The debate over whether or not Lady Gaga or Israeli settlements is a bigger driver of conflict and anti-Americanism in the Middle East has heated up in spectacularly hilarious fashion since Brett Stephens wrote his original op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, and I responded by posting videos of Haifa Wehbe, noting that sex and pop culture already mix in the Arabic-language public space almost as much as they do in ours. Stephens responded to some of the criticism that's been aimed his way here and makes the perfectly uncontroversial claim that America should stand up for its principles, its liberties, and its allies. Well... yeah. (The unasked and more controversial question is whether or not confronting Israel on settlements is good or bad for both U.S. and Israeli security.)
One point I made in my post, though, was that those whose understanding of the strands and evolution of Islamist thought is that of a learned amateur should be very careful holding forth on the subject and using the writings of people like Sayyid Qutb as evidence to support their claims. Someone with a more sophisticated grasp of the literature is likely to make your life miserable, which is one reason why I keep my mouth shut on the subject. Thomas Hegghammer briefly weighed in through the comments section of my post, and as I amended the post to make clear, I follow two rules concerning the study of Islamist ideologies:
Read what Thomas wrote on Foreign Policy in response to Stephens. It's not that Palestine is the only issue Islamists care about, but it is an issue they care about, and in a big way. And that has potential consequences for policy-makers as they try to reduce drivers of conflict and lower levels of anti-Americanism in the region. Pretending otherwise, or walling all issues concerning Israel and the Palestinians off from your analysis, is just silly.
Brett Stephens starts his op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal with the following question:
Pop quiz—What does more to galvanize radical anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world: (a) Israeli settlements on the West Bank; or (b) a Lady Gaga music video?
You see where Stephens is going with this one, right? I mean, you don't really need to even read the rest of the column, the point of which is that Islamist outrage over decadent western culture is a more significant driver of conflict and anti-American sentiment in the region than Israeli settlements.
I have no idea if this is actually true. It seems to me that I have seen both empirical evidence and anecdotal evidence lending credence to the idea that outrage over the plight of the Palestinians is, in fact, a driver of conflict and/or anti-American sentiment in the Arabic-speaking world, but there may be more sophisticated research and analysis out there that proves otherwise. And Stephens leans heavily on the writings of Sayyid Qutb to support his arguments, which makes me nervous, because for all his talents, Stephens is no scholar of Islam, and a few things that should not be studied as a hobby include:
Many serious scholars have written very good work on Islamic fundamentalism, and for those wishing to learn more, allow me to recommend, among many other works, Marty and Appleby's multi-volume Fundamentalism Project and Hourani's single-volume, highly-readable Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798-1939. The latter is a great primer on the intellectual roots of pretty much all the major ideas in the Arabic-speaking world of the 20th Century -- to include Arab nationalism and Islamism.
But I am not weighing in to either defend or attack Israeli settlements or to explain the intellectual history of the Arabic-speaking world -- two subjects I know just enough about to know that I should keep my mouth shut and let the experts do the talking. The purpose of this post is to highlight a key lesson of Middle East peacemaking: Leave Lady Gaga the hell out of it.
Brett Stephens may have read a few books on Islamist thought, but how many Arabic-language music videos has he watched? I ask because I have seen a lot (as they play pretty much 24-7 in 90% of the cafes and restaurants of the Arabic-speaking world), and I have also, this very morning, made a careful study of the oeuvre of Lady Gaga to determine which are more provocative sexually. The verdict? Lady Gaga is, in the words of my office mate (like Sayyid Qutb, an alumnus of the University of Northern Colorado!), "a brilliant art school trainwreck." She is a ridiculous mess who uses sex among many other provocations to entertain. And as I have well-documented soft spot in my heart for Italian girls from Westchester County, I feel I need to stick up for her.
Haifa Wehbe, meanwhile? Well, judge for yourselves, but whereas Lady Gaga is a Tisch School-trained provocateuse, Hizballah-supporting Haifa strikes me as a less sophisticated one-trick pony pretty much mixing sex with music with, well, more sex. Regardless, with music videos like this one, Stephens can hardly argue that Lady Gaga is the one importing sexual provocation into the Arabic-speaking world and stirring things up, can he?
And here is Her Gaganess for comparison.
And, back to Haifa.
By contrast, look at this tame video from Lady Gaga.
Uh... Crap. Okay, maybe Brett Stephens has a point. Dang. Me airing that last (in retrospect, NSFW) video might have just started a holy war in some internet cafe in Sana'a. Sorry?
UPDATE: There are some good and very funny comments below. Thomas Hegghammer even briefly weighs in to shake his head at Stephens's op-ed. Just so you guys know, I obey two simple rules when it comes to studying Islamist ideology (that I have borrowed from Will McCants): (1) Thomas Hegghammer's analysis is correct. (2) If you find yourself in disagreement with Thomas Hegghammer, refer back to Rule #1.
Q: How awesome is Thomas Hegghammer?
I was supposed to have had dinner with Will and Hegghammer two weeks ago, but church obligations -- and the fact that Will lives off the metro -- conspired against me.
For the Western analysts, being cited approvingly by a Qaeda figure can be unsettling.
“It is inevitably a little bit flattering,” said Thomas Hegghammer, a fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who first pointed out Mr. Maqdisi’s complaint on the blog he edits, Jihadica. “But it does make me worry a bit about the implications of what I do and what I write.”
The home page of the Jihadica site, founded a year ago by the scholar William F. McCants, advertises itself with an anonymous quotation said to be taken from a survey of jihadists about Internet sites that monitor militant Islamism online: “It is, in my view, the most important and dangerous among the sites in this group.”
All this self-consciousness is multiplied by the Internet, which has become a recruiting tool for jihadists but is also uniquely vulnerable to spies and informers. The fact that Western scholars and defense analysts have occasionally proposed using influential theorists like Mr. Maqdisi to undermine jihadist movements only makes this worse.