Recently a Kennedy Center spokesman said that the organization will stage a festival of Arab culture in 2009 to bring little-known artists onto the world stage and provide a counterpoint to the violence many Americans associate with the Middle East region.
Michael Kaiser, the center’s president, said: “We don’t know enough about what other people are about. We read government and politics. That doesn’t say anything about what they like, what they find beautiful. Also, the idea starts from my rather naïve belief that arts create peace.”
Ambassador Hussein Hassouna, the Arab League’s representative in Washington said, the festival “is very much needed at this time.”
Rochelle Davis, an anthropologist at Georgetown University, contends, “We have so many stereotypes – seeing people performing dances and songs breaks down our ideas about how they are all evil.”
This report from the Kennedy Center was printed at about the same time an Egyptian television series promoting anti-American hate propaganda aired in the Palestinian Authority and much of the Arab world. The popular series presents the U.S. as the leader of imperialist forces around the globe and as such, responsible for serious problems in Arab nations.
The series, produced by an Egyptian government owned and controlled company, reflects a critical component of propaganda in the Middle East, which is to blame the failings of Arab regimes on imperialist America and thereby deflect the anger of Arabs away from corrupt leaders and regimes.
The conclusion of the series is that resistance (read: terror) is justified in order to defeat the United States. After all, series’ talking heads note, U.S. behavior in “this region” is part of a pattern of oppression starting with American policy towards the Indians.
What should be apparent to even casual observers of the public scene is the contrast between well meaning, but naïve American cultural overtures and the cynical and propagandistic anti-American views circulating in the Arab world. Here we are using culture as a way to understand Arab societies and they are using culture to promote hate and violence against the United States.
It might well be asked: Why isn’t the Arab League funding American cultural festivals in their respective countries? It is the Arab nations that are most in need of cultural reform and it is the Arab people that are being systematically misled about American foreign policy intentions.
Since 9/11 the Arab publicity machinery has been working full time to convey the impression Israeli agents destroyed the World Trade Center. In fact, a popular Egyptian music video makes this claim quite directly. Such cultural nonsense begs the question of who attacked whom? Which nations need to learn about tolerance?
I don’t have any quarrel with American cultural commissars organizing a festival to display Arab culture. What I don’t understand is the lack of reciprocity. It seems that most of the Arab world is content to fight the Crusades on the cultural front, with the U.S. as the exemplar of the Christian invader and we are content in promoting sweetness and understanding. There is something fundamentally wrong with this picture.
Where is the Arab leader who tells the story of American scientific and medical break-throughs that have dramatically influenced life extension and the reduction of morbidity in the Arab world? Where are the Arab cultural figures who are prepared to explain American contributions to art and music? Why isn’t the Arab League doing in Alexandria and Damascus what the Kennedy Center is doing in Washington?
Of course, sensible people know the answers to these questions. The problem is that in a war of ideas sensible approaches are often a casualty of intimidation and fear. That is why culture has become a battleground for survival and, why, I might add, we are engaged in an uphill struggle.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2001). London maintains a website, www.herblondon.org.