Battle of Symbols
The Spread of American Symbols
The strong subliminal power of American symbols over the American population has spread throughout the world. It is this symbolic power which has, in effect, created an invisible invasion force. A number of pundits suggest that it is really American freedom that has been the invading force, the target of terrorists hate. This may be true but beyond the concept of freedom it is the expression of freedom in symbols which has become the magnet of hatred against the free world.
These expressions of freedom do not come with smart weapon attacks or clandestine military operations as much as with the opening up of a new MacDonalds or KFC in downtown Karachi, Pakistan. They come not through the informational techniques of broadcasting operations like The Voice of America but more through American TV shows and movies raining down into homes and villages of the world through satellite broadcasts.
Many talk of Americas political actions over the past thirty years as providing the foundation for the radical fundamentalism of terrorists. Many find the nexus of these political actions in events like the support of Saudi Arabia or the Shah of Iran. But the real invasion force has not been American politics and military force as much as the symbols of American consumer culture and their attendant creation of the so-called "global" economy.
The Islamic world feels especially hard-hit by this invasion. In the Spring 2001 The Wilson Quarterly, Fouad Ajami, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a leading Islamic scholar, writes "In fact, as Muslim societies become involved in a global economy they can neither master nor ignore, both rulers and insurgents have no choices but to confront the American presence. America has become part of the uneven, painful modernity of the Islamic world."
The "painful modernity" of American symbols for the Islamic world (and much of the rest of the world) is the connection of symbols to consumer brands and products rather than transcendent things like religion. To much of the world, America seems to have hijacked that ancient, universal communication method called symbolism and put it into the service of selling ephemeral, material things rather than its earlier uses for expressing the eternal, transcendent experiences of life. Many see this change in the use of symbols from a system of expression to one of persuasion. It is not a welcome change.
But "painful modernity" has become a type of addiction to many in the world. They hate the persuasive commercial uses America has found for symbols. Yet at the same time they cant seem to stop buying hamburgers at MacDonalds or watching that latest episode of American television.
One of the results is that the American symbol of modernity and consumer culture is an ambivalent one for much of the Islamic world. As professor Fouad Ajami notes, American embassies "are targeted by terrorists and besieged by visa seekers." Those who want to destroy America and those who want to come to America. Ajami knows about the visa seekers. They are professionals who have given up on failed economies and a restricted way of life. They are also the half-educated and the urban poor. In earlier times, he notes, they would never have sought opportunity and a new way of life in a distant land.