I n 2006 I interviewed a group of young filmmakers in Baghdad where, unbelievably, some small semblance of a local movie industry had sputtered on during the peak years of the insurgency. In a newspaper story I wrote at the time, I used the following quotation from my interview with the group’s senior member: “Where are the intellectuals and artists and filmmakers of America? Why don’t we see people like them here? Why only bullets, business and politics? Why don’t they help people like us?” The speaker was Nazar Rawy, the thirty-something leader of the Contemporary Visual Arts Society (CVAS). He and his friends in Baghdad had bravely stayed in town and managed to organize art and movie festivals during the worst of the violence. Rawy’s central complaint was that the US had concentrated all its energies and funds in Iraq on politics and security, not on culture. “We Iraqis would believe more that America cared for us,” said Rawy, “if we could see its human face, if actors and humanists and thinkers came to talk to Iraqis.”
America had certainly provided aid to numerous infrastructure projects involving museums and ancient sites, and a number of European institutions had helped CVAS and others to train young Iraqi filmmakers and had funded them to travel abroad and even to show short films at festivals in Germany, Britain, and elsewhere. But for the most part, “culture building,” if you will, had been neglected.
Everywhere I went in Baghdad to talk about this cultural deficit in those years of widespread bloodshed, I heard the same regrets expressed about American priorities. For a while I tried to offer explanations—chief among them that culture was not part of the US military mission. Cultural events offered easy targets for people wearing suicide bombs. The allies had their hands full with the insurgency. In the hierarchy of urgent tasks, fostering the arts seemed a relatively frivolous concern. And anyway, the US had no business meddling in other people’s cultural affairs.
But Rawy’s complaint had a subtext not so easily dismissed. At its heart was a frustration with American incompetence, and lack of will, in the area of propaganda for the West and its liberating values. Everywhere around them, from Al Jazeera to Syrian state broadcasting to the pronouncements of Al-Qaeda In Iraq, the locals were being saturated with anti-coalition, pro-resistance propaganda. What was the US doing in response? It had barely managed to set up Al Hurra satellite TV in 2005, which, coming in so late, gained no traction among the public for some years. As a consequence, anyone trying to restore normal life by selling CDs or DVDs, or by mounting cultural events, looked like a collaborator simply for trying to make daily life more bearable. Cultural activists in the country felt that the US had left them vulnerable.
Then again, Iraqis couldn’t understand why any government, even an occupying one, failed to concern itself with culture. Saddam Hussein had certainly seen the value of occupying this space, having orchestrated the cultural lives of his people, right down to a state-run House of Fashion, which publicized the nation’s sartorial heritage from the Babylonians to the present and gave official sanction to secular forms of modern, non-Islamic garb. Elsewhere in the Arab world, such as in Saudi Arabia, the state interfered in dress codes and many other aspects of daily life. Traditional Islamic doctrine spelled out just such meticulous interference, and if you wished to prevent the Islamists from filling the vacuum, you had to fill it first.
The bulk of the educated Iraqi middle class, forcibly secularized under Saddam, felt resentment that the US was pointedly allowing the country to be reorganized and run along sectarian lines, however democratically, with confessional dogmas displacing more liberal cultural values. As the director of the Baghdad Symphony said to me, “We can’t understand why a Western government wants this country to lapse backward into a kind of religious Islamic lifestyle.”
The absence of any cultural direction or inspiration, and the impression that the West had strong principles to impose in the area of politics but left everything else to chance, left Iraqis without a template for progress. What was democratic life supposed to look like from day to day? What could they expect or strive for between elections in a politically liberated society? They had been freed, but into what?
I t seemed to many that if the process of change ended abruptly with politics, then the outlook was bleak: the largest blocs of votes belonged to the primitive, the devout, and the uneducated, whose values would now dominate society. As various secularized Muslim intellectuals have pointed out to me over the years, this was and is a problem for the West not just in Iraq but everywhere in the Islamic world. Ideological dictatorships, both secular and religious, offer a vision of the social good in which the individual’s free space and that of the culture itself is cramped and circumscribed, ultimately causing a despotism of everyday life.
From Algeria to Afghanistan, this kind of command-and-control approach, so the argument goes, offers a distinct appeal in turbulent Muslim societies for a number of reasons. It gives the impression that the authorities really care for the people’s welfare on all levels and it imposes clearly defined conduct in chaotic times: what to eat, what to wear, how to treat your wife, how to treat your neighbor. Such an embracing approach seems to be firmly on the side of security and order—an argument that enemies of democracy have always exploited in dismissing the more intangible long-term benefits of freedom. From Lenin’s “bread before elections” to Mao’s “there is chaos under the skies and all is right with the world,” revolutionaries have always understood the principle—as Salafist Islamists do today—that power flows out of an ironclad remedy for chaos.
Walid Jumblatt, the leader of the Druze minority in Lebanon, a staunch former lefty and onetime member of the Socialist International, made the same point in a conversation at his home in early 2009. Surrounded by bookcases with volumes in several languages—collecting everyone from Sartre to Thomas Paine—Jumblatt told me, “The Russians always had that advantage, in the soup-to-nuts revolutionary scenario they offered. Besides their dialectics in politics and the economy, they also believed in ‘cultural advancement.’” He went on, “Their notion of culture stopped of course somewhere in the early twentieth century, but part of their prescription for ‘development’ or progress involved gymnastics, theater, symphonies, ballet, film, training children in these higher arts, and then making the proletariat attend en masse for free so everyone’s taste was forcibly evolved. For example in Iraq, they got a lot of respect from Iraqis for caring enough to send their actors, musicians, intellectuals of all kinds, to educate local intelligentsia. It all came with a message of course. By implication, they were saying, yes, your own culture is fine on a folkloric level, but progress involves moving onward and upward culturally too so you can join the modern world on all levels.”
This approach may be abhorred by some as cultural chauvinism, but it worked in the Middle East, Jumblatt said, because it “demanded a total overhaul, in your whole way of thinking,” and “because simultaneously, as we know, they also waged a culture war against religion, which meant that their ideology was very clear—they distinguished between what they saw as regressive and what stood for progress. In effect, they were saying, ‘If you want the benefits of the modern world, you can’t pick and choose, accept hygiene but reject secularism. It all comes as one package, a coherent whole—you have no choice.’ In contrast, the West doesn’t impose a total Westernizing process. It just says go vote for political parties.”
T here was a time when, in dealing with backward societies—and we were not afraid to call them backward—we advocated an entire worldview whose numerous specific tenets we advanced as being clearly superior to theirs or anyone else’s. Well into the years of the Cold War, before our sense of mission got clouded by notions of cultural relativity and cultural imperialism, we could export technology, medicine, engineering, empiricism, individualism, scholarship, education of women, hygiene, children’s rights, consumerism, adequate nutrition, good manners, and perhaps most importantly, Western literature and arts with the conviction that we were strengthening these societies’ prospects for freedom.
Although we didn’t force them on people Soviet-style, we believed that our intellectual and cultural customs were all of a piece with our political system. Together they made up a coherent Western way of life, one that it was our duty to evangelize to the less favored nations. From former British boarding schools in India and Pakistan, to American universities in Beirut and Cairo, to French academies in Constantinople, the West built centers of learning in which locals were taught unequivocally to embrace its universalism. Such institutions propounded a clear and explicit message to the locals: If you want to improve your lot, you should not only master the art of the vote but master as well the intellectual “habits,” in Tocqueville’s term, that help support a society’s democratic foundations.
It seems like a politically incorrect way to think these days, but consider the kind of societies with which we now find ourselves embroiled—from Yemen and Somalia to Afghanistan. They are now allowed to export their values in the form of jihad to us, and all we are allowed to export is a system of “freedom” in which they are enabled to do so.
What happened? Why have we stopped publicly supporting a program for Western values as part of an active cultural manifesto? I can think of several important reasons, although none are reason enough. The main problem is a very dispiriting one: Because of the advances “multiculturalism” has made in the West, we have ceased to believe that we have anything to teach other cultures, even those that are demonstrably backward and destructive of their individuals’ prospects. If they want to mutilate their young women’s genitals, so be it. This is their choice, the choice of an “authentic” culture whose values are no less worthy than our own (and perhaps even more worthy because they are more “authentic”). Even Western feminists, vigilant to the extreme at home, have not been able to challenge the multicultural taboo that prevents strongly and unequivocally defending their sisters from the bloody knife of the clitoridectomy, or from the other facets of violence against women that are standard operating procedure in parts of the Muslim world.
In the West, more and more, we pride ourselves not on our indigenous values but rather on our pluralistic system, which offers immigrant minorities the freedom to retain their own values. If we do not even presume to fully Westernize our own immigrants, how can we trumpet the universal values of the West to the very societies from which immigrants flee?
Seen in this context, President Obama’s gentlemanly gestures abroad, acknowledging the virtues of other cultures, treating them with endless “dignity and respect”—what I have elsewhere called “respegnity”—merely adds to the problem. For Muslims in Minneapolis or North London to be bathed in emollient praise merely for being Muslim reinforces the impression of the West as a blank page on which other cultures can write their own cultural scriptures. They and we are caught up in a narrative of condoning a reverse paternalism, of being so wary of exhibiting cultural chauvinism that we actually invite other cultures to colonize us, from which multicultural process we now derive our sense of pride, even our identity. Our culture is that we embrace yours—that is our message to other civilizations.
E arly on in post-Saddam Iraq, while the Coalition Provisional Authority was in charge, I spoke to a lonely US employee, an Arab-American of Christian descent, a loyal and well-spoken civil servant who was tasked with the burden of explaining the American position to Iraqi groups at universities, community centers, and such. At a time when the US employed too few Arabic-speaking Americans to do liaison or intelligence work, he was one of a mere handful of such cadres, a State Department official in the Public Diplomacy section. He didn’t wish to be identified but told me about his mission and its message.
How did he persuade people of our good intentions? “I try to reassure them that they are not under occupation by a hostile force that wants to impose foreign customs on them. I tell them that America is not a defined race or people, it is a system, neither Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or other, neither black nor white, but is an expression of whatever combination has the largest votes at any given time. . . . I tell them we don’t want to occupy their country as crusaders but merely long enough to take it from Saddam and give it back to them with security. I tell them about all the Arabs and Muslims that live in peace in the US and follow their own customs.”
On the face of it, this sounded like a most civilized and effective message and certainly a true enough representation of what America has become. Did they believe him, I wondered. Were they reassured? He laughed and said, “Well, yes and no . . . it’s not so much America they’re afraid of as each other. A lot of them wish that Americans would stay around long enough to protect them from each other, and maybe long enough that the country could become more American.” But he also noted, “It scares them a little when I say that America is a neutral system because it sounds like a faceless impersonal science-fiction entity. Who wants to be occupied or liberated by a system?”
We were speaking within the safe confines of the Green Zone, which at that point had been turned into a kind of idealized America, with perfectly mown lawns, inhabited by the sort of well-scrubbed and happy (if somewhat wary) citizens that populate middle America. The more we spoke, the more I began to realize that my companion had his doubts about his message.
“It’s my job to persuade them that it works well enough here and could work in Iraq too. They wonder what we teach at school or what holds everyone together. Of course, if you gave them the chance, most of them would want to emigrate to the US.”
If these Iraqis were able to emigrate to the US, how would they want to live, I asked. Would they want to remain Iraqi or to be transformed into Americans, and what would becoming American mean in a country that was a mere “system”? He replied, “In the end, nobody wants to go to a country just to stay as they are, even if it’s a more-well-off version of themselves. In their dreams, they think of it as a kind of transformation. . . . I think, deep down it disappoints them that America’s message boils down to benign neglect or, in grander terms, giving them the freedom to stay the same. Is that what all this trouble was for, they think.”
I n effect, for Iraqis, the ideal of emigration served as an equivalent to the change that liberation was supposed to bring, a transformation into a new Western identity in a different Iraq. But as it turned out, America in the new millennium was no longer offering that, not in Iraq, and probably not even at home. At most it was offering a confusing amalgam of truncated incentives. That vacuum allowed more absolutist ideologies, with more immediate agendas and solutions, to rush in and prevail. As my interlocutor pointed out, “If you ask individuals the question: do you want to keep your identity or be someone else, they will likely choose the former, if only out of embarrassment. But if that involves all their rival groups staying the same too, all the group identities, the Shiite-Sunni-Baath-jihadi splits and ideologies being untransformed, they think, ‘What’s the point?’ Even without the violence, the very promise of renewal, the reward for all their suffering, will have ebbed.”
Similar conversations I’ve had throughout the Muslim world lead to a disturbing conclusion. It was a strategic liability for the US to present, simultaneously, an ever-more-forward military presence and an ever-receding, nebulous cultural profile. In the long hot-cold war against Islamist movements worldwide, telling others that the US is simply a freer mirror of them hasn’t worked. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, nobody has accepted the notion; locals can’t fathom it. In fact, they think it’s a lie. The US is the West, and surely the West stands for a whole other set of values.
Islamist ideologues might rail against these values, but the ordinary locals know that their own culture has failed them. They want a transformation, with a lucid set of arguments with which to defend their aspirations, to pass on to their kids, to present to relatives. In short, they wanted clearer propaganda from us about what we offer as Westerners, some sort of argumentation about how to resist the pressure to re-embrace their roots, which comes not from within but from without, from jihadis pouring discipline over chaos. Be yourselves: This was the contemporary message from America to Muslims, from the very force that was supposed to deliver them from themselves. Ultimately they knew what it meant: the US was going to “liberate” them and then leave them with no way forward. America was their last chance and it, too, had failed them.
My culture-advocate friend in Baghdad, Nazar Rawy, put it this way: “Iraq is your message to the world. Openness, how we live, music, movies—they’re the fruits of being free. A lot of people don’t want Iraq to bear fruit that way, to set a positive, pro-West example. That’s part of the battle too. But maybe you guys have forgotten your own message.”