By Emina Vukic
After having spent two years studying in the United States in 1950, Sayyid Qutb, leading Islamic theologian of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who shaped the ideas of Islamists and terrorist groups including Al Qaeda, wrote an article entitled "The America That I Have Seen". In it he criticized the individual freedoms he had seen exercised, he was appalled at having seen unmarried men and women dancing together, losing themselves in lust, while the band played a revolting song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” He returned to Egypt convinced that the America is evil that had to be stopped. This came to be known as “Sayyid Qutb Syndrome” that seems to be experiencing its revival 60 years later.
When we think of the American culture we primarily think of the culture of the United States or the ethnic melting pot that the US is. The term American has, first and foremost, a nationalist connotation not the geographic one, and refers to the people who live in the US. Dictionary defines culture, among other meanings, as “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or a group“. Culture is a product of human work and thought-it is our traditions, our language, and our cuisine. It is what our grandma taught us, the way we live, sing and dance, it is the stuff the legends are made of, the stories we tell our children, the way we try to refine, enrich our attitudes and goals through education, travel and contacts with other cultures.
While growing up in Europe, I learned about American culture through its pop culture, comic books, movies, rock’n’roll, Walt Disney characters. America was almost like a utopia, land of the free, promise of a new world and a new life, a mythical country that only the lucky ones go to, to fulfill their dreams. And we all dreamt our own American dream, shaped by the songs, ads, movies, the great outdoors, the Wild West and the blue Montana sky. The American dream found its place in the collective memory of nations. It was a dream worth dreaming. This dream enhanced our lives, the dream of freedom that was greater than the freedom itself.
Nonetheless, over the last decade the US emerged as the world’s only remaining super power, the main motor of globalization. Globalization is almost always interpreted as Americanization. The mass media enabled the full penetration of the high entertainment content to the rest of the world. People around the globe, especially the youth, have become influenced by the images emanating from American culture, the images that seem to dictate the way young people should be dressed, behave, speak, the American slang they use in order to be cool, to become a part of this image of what it means to be American. Thus the countries grew angry at this uniformed, globalized world they found themselves in, where American influence was a spice to every stew, and they grew even angrier at America. How did America become associated with such negativity?
People outside the US began feeling estranged from their own tradition, their own cultural heritage. Countries started experiencing disintegration of traditional lifestyles that define cultural identity of their people. Distinctive national cultures felt threatened which led to creation of strong movements for de-Americanization. This great country we call the United States, symbol of individualism, independence, freedom and democracy became a symbol of ruin for other national cultures. Most countries are trying to address this issue by imposing their own national values and adjectives to the American ones, especially in the use of their native languages that seem to be the last bastion of a national identity. Muslim countries though, especially those based on the orthodox Islam values, see America, and the freedoms it stands for, as the incarnation of evil and have moved from guarding themselves from American influence to being openly hostile to anything that has the American adjective.
The world must realize that the globalization was inevitable with the development of technology. And if it wasn’t the American culture, from McDonalds to FedEx to Facebook, it would have been some other culture whose influence would be most strongly felt. We have to strive to continue refining our own morals and taste, our culture, and do all that we can so that the world sees only the best of us-the country and the people that have a right to be themselves, the right to elect and criticize, the right to practice any religion, the right to be the best they want to be. It is never too late to remind the world of the dream they once dreamt- and of the Elvises, and the Kerouacs and the Hemmingways that helped shape it. I, having chosen to come and live here like a modern Mayflower pilgrim, would like to believe that who I am, and the culture I bring with me, has added a new thread to the fabric we call American culture.
And as for the ones that are afflicted with Sayyid Qutb Syndrome, I wonder how, if at all possible, do we establish dialogue? We could start by trying to combat the pop-vulgarization and sensationalistic hype that seems to find the fastest way in reaching the rest of the world. One of our top priorities, as a nation, should be exercising more understanding and respect for the cultures and traditions so different than our own. Our freedoms may be someone else’s sins, but once we show more respect, they might stop hating us and give dialogue a chance.
Emina Vukic was born and raised in Croatia, former Yugoslavia. She was subjected to ethnic cleansing in Croatia, had refugee status for eight years, and participated in the Belgrade student demonstrations to topple the Milosevic regime. She worked for Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia for several years as a human rights activist, the Hague Tribunal office in Belgrade, and later for the USAID Local Government Reform Program in Serbia. She is interested in nation branding, primarily of the post conflict countries through cultural diplomacy efforts. She is a student in Matt Armstrong’s Spring 2011 public diplomacy class.
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