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This is not the kind of revolution that sends people into the streets or topples governments overnight. But it is a revolution in everyday life, and it is gradually but surely subverting repressive moral regimes across the Middle East.
No one understands this more clearly than radical Islamists. Grand ayatollahs in Iraq and Iran have issued fatwas against using satellite TV to watch what Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani of Iraq calls “pictures of people with little clothes on, songs, and anything that weakens religious observance or causes intellectual and moral decline.”
Muhammad Imran Attari, chairman of the leading Islamic educational organization in Pakistan, explained in a recent fatwa precisely what is at stake in the cultural war: “Watching TV is an addiction that is hard to get rid of. It destroys morality and modifies your ideas in an imperceptible way to the points of view presented on it. TV is destroying Islam in particular. Anti-Islamic elements are using it to lure Muslims away from the Islamic ideology. As a satanic instrument, it tries to present Islam in a modern way, thus distorting it.”
On this front, the news is not on the mullahs’ side. Since 2000 the number of pan-Arab satellite TV channels has grown from 10 to 600. Of the current 600, only 45 offer religious content.
The desperation among Islamists is evident in their increasingly bloody rhetoric against the purveyors of popular culture. Last year the most senior judge in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Salih Ibn al-Luhaydan, announced that it was permissible to kill the owners of satellite TV channels that broadcast “evil” and “diabolical” programs promoting “debauchery.” Taking matters upon himself, Mohammed Abdel-Al of the terrorist Popular Resistance Committee in Lebanon declared jihad against Madonna and Britney Spears. “If I meet these whores,” he said, “I will have the honor—I repeat, I will have the honor—to be the first one to cut their heads off if they keep spreading their satanic culture against Islam.”
Americans who produce the cultural goods that Ghonim considers trivial should take pride in knowing that they are doing more for peace and freedom than anything foreign aid or the 82nd Airborne could do. Thanks to Wikileaks, we now know that even American diplomats in the Middle East understand that the flow of our lowbrow exports through new communication channels might very well prove decisive in the War on Terror.
In a secret cable revealed in 2010 by Julian Assange’s website, officials in the U.S. embassy in Saudi Arabia complained that the al-Hurra news channel, which has received $500 million in U.S. government funding and features interviews with American politicians, is far less popular among Saudis than satellite broadcasts of Desperate Housewives, sexy movies, and celebrity talk shows. The communiqué, titled “David Letterman: Agent of Influence,” argues that American popular culture is doing more to persuade Saudi youth to reject violent jihad than U.S. government propaganda.
“It’s still all about the war of ideas here, and the American programming on MBC [which shows American movies and sitcoms] and Rotana [a channel partly owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation] is winning over ordinary Saudis in a way that al-Hurra and other U.S. propaganda never could,” the cable states. “Saudis are now very interested in the outside world and everybody wants to study in the U.S. if they can. They are fascinated by U.S. culture in a way they never were before.” A Saudi media executive reported to the embassy that U.S. programming on MBC had become the most popular in Saudi Arabia. According to the cable, he “told us that this programming is also very popular in remote, conservative corners of the country, where he said ‘you no longer see Bedouins, but kids in Western dress’ who are now interested in the outside world.”
Satellite television and the Internet certainly provided those Bedouins with a greater ability to see the outside world, but they did not make the kids like what they saw. Many of the political reforms sought by Ghonim and his comrades are undoubtedly popular, and if achieved will limit the power of governments to do harm. But far more people in Egypt and the Middle East are reaching through the new portals for the kinds of pleasures and freedoms that earnest political activists like Ghonim shun and mullahs and dictators rightly fear. This is what’s moving the earth every day, not just days of protests or elections. Call it Revolution 3.0.
Thaddeus Russell is the author of A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press).