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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
By Steven L. Taylor

In the WSJ, Bret Stephens (Lady Gaga Versus Mideast Peace) has a little quiz for us:

Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?

If your answer is (b) it means you probably have a grasp of the historical roots of modern jihadism. If, however, you answered (a), then congratulations: You are perfectly in synch with the new Beltway conventional wisdom, now jointly defined by Pat Buchanan and his strange bedfellows within the Obama administration.

While there may be a debate to be had about the exact effects of Israeli settlement policies, the idea that physical issues of land and politics on the ground in the Middle East are trumped by US pop culture is ludicrous, and does no stand the test of serious scrutiny.  Second, the gross dichotomization  of one of the central political problems of the last several generations to such a silly choice is an unserious proposition.

Stephens’ main argument for the Lady GaGa hypothesis is based not in some massive Gaza rally against the pop singer (indeed, one would wager that most Palestinians have not clue who Lady GaGa is), but rather in a 1951 essay by Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian who studied in the US in the 1940s and was alarmed at what he saw:

In his 1951 essay "The America I Have Seen," Qutb gave his account of the U.S. "in the scale of human values." "I fear," he wrote, "that a balance may not exist between America’s material greatness and the quality of her people." Qutb was particularly exercised by what he saw as the "primitiveness" of American values, not least in matters of sex.

"The American girl," he noted, "knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs and she shows all this and does not hide it." Nor did he approve of Jazz—"this music the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires"—or of American films, or clothes, or haircuts, or food. It was all, in his eyes, equally wretched.

Qutb’s disdain for America’s supposedly libertine culture would not matter much were it not wedded to a kind of theological Leninism that emphasized the necessity of violently overthrowing any political arrangement not based on Shariah law. No less violent was Qutb’s attitude toward Jews: "The war the Jews began to wage against Islam and Muslims in those early days [of Islamic history]," he wrote in the 1950s, "has raged to the present. The form and appearance may have changed, but the nature and the means remain the same."

And yes, Qutb has been influential in some sectors of radical Islam.  However, the notion that the American Girl’s breasts and buttocks are the main motivators of radical Islamic violence ignores amongst other things, the fact that most such violence over the last seventy has been directed at Israel, not the United States.

Beyond that, it does bear noting that the current era of anti-US terrorism by al Qaeda started in the 1990s, not the 1950s.  Shockingly this corresponds far more to US military involvement in the Middle East than to “Madonna, Farrah Fawcett, Marilyn Monroe, Josephine Baker or any other American woman who has, at one time or another, personified what the Egyptian Islamist writer Sayyid Qutb once called ‘the American Temptress.’” 

As Daniel Larison notes:

That must be why America was beset by jihadist attacks since at least 1948. Oh, wait, this never happened? How strange. That might mean that the decadence-as-cause-of-terrorism argument grossly exaggerates the importance of such cultural factors in explaining jihadist violence as a way of distracting us from remediable political grievances. In fact, attacks on Americans and American installations began after we inserted ourselves into the region’s conflicts and began establishing a military presence there. Hegemonists can obsess over the writings of Qutb all they want, but it will not change the reality that anti-American jihadist violence did not occur until the misguided 1982-83 intervention in Lebanon. U.S. and Israeli military operations and policies of occupation provoke much broader, more intense resentment among Muslims than any general dissatisfaction with the decadence of Western culture and its deleterious effects.

I would note that  those pointing to the Palestinian question as part of the general problem in the Middle East for the US includes General David Petraeus.

Update:  Writing at Cato, Justin Logan rather correctly notes:

Bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa, after all, was not titled “Declaration of War against the Americans with their Supple Buttocks and Protuberant Breasts.”  Instead, it was called “Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places.”  Or you can take a look at the second fatwa, released in 1998.  The three big claims made against us in there were

  1. Our presence in Saudi Arabia and support for the Saudi government, which he hates;
  2. Our sanctions regime against Iraq and its alleged effects on Iraqi civilians; and
  3. Our support for Israel.


I would also recommend Andrew Exum’s post on the subject.

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2 Responses to “Another Absurd Column (This One About the Middle East)”

  1. Leonard Says:

    Here’s a picture-worth-1000-words version of the column, published wee-hours-early the same day.

  2. Mike Says:

    When did they stop hating us for our freedom?

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