When Janet Jackson Meets Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani
Thanks to the information revolution the American occupation has brought with it to Iraq, let's suppose that Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite leader, watched the half-time show of the recent Super Bowl. 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 would have mused. Even Al Qaeda got into that act, condemning France in one of its mysterious communiques for defending "the liberty of debauchery, but not modesty." Worse, the ayatollah might have thought, isn't there an inexorable continuum from that imposition of immodesty to Janet Jackson exposing her breast before several million people?
Is that what we want for our Islamic democracy? He would no doubt direct those who want an answer to this question to his Web site (sistani.org) which begins with a stream of blessings upon the wronged, including "Salutations upon the pure women who were paraded without their veils."
Yes, the ayatollah might recall, America is a Christian country, more religious 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, mainstream Hollywood wouldn't touch Mel Gibson's film about the passion of Christ with a 10-foot pole—though the public made it a box office megahit.
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 Christina Aguilera. That is, between the socially conservative culture of mainstream Christianity and Islam on the one hand and, on the other, 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, though Ayatollah Sistani, unlike Khomeini, doesn't think Allah is a head of state.
The same week of the Janet Jackson escapade, Margaret Tutweiler, the former US ambassador to Morocco charged with investigating America's bad image in the Islamic world, reported that it would take decades of public diplomacy to repair that image.
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 its impact on the world. For better and worse, that can't be rolled back. But we shouldn't pretend 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 not be surprised if Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reminds us of this once the American liberators hand over power to him.
Nathan Gardels, editor, NPQ