March 30, 2010

Lady Gaga : Westchester County :: Haifa Wehbe : Southern Lebanon

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:

  1. Brain surgery
  2. Multilinear algebra
  3. The strands and evolution of Islamist thought

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.