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Arabs Play the Market to Stem "Cultural Invasion"

To ask whether all Arabs and Muslims protesting the offending Danish cartoons have actually seen them, or to protest the perceived infringement on the freedom of expression, misses the point. It betrays a misreading of the events and a misleading framing of the issues.

In the context of an increasingly globalized world, issues of security, trade, and economics are consigned to a sphere widely accepted as being international. Issues of culture and liberties, however, including the acceptable limits to freedom of expression, continue to be perceived as falling within the provenance of the territorial state. This post-Treaty of Westphalia model has long been undermined with the emergence of transnational cultural influences, especially during the last two decades, and the emergence of cybertechnology and global media.

 Many peoples throughout the world feel a keen sense of vulnerability to invasive globalized trends that they appear powerless to control. Foreign governments, corporations, international institutions and globalized media make decisions that influence their lives, yet are not accountable to them.

In contrast to the work of institutions that were created to manage the global economy, the realm of culture, including freedom of opinion, behavior and expression, even if increasingly globalized, continues to be perceived as being within the domain of the territorial state.

Culture and public mores have occupied a prominent place in Arab writings on globalization during the last decade. A majority view perceives the supranational forces that lash away at their more conservative societies as nothing less than "cultural invasion." The corresponding Arabic phrase, "al-ghazu al-thaqafi," is very nearly a household word. Religion and religious sensibility are of course central cultural ingredients, but in the case of the offending cartoons, they also have served as a unifying element, a rallying cry against a specific event, which from this perspective is an epiphenomenon at the core of which lies "cultural invasion." It is no accident that the boycott campaign was launched in one of the most conservative Arab countries, Saudi Arabia.

If market forces are supreme, then market forces can, if for once, also counter "cultural invasion" by seeking to place limits on what can be said (or drawn) on an issue about which many Arabs and Muslims can agree. This is the revenge of the weak, of the marginalized, in the face of global forces that have changed many an aspect of their lives and that they are powerless to control.

Cybertechnology has made it possible for cultural influences to infiltrate socially conservative societies with relative ease. Control becomes more difficult and threats to traditional values appear imminent. Satellite channels and video clips abound with nudity, which many Arabs regard as a sign of moral depravity and corruption. They know that they cannot dictate to more liberal societies what should appear on their screens, large or small. But on the one issue that symbolizes the core of culture, namely religion, the consumer across the globe can for once be supreme.

The post-Westphalia model that sharply distinguishes between the "internal" and the "external" in the realm of culture has already broken down in Europe, even if imperceptibly given the relative cultural homogeneity to be found in what Arabs call "the West." As a result many Arabs and Muslims make a clear distinction between technology, which they are only all too willing to appropriate, and culture and values.

Globalized technologies have come close to erasing this distinction. Freedom of expression is no longer a domestic issue. It finally dawned upon some that "market forces" can also play, for ill or for good, a counter-hegemonic role.

George Giacaman teaches in the Department of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at Bir Zeit University. He wrote this article for The DAILY STAR.

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