Learning Curve: American Culture and the Muslim World

A s Americans struggle to confront economic and fiscal dilemmas at home, we are also reexamining our role as the lone global superpower. As we do so, one of our most elusive challenges is coming to terms with the cultural dimension of our engagement with the Muslim world. This is in part because cultural forces are downplayed or ignored by our intellectual and foreign policy elites. This neglect is regrettable, for while there are aspects of American culture that Muslims find problematic, or even repellant, there are others that they find—or might find, if made aware—appealing, even admirable.

B oth Sides of the Coin . Even as high unemployment, slow growth, and skyrocketing public debt demand our attention, we must recognize that we are dealing not merely with an economic system but with the beliefs and values on which it is based, which constitute a way of life. Many Americans, along with our friends and enemies overseas, routinely attribute our continuing economic predicament to our acquisitiveness. Indeed, many believe that the true source of America’s quest for global dominance, however chastened it may be at the moment, is our inordinate appetite for material possessions and pleasures. But even if this were true, would it be, as we so often hear, simply a matter of “greed”?

First, it must be acknowledged that Americans’ enormous consumer wants and our willingness to go into household debt to satisfy them distinguish us from most other advanced industrial democracies. But if we stop to examine the origins of the present economic crisis, it arises in part from otherwise laudable efforts to satisfy the aspirations of economically marginal African Americans and Hispanic immigrants to become homeowners. Indeed, the specific goal of increasing minority home ownership was a critical component of the rationale for the policies and institutional arrangements that got us into the present mess. Put differently, the greed of investors was gratified in part by an effort to promote what was viewed by Republicans and Democrats alike as a laudable social policy goal, even as social justice. Many would prefer to forget this today, but during the 1990s and well into the first decade of the new century, those who cautioned against increasing reliance on the sub-prime mortgages that were being marketed to economically marginal home-buyers risked being accused of indifference toward those struggling to achieve the American Dream. In some instances, such skeptics were even accused of racism.

Related Essay

Continental Divide: Immigration and the New European Right

Right-wing politics in Europe aren't as reactionary as they've been made out to be.

Once the financial system sustained by those practices and institutions came crashing down, it has been these same economically marginal families who have been suffering the most. It would of course be naive to deny that the aspirations of such individuals were at times tainted by poor judgment and excess. Nevertheless, pointing out that immigrant and minority aspirations contributed to the debacle should in no way be interpreted as blaming those who have lost their homes. Without a doubt, primary responsibility for our current situation lies with the investors who exploited those aspirations and with the government officials whose lax oversight allowed them to take huge financial risks with borrowed assets.

The point is subtle but critical. Our present predicament illustrates how the extraordinary dynamism and openness of American society are sustained by our people’s appetite for material advancement. Opportunities for the rich to grow richer both encourage and permit the non-rich to move up—and perhaps grow rich themselves. In no small way, American ideals of equal opportunity and social equality depend on our acquisitiveness, even on our “greed.” This of course is no original insight; it was the preoccupation of eighteenth-century moral philosophy. But as is often the case, the insights of philosophers are overlooked just when they can be most helpful.

Yet if we are guilty of greed, it is not simply greed for things. We are also a restless people who crave openness and new experiences. We are greedy for what have come to be called “lifestyle options”—whether in terms of alcohol and drugs, sexual partners and practices, pregnancy decisions, familial and child-rearing arrangements, and so on. Some libertarians understand how our economic freedoms and cultural liberties are linked, and defend both as two sides of the same coin. Yet most Americans have difficulty seeing this, and today’s polarization of our politics further distorts their view. Liberals and leftists denounce the market for undermining community bonds. Conservatives denounce the left’s cultural agenda for its self-indulgence and hedonistic individualism. The left regards dependence on oil as a sign of profligacy; the right sees easy access to abortion as an indicator of decadence, even depravity.

T he Water’s Edge . We Americans may not appreciate how such fundamental disagreements, which have rent our culture and politics for decades, can be seen as different facets of a coherent whole. But this is precisely how many Muslims—friendly and unfriendly, here and abroad—perceive America’s internal cultural conflicts. In their eyes, Americans may disagree about particulars, but we are united in our preoccupation with unfettered, acquisitive individualism.

It is, of course, hardly surprising that Americans fail to grasp this broader view of our culture wars. These are our culture wars, after all, and we have been fighting them in a characteristically self-absorbed way. Yet this is not the whole story. Since 9/11, Americans have taken some tentative steps toward muting our disagreements and presenting a united front when we turn our attention overseas, especially toward an enemy who defines himself in fundamentalist religious terms. To be sure, controversies over abortion and gay marriage continue, but less intensely than before. This may in part be attributable to economic conditions. In any event, just as Muslims have come together to defend themselves from criticism and attack from non-Muslims, so too have Americans closed ranks vis-à-vis Muslims. Partisan bickering might not stop at the water’s edge any more, but the culture wars do, for the most part.

Conservatives who launched broadsides against the excesses of American culture in the 1990s now mount the barricades to defend its virtues—against the practices and criticisms of Muslims, who all along have been troubled by those same excesses. The ironies here are too numerous to count. The most glaring is that conservatives who just a few years ago roundly criticized the feminist movement and routinely dismissed women’s rights as the leading edge of a troubling liberationist agenda now loudly and insistently criticize Islam’s failure to advance gender equality.

Yet in our preoccupation with how Muslim societies treat women, we turn a blind eye to how our own liberal values have fostered a commercialized culture that condones and even glorifies sexual promiscuity and pornography that denigrate women—and men. These powerful forces that we have helped unleash on the world are one reason why many Muslim women seek refuge in Islamic modesty, including the head scarf. Of course, promiscuity and pornography offend and alarm many Americans. Yet when we turn our attention overseas, we uncritically close ranks and defend “our way of life”—much as Muslim societies have.

T aking Culture Off the Table . That Americans should have achieved some unity in an era of polarization by focusing on an external foe should come as no surprise. Yet it is surprising, and especially worthy of note, that we have for a variety of reasons persuaded ourselves that our differences with Islam are not cultural in any important sense.

With regard to gender equality, for example, we consider it not so much a cultural value to be encouraged as a human right to be secured. This perspective is epitomized in a 2007 study from the RAND Corporation. Building Moderate Muslim Networks specifically equates gender equality with freedom of worship and designates both as “internationally recognized human rights.” Here as elsewhere in contemporary discourse, human rights—whose infringement on account of societal, cultural, or political conditions is presumptively impermissible—are asserted without any elaboration or justification. This is a complicated and controversial topic that cannot be fully explored here. My point is simply to highlight this resort to the language of rights as a salient example of how Americans sidestep the cultural dimension when we turn our attention to the Muslim world.

Another such example is the tendency, particularly on the part of neoconservatives, to interpret the American encounter with radical Islamists through the lens of the Cold War, and insist that we are now engaged in a war with “Islamo-Fascism.” Muslims hate this term, but there is some merit to it. As in the Cold War, today’s struggle is being pursued incrementally, over a protracted period of time, without the sustained engagement of huge armed forces. And as Francis Fukuyama, among others, has pointed out, extremist Islamists are driven less by religion than by a modern ideology that has clear affinities with communism and fascism.

Yet despite such similarities, the most critical distinction between the Cold War and today’s struggle is that the latter has a substantial cultural component. Indeed, America’s contests against fascism and communism were waged against adversaries who shared our Enlightenment heritage, albeit in perverted forms. Today, we confront enemies who emerge from a distinctive civilization that is not Western and that in fact has a long history of rivalry, contention, and conflict with the West.

The implications of such a cultural perspective are varied and vital. To begin, cultural conflicts are arguably more wrenching—personally and societally—than ideological ones. Consider, for example, the difference between the apostasy of a Communist such as Whittaker Chambers and that of a Muslim such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. While the former clearly pursued a painful and bitter path, sundering ideological ties with, and then exposing, old comrades, the pain and complexity of that experience must pale in comparison with the latter’s renunciation and condemnation of the foundational beliefs and practices of her family going as far back as memory itself.

Such treacherous shoals are undoubtedly one reason why our leaders insist that we are not engaged in any such cultural conflict with Islam. Yet such an assertion hardly seems credible. Recall that America’s fiscal and economic crises are rooted in our values—some admirable, others not. Taken together, they constitute our way of life. This is certainly how Islamist extremists see it. But so do many ordinary, law-abiding Muslims who are mindful, though perhaps themselves not always observant, of Islamic principles of thrift and self-restraint.

America is not at war with Islam. Nor is there any unified, global Muslim community that confronts us—no matter how often Muslims invoke precisely that notion when they refer to the ummah . Nevertheless, our sometimes violent struggle with extremist Muslims is being fought on cultural terrain—and being watched by a vast audience of non-extremist but culturally conservative Muslims who are keeping close track not only of who is winning but also of how Americans are waging the battle.

Those who cavil at such a cultural interpretation of the present struggle should stop to consider why gender equality in Muslim societies (albeit under the rubric of human rights) gets raised by non-Muslims so quickly and so often. Or why many Muslims are so averse to our popular music and figurative art. Or why the Muslim world is so profoundly hostile to any hint of open homosexuality. Such issues clearly loom large for many non-Muslims, as well as for most Muslims.

Why then do America’s political and intellectual elites habitually relegate culture to the background of contemporary discussions? One answer is that the mere mention of “culture” raises the specter of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Indeed, most academics and analysts reject Huntington’s emphasis on the importance of culture in global politics—a backlash that he himself helped to provoke when, in support of his thesis, he bluntly asserted that “it is human to hate.” Huntington’s point, of course, is that cultural conflicts are nasty and intractable, especially in this post–Cold War era. Yet he did not welcome such conflicts, nor did he regard them as inevitable. Indeed, Huntington opposed the US invasion of Iraq, a fact overlooked by critics who incorrectly associate him with that war’s neoconservative proponents.

Another response is that long before Huntington advanced his controversial thesis, social scientists were vigorously rejecting cultural explanations of human affairs, particularly those having to do with religion, as a valid basis of action or of analysis. Academics and intellectuals have identified this perspective as “essentialist,” by which they mean the imputation of inherent or unchanging traits to groups, especially disadvantaged or marginal groups. The concern is that such groups will come to be seen as unresponsive to meliorative public policies, thereby fueling negative stereotypes and aiding conservative or reactionary political forces. In contrast, environmental or social structural perspectives have been seen as “progressive,” on the dubious assumption that such factors are more susceptible to governmental interventions.

O ur Cultural Blindspots . The consequences of disregarding the cultural dimensions of America’s contemporary encounter with Islam are considerable. One such is a failure to reckon with the global impact of our own cultural footprint, which is arguably just as significant as those left by our economy and military. Yet apart from advocates of so-called soft power, few of us seem to appreciate this.

A disturbing example emerged from the shocking behavior of American military personnel in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison. While most Americans regarded this as a nationally embarrassing episode of abuse and torture, John Agresto, an American educator who served in Iraq under Ambassador Paul Bremer as senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, offers a strikingly different interpretation. In his book, Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions , Agresto draws on his conversations and experiences in post-invasion Iraq to show that Iraqis were hardly surprised by the egregious behavior at Abu Ghraib. He quotes his Iraqi translator: “We are a cruel people. It’s in our DNA.”

But then Agresto makes a point lost on many Americans: “It wasn’t the revelations of torture, as such, that so troubled Iraqis . . . it was the character and sexual nature of these abuses.” He elaborates: “Abu Ghraib displayed not only Americans’ abandonment to perverse sexuality, up to and including homoerotic sadism, but also the willingness of American females to be photographed sexually abusing naked men, and the joy that they all seemed to display at not only degrading Iraqis but at degrading their own natures as well.” Agresto goes on to characterize the Iraqi perspective: “Abu Ghraib looked less like severe treatment of detainees in order to wrest important information from them as much as it seemed depraved fun and sexual games . . . To a people told by our enemies that modernity stands for indulgence and the loosening of our moral rules, that America is a perverse and hedonistic culture, that liberty is libertinism and anarchy, and that our secularism is really nothing but irreligion and an affront to God, Abu Ghraib was a gift to our enemies and an utter disaster for America and its friends.” In the understandably outraged commentary on Abu Ghraib here in the United States, the emphasis was just the reverse. That is, Americans were much more focused on this episode as an example of “abuse and torture,” while relegating the specifically sexual nature of many of the misdeeds to the background.

Ironically, the US military seems to have figured out the crucial importance of culture sooner than many of our other institutions. Confronting failure in Iraq and Afghanistan, our military leaders have determined that victory is not simply a matter of applying overwhelming force against the enemy, but also of winning “hearts and minds” among civilians. To do this, soldiers need to understand the values and culture of those populations. That’s why the military has reformulated counterinsurgency doctrine and made efforts to employ social scientists, especially anthropologists. As we saw with the Awakening initiative in Iraq’s Anbar Province, this approach means working with erstwhile enemies in order to enlist them in the fight against more implacable foes. Most recently, the Obama administration has been implementing elements of this same strategy on the very different physical and cultural terrain of Afghanistan.

But ignoring the cultural basis of America’s encounter with Islam has had another unfortunate result. We have obscured from our own view critical differences between the United States and Europe. Ironically, these underscore how much better suited we are than our friends and allies across the Atlantic to address the cultural concerns of Muslims around the world. Not only are we more tolerant and open to newcomers than just about any European nation, we lack the strident, full-throated secularism that in Europe has successfully contained religion’s role in public life and consequently marginalized and alienated many Muslims. Muslims here in the United States appreciate this difference, but Muslims elsewhere are barely aware of it. Yet such vital topics do not get the attention they merit, because it has been determined that we are not engaged in a cultural contest with Islam.

One final consequence of side-stepping cultural factors is to obscure commonalities across the three Abrahamic faiths. To be sure, such similarities get highlighted in myriad interfaith dialogues, but in the wider, less cloistered public square, the tone is quite different. Listening to commentators there, one would never know that within living memory, Jewish women were confined to the balconies of synagogues (and in some Hassidic sects today still are rigidly segregated); Catholics abstained from meat on Fridays and routinely fasted during Lent; mainstream Protestants denounced gambling and drinking; and Americans accepted, by and large, a constitutional amendment prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and distribution of alcoholic beverages. More generally, one would never suspect that there was a time when Protestants, Catholics, and Jews all taught the virtues of self-restraint in the social, economic, and cultural spheres of life in a way not dissimilar from contemporary Islam.

To be sure, there are critical differences of culture, history, and theology across Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. But there are also some affinities that invite Americans to put ourselves in the place of contemporary Muslims—not out of misguided guilt, but out of curiosity and a sense of urgency. Curiosity about how many Muslims see contemporary American life as wasteful, exhibitionist, and self-indulgent, given that it was not so long ago that Americans valued thrift, reserve, and restraint. And urgency because only through such honest and fulsome exploration will we build genuine bridges of understanding and trust between Muslims and non-Muslims. I am not suggesting the kind of interfaith dialogue that fatuously asserts common values while lacking the hard-headedness necessary to address fundamental differences. Nor am I suggesting that we focus on building friendships in the Muslim world. It is always desirable to have friends, but friendship can hardly be our primary goal. Right now, we Americans need to identify commonalities with Muslims—not just of history and background but of interest .

In this vein, Americans must abandon, whether at home or abroad, the fruitless and demeaning search for so-called moderate Muslims. Such Muslims do not really exist—not because all Muslims are extremists or terrorists, but because their cultural premises diverge so sharply from our own. A far more promising approach has been suggested by sociologist Amitai Etzioni, who argues that we be less preoccupied with Muslims who agree with us than with those who are pragmatically willing to engage with us. Again, the aim is not to find friends but to locate interlocutors who may not be kindly disposed toward Americans or our values, but who are willing to explore areas of potentially mutual interest.

In the meantime, if the American Dream is to be kept alive, it will be through continued economic growth. And if we intend to nurture such growth, we will have to continue to countenance greed. Now, as we are just beginning to re-learn, there is unrestrained and restrained greed, just as there are unregulated and regulated markets. In both instances, we will doubtless be seeing more of the latter. But the basic acquisitiveness of our market-based capitalist society will not soon be changing.

Nor is our global cultural impact uniformly negative or positive. American appetites and aspirations are of a piece. Just as our extraordinary cultural fare simultaneously repels and attracts many Americans, so too does it repel and attract peoples around the globe. Certainly much of our popular culture appeals to the basest instincts, especially the stuff aimed at adolescent males here and abroad. Yet on occasion, our cultural output also speaks to the better angels of human nature. And as evidenced by the cries for democracy now being sounded throughout the Arab world, our fundamental political values are appreciated in places where our policies are not. If we are to take the next step in this engagement with the Muslim world, then we must overcome our reluctance to face up to its complex cultural dimensions.


Peter Skerry is a professor of political science at Boston College and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Institute for American Values online journal IjtihadReason.org

OG Image: