell traditional Muslims and others that there are many of us who are working to reverse the tide of liberal immorality 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.