After the American Century: The Ends of U. S. Culture in the Middle East
By Brian T. Edwards
Columbia University Press, 2015
It’s been said that a single aspiration connects all Middle Eastern people; to eat at McDonalds and shop at Wal-Mart, just like everyone else. Exaggeration? Maybe. But the comparison captures an obvious truth: that American attitudes and ideals have been disproportionately popular in the region for decades. “After the American Century” by author Brian T. Edwards, on the other hand, offers the counterargument that technology has and will continue to change this paradigm.
American capitalism acts as the starting point. Few would disagree that Western financiers and war-profiteers have, for a long time, exacted a heavy toll in places like Baghdad and Beirut. Some argue this tough-love to be counterbalanced by progressive ideals like freedom and democracy, openness and understanding and, of course, Wal-Mart and McDonalds — ideals made even more accessible by American innovation and technology. After all, many credit social media with bringing about the Arab Spring.
Edwards, however, argues that, far from furthering Western values in Tunis and Cairo, innovations like the cell phone, the internet and social networking have clouded the picture. Advances in technology, he claims, have actually shifted the cultural dynamic away from blind admiration of the West and cast it in a more skeptical light. Traditional viewpoints once dominated by pro-regime propaganda, restrictive cultural norms and billboards tempting thirsty Arabs with Coca Cola have given way to a political counterculture critical of the West, while at the same time empowered by communications platforms that never before existed.
The author devotes a chapter to the actual effects of Facebook and Twitter on the uprising in Egypt. He also looks at the attitudes of young Iranians toward the bias and stereotypes enmeshed in American film and entertainment, and then examines the broadening of sexual freedoms in Morocco, as well as the risks of “coming out.”
The many references to contemporary Middle Eastern literature and film remain one indispensable aspect of “After the American Century.” The works of writer Ahmed Alaidy, graphic novelist Magdy Al Shafee, and film maker Leila Kilani, as well as many others, provide a backdrop against which Western cultural values can be compared. And while I wouldn’t agree with every conclusion the author draws, he does a good job of framingthe attitude shifts occurring within modern Middle Eastern society, particularly examining how technology drives them.
Still, the question remains: as technology brings about social change in the Middle East, how will this change be shaped by the people? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.