Sunday, November 21, 2004

Beacon No. 8: The Contextualizers


More than one observer has remarked that when foreign-born Muslims visit the United States, they are startled by number of churches and worshippers they encounter. Churches (and synagogues and mosques, it seems) simply don't show up in America's myriad exports of TV shows, movies, video games and recorded music.

Also, the world's Muslim cities don't have many Catholic or Protestant church steeples among the minarets, so few people there get to see American tourists—their shirts tucked in for once—attending Sunday services in, say, downtown Amman.

On the other hand, early Muslims had extensive contact with Christians since Islam began (sociologically speaking) as a reform movement in a corrupt Arabian Christianity. Christians and Jews were early Muslims' friends and neighbors—people who hadn't quite grokked Muhammad's revelation yet, but still deserving of tolerance and protection.

This familiarity found its way into the Qur'an in several suras discussing "people of the Book" (ahl al-kitaab), members of the other Abrahamic faiths who were specifically to be tolerated by Muslims. (See in particular Harun Yahya for an optimistic look at ahl al-kitaab, and thanks to the endlessly useful Wikipedia).

But the ongoing Arab-Israeli struggle has forced practically all Jews to leave for Israel or even further abroad. Similarly, the few Christians left in the Muslim world today are exceedingly low-key, except perhaps in Lebanon and among Egypt's vociferous Coptic population.

A similar problem exists with the presence of Americans in the Muslim world: There ain't any. This means images of Americans and other Westerners come from our entertainment programming, which is much more available and easily understood than news programming that might indicate a more serious side to our public life.

Considering the ubiquity of sex and violence in U.S. pop-culture exports, Muslims couldn't be blamed if their impression of America was of a 3,000-mile, rap-soundtracked semi-nude car chase.

Westerners know that MTV and Vice City: San Andreas aren't emblematic of the West in general, because they live here; but the Muslim world has no such check. This leaves the playing field clear for local figures to turn the horror Muslims naturally feel toward a culture that exports Baywatch into hostility toward Westerners as godless infidels.

Tennis great Arthur Ashe once said that being black in America was like having a second full-time job, such was the pressure he felt to be a role model. The U.S. now needs to find exceptional people of every race to take up where Ashe left off in the world at large and particularly in the Muslim world.

Sending a steady flow of exceptional Americans abroad is the key to contextualizing the U.S. for foreign audiences, rounding out the picture foreign audiences get.

Who are these young ambassadors? Adventurous travelers, scholars, scientists and diplomats are already out there. The U.S. government should augment their numbers, though, providing programs and funding so that many more Americans can journey overseas to do what they do at home: act, sing, study, lecture, play music and generally give Muslim audiences a look at American focus, individualism and achievement.

You say there's no market for a group like the Cleveland Philharmonic to play Mozart in downtown Damascus?

That's not the point. Foreign audiences can and do turn out in large numbers to see American groups' performances or lectures wherever they go, as was the case during the Cold War. Individuals and families in Muslim countries would be exposed to serious, dedicated, perfection-minded Americans at the top of their professional game.

With a little forethought and an infusion of cash, symphony halls, theaters and auditoriums around the world can become the new secular "churches" that allow Muslim audiences to see a side of the West that MTV doesn't provide: the up close and personal side.

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