An Aural MOAB for the Middle East

Before the ink on President Bush’s new budget had dried, one man was already uncorking some bubbly. No, it wasn’t Mitch Daniels. It was Norman Pattiz, Middle East Director at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the federal panel responsible for beaming American ideals into tens of millions of living rooms worldwide. The reason for Pattiz’s glee? Bush’s pledge of $30 million to create the U.S. government’s first-ever Arabic-language television channel. . .

Since President Clinton appointed him to the BBG in 2000, Pattiz has systematically MTV-ified the agency’s once staid Mideast portfolio in an effort to reach the region’s under-30 set. Last spring, for example, Pattiz created Radio Sawa, a station devoted almost entirely to Western and indigenous pop, to replace Voice of America’s Arabic service, which he deemed "old-style propaganda."

"Ratings War," The New Republic Online, February 28, 2003

Well, that’s odd. I thought those prudish Muslims put a fatwa out on my MTV. Don’t they despise American culture? Don’t they aim to burqa our women, starting with Britney Spears? Good patriots like you and me hate to question our betters, but Washington’s ways sure are hard to figure sometimes.

Or maybe not. Novelist Tom Robbins recently drew epithets for calling the U.S. government a "pubescent punk" in world affairs. He may be on to something. While no one could fault Richard Perle for excessive masculinity (only kidding, Dick), his diplomacy is young, dumb, and full of, er, cumbersome machismo. It’s the political equivalent of Kid Rock, Ja-Rule, and J-Lo videos, which makes MTV a perfect vessel for this administration’s foreign propaganda.

Also, contrary to their domestic propaganda, the Bushies know that anti-U.S. rage in the Middle East owes zilch to our libertinism. The Arab world can’t get enough of our gewgaws, blockbusters, and chart-toppers. (Good riddance, too. How quickly can we load every Nintendo game, Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and Celine Dion album on a FedEx bound for the Persian Gulf? I’ll pay the shipping.) What most Arabs and their Muslim brethren detest is U.S. foreign policy. They have even cut some of their own pop tunes on the subject.

Egyptian singer Shaaban Abdel-Rahim has a new Arabic hit that protests U.S./Israeli intervention in Afghanistan, the West Bank, the Golan Heights, and Iraq. Abdel-Rahim is no manufactured pop star, either, though his story would play well on Oprah: the lowly wedding singer from the sticks made good. Charles Paul Freund issued a noisy harrumph on Abdel-Rahim last week in Reason, calling him "a cultural bottom feeder, one who puts to music the kind of paranoid sentiments that are only too commonly heard in the Mideast." What’s paranoid about reciting the facts? The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and will soon do the same to Iraq; Israel occupies the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Freund also suggests that Abdel-Rahim is less of a folk hero than a megaphone on the lips of Egypt’s leaders. Yet, Egyptian state radio has banned his songs and officially declared him a no-no. This may be a clever effort to boost the singer’s radical chic, but a guy who scored two years ago with the bluntly titled "I Hate Israel" would not seem to need any such help. Freund may be right when he refers to Abdel-Rahim’s music as "a cultural dead-end because it reinforces the tendency among Arabs to define their identities in terms of their foreign or domestic enemies." Still, this fails to explain why these ditties resonate with listeners in the first place. I’m sure it has nothing to do with Israel’s West Bank beautification efforts, or American soldiers strutting in the shadow of the Kaaba. Nah. Those Arabs just need to lighten up.

There’s no telling what the effects of force-feeding them our music videos will be, however. Freund had quite a chuckle last spring when Israeli soldiers replaced Palestinian daytime television with hardcore porn, but the viewers were not amused. Likewise, an MTV clone that recycles the same dozen songs endlessly, with pro-U.S. twaddle thrown in, may well destroy the affection Arabs feel for American culture. It may also drown out the authentic voices of an emerging commercial society.

On the bright side, of course, Norman Pattiz’s heirs can disco in Damascus at taxpayer expense. Charles Paul Freund will have new material for his essays. And Snoop Doggy Dubya can dis France in rap from Cairo to Baghdad.