Pop Democracy in the Middle East

Follow-up on Reason's March 2002 issue.


In the cover story of reason's March 2002 issue, "In Praise of Vulgarity," Charles Paul Freund assessed the notion of a twilight struggle between fundamentalist Islam and a supposedly decadent West, an idea captured in the title of a much-cited book by the political scientist Benjamin Barber, Jihad vs. McWorld. Drawing on a variety of pop sensations—including Soviet zoot suiters, Kazakh Tolkien enthusiasts, eighth-century erotic Arabic poetry, and the late Algerian singer Cheikha Rimitti (who memorably declared, "People adore God; I adore beer")—Freund endorsed lowbrow culture as a challenge both to establishment tastes and to totalitarian credibility. He also argued that "it is modern censorious Islamist pietism that is the newer development in the Muslim world, and that the celebration of 'vulgar' pleasures predates it."

The revolutionary wave sweeping the Middle East and North Africa has recently forced Western media outlets to reconsider the extent to which the popular will in the Islamic world is truly democratic, demotic, Islamist, or something else. Dictators in Tunisia and Egypt justified bloody but failed crackdowns by claiming what looked like mass protest movements were acts of agitation by Islamists. At press time, Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi was pressing the same claim in his mad Gotterdammerung against his own country.

So far these accusations have not been borne out. If anything, the unifying theme of all these uprisings has been a relative lack of sectarian bigotry, gender segregation, censoriousness, and the other hobgoblins believed to be plaguing the Muslim world. The crowds in Cairo and Manama looked less like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Shiite vice police than like the audiences for popular singing shows such as Super Star.

Meanwhile, the protesters' rapid online organization and communication demonstrated Freund's point that market forces provide liberating ideas with "diffusion via cheap technology." Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's clumsy shutdown of the Egyptian Internet showed that he understood the threat of the Net as well, although he did not succeed in stopping the protests.

As for Benjamin Barber, he was most recently spotted trying to explain why in 2007 he took money from the Qaddafi regime before writing a Washington Post op-ed predicting that Libya would become "the first Arab state to transition peacefully and without overt Western intervention to a stable, non-autocratic government."