Remembering 9/11: Thank Allah for Vulgar Culture!


Throughout this week, we'll be posting old and new Reason material related to the 9/11 attacks.

To see a snapshot of what Reason.com (then called Reason Online) looked like in December 2001, go here.

In our March 2002 issue, Charles Paul Freund wrote a defense of "vulgarity" and explored how "commercial culture liberates Islam—and the West."

Who will ever forget the strangeness of the first images out of post-Taliban Afghanistan, when the streets ran with beards? As one city after another was abandoned by Taliban soldiers, crowds of happy men lined up to get their first legal shave in years, and barbers enjoyed the busiest days of their lives.

Only a few months earlier, in January 2001, dozens of barbers in the capital city of Kabul had been rounded up by the Taliban's hair-and-beard cops (the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) because they had been cutting men's hair in a style known locally as the "Titanic."…

Afghan women, of course, removed their burqas, if they chose to, and put on makeup again. But some Afghan women had been breaking the morals laws throughout the period of Taliban bleakness; according to a memorable CNN documentary titled Beneath the Veil, they did so at the risk of flogging or even amputation. Courageous women had not only been educating their daughters in secret, but had also been visiting illegal underground cosmetic parlors for the simple pleasure of self-ornamentation and the assertion of self-fashioned identity that lies behind it. (See "Free Hand," page 82.)

Still other Afghans filled the air with music. The most frequently played tapes, according to press reports, featured the songs of the late Ahmed Zaher, a 1970s celebrity in the Western style….

In short, the first breath of cultural freedom that Afghans had enjoyed since 1995 was suffused with the stuff of commercially generated popular culture. The people seemed delighted to be able to look like they wanted to, listen to what they wanted to, watch what they wanted to, and generally enjoy themselves again. Who could complain about Afghans' filling their lives with pleasure after being coerced for years to adhere to a harshly enforced ascetic code?

The West's liberal, anti-materialist critics, that's who.

Freund's piece is not simply a stylistic tour de force (though it is that, in spades) but the sort of synthesis rarely witnessed in magazine journalism. He tours the globe and history, weaving a story of Stalin-era dissenters who dressed up as ersatz Zoot Suiters, underground Cambodian karaoke activists, and Kazakh Lord of the Rings enthusiasists to explain how popular culture undermines repression in ways that confound equally power-mad tyrants and sneering Western high-brows. Pop-cult's power, he writes, is that it provides "the opportunity to create and revise one's identity" an activity which is "by its nature an anti-authoritarian enterprise." Read the whole thing.

In our August-September 2011 issue, Shikha Dalmia updates and expands Freund's insights in relation to Bollywood, the massively popular movie industry of the planet's second-most-populous country, India. Bollywood's presence and influence is especially strong in Islamic countries, writes Dalmia:

India's flamboyant, campy, kitschy film industry is rooted in heritages, values, aesthetics, and geographies shared with much of the Muslim world. The Middle East is Bollywood's third largest overseas market. Many Bollywood movies now hold their premiers in Dubai. Dubai Infinity Holdings, a media company, is even erecting a Universal Studio–like Bollywood theme park that is expected to be a major draw for regional tourists—although its completion, originally scheduled for next year, has been delayed two years by the global financial crisis.

Like the huddled masses behind the Iron Curtain, disaffected youth throughout the unfree Muslim world see in Bollywood a glimpse of the pleasures, colors, and riches available in a world with more liberty. Among the first businesses to open after the Taliban fell in Afghanistan were movie theaters showing Bollywood films. Even at the height of the Taliban's repression, shopkeepers kept a secret stash of undestroyed film star posters that they would barter for food and goods, just as Soviet youths would trade Beatles bootlegs pressed on discarded X-ray film.

The Muslim country most in the grip of Bollywood mania is Pakistan, India's cultural twin in every respect but religion. The more aggressively that Pakistani authorities have tried to purge it from their soil, the more Bollywood's popularity has grown. During the country's four-decade-long ban on Indian movies, Pakistanis watched them via satellite dishes and smuggled VHS tapes. When the ban was finally lifted in 2008, the Bollywood scene in Pakistan exploded. Not only have Bollywood movies been playing to packed houses, but Indian movie stars are treated like demigods, despite Islam's taboo against idol worship. The latest fad among Pakistan's urban nouveau riche is Bollywood theme weddings in which the bride and groom dress in outfits worn by a particular movie's stars and hold their wedding reception in elaborate tents constructed to resemble movie sets….

Dalmia memorably contrasts the "hard power" of the U.S. military with the "soft power" of Bollywood when it comes to destabilizing regimes and conditions that harbor or create Islamist death-cults:

According to a 2009 Medium Gallup poll, Pakistan (along with Serbia) harbored the world's most negative views about America. The U.S. presence on Pakistani soil is a standing reproach, a daily blasphemy for Pakistanis.

But even as Pakistan's resistance to America's drones and raids has grown, its resistance to Bollywood's soft power has crumbled. The extremists who find sympathetic audiences when directing fire and brimstone toward the Great Satan are powerless to prevent Pakistanis from consuming Bollywood blasphemies. The hard power of the U.S. military has got nothing on the soft power of [sexy film character] Sheila [as portrayed by the Muslim actress Katrina Kaif].

Read the whole piece here.

Another piece in the August-September 2011 issue looks at the growth of anti-Muslim rhetoric and actions undertaken by conservatives who supposedly revere the First Amendment's promises of freedom of assembly, religion, and speech. Cathy Young uses the "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy to talk about how characters such as Newt Gingrich, Pamela Geller, and Laura Ingraham are becoming more hostile to Muslim Americans as time goes on.

For several years after 9/11, anti-Muslim rhetoric remained fairly rare. This can be credited in no small part to then-President George W. Bush, who repeatedly stressed that we were not at war with Muslims, that Islam was a peaceful religion hijacked by violent extremists. The idea that Islam itself was evil and that virtually all Muslims were potential enemies flourished mostly on "anti-jihadist" blogs, and some conservative pundits such as Michelle Malkin occasionally peddled Muslims-under-the-bed paranoia. But these remained the exceptions….

It is not difficult to see why a large Islamic structure near a place where fanatics claiming to fight for Islam murdered nearly 3,000 people would stir emotions.

But there is also no question that the anti-mosque campaign was rife with vitriol toward all of Islam. Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh, and other pundits equated the project with a Ku Klux Klan memorial at Gettysburg, a Japanese cultural center at Pearl Harbor, or a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum, each analogy equating mainstream Muslims with murderous aggressors. Rallies against Park 51 featured signs declaring that "Islam Kills" and "Islam Is Terrorism," occasionally spelling Islam with a double s scripted like the Nazi SS logo….

Young records an increasingly sweeping generalizations about the "truth" of Islam as a religion of hate and terror:

Last December, a Jewish reader on the website of Middle East Forum Director Daniel Pipes pointed out that much-reviled proposals to allow Muslims to voluntarily settle domestic relations cases and financial disputes in Shariah courts are analogous to existing Jewish religious courts or within-community conflict resolutions among Mormons or the Amish. Pipes responded: "Jews and Amish do not try to take over the United States; Islamists do." Thus, all Muslims who ask for modest and standard accommodations for their religious values are equated with "Islamists" who seek to take over America, and any concessions to such requests are seen as "the camel's nose under the tent"—the first step to public floggings, stonings, and beheadings….

With Muslims accounting for nearly a quarter of the world's population, the modernization of Islam is one of the 21st century's most urgent priorities. But the obstacles to reform come not only from militant Islamism but from Islamophobia as well. The Islamophobes, after all, repeat everything the Islamists tell Muslims: that the West is implacably hostile to them and their faith, that the most extreme and violent form of Islam is also its truest form, and that a liberalized Islam is impossible. American Muslims, and America, deserve better. 

Read "Fear of a Muslim Planet" here.

To read previous entries in Remembering 9/11 and related stories, go here.