American Culture and the Muslim World

Peter Skerry

When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, expectations were raised for a new political era. At home, many Americans hoped for an end to political polarization and the so-called culture wars. Abroad, millions more looked forward to America’s recommitment to engagement and consultation with the rest of the world. As the 2010 congressional elections approach and the midpoint of Obama’s four-year term looms, it is a good time to reassess such expectations. Are they on the way to being realized? And if not, why not?

Regarding national unity, the election of the first African-American president did at first lead to a slight but discernible lull in rancorous and divisive partisanship. Yet that brief period is now all but forgotten, as the country continues to suffer from the shock of the 2008 financial crisis — a crisis preceded by years of declining wages among ordinary Americans and handsome rewards to elites from a booming global economy. In 2005 the failure of local, state, and federal officials to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina reinforced a growing lack of confidence among the American people in their government. Now the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico looks like it could similarly taint the current administration. At the same time, Obama’s successful drive for health care reform exacerbated partisan tensions and helped launch the Tea Party movement. So our domestic politics remain polarized on a host of issues, not just economic but also social and cultural.

Regarding foreign policy, Barack Hussein Obama is the first American president with any knowledge of or immediate ties to Islam. One of his first acts as president was to address the Muslim world directly in an unprecedented interview with Al Arabiya television. He subsequently traveled to Istanbul and then to Cairo, where he spoke persuasively not only to the leaders and citizens of those nations but to Muslims around the world. But when he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Obama also explained his rationale for our renewed commitment to fighting Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere. And now once again, Muslims around the world are expressing disaffection and outright opposition to America’s foreign policy.

It is also worth noting that Obama has acknowledged his ties to Islam much more freely after being elected president than before, and that throughout the long campaign he went to considerable lengths to distance himself from his father’s religion. For example, while Obama visited many churches and synagogues on the campaign trail, he never once visited a mosque. The political realities that drew candidate Obama down that path have hardly disappeared and will continue to shape his choices and those of other elected officials. Indeed, even as president, Obama has yet to visit an American mosque! Nevertheless, Muslim Americans voted for him overwhelmingly in 2008 and continue to support him, albeit with bated enthusiasm.

Yet the purpose of this essay is not to blame President Obama for failing to realize the hopes of his supporters and admirers. Nor is it to blame his predecessor for the country’s current difficulties. American presidents are not all-powerful executives able to force drastic changes on an unwilling or resistant populace. On the contrary, they must struggle to achieve their goals within the constraints of a political system designed to curb executive power. Thus it would be prudent for observers, especially those overseas, to recognize that while these constraints rise and fall in response to events and leadership skills, they never disappear.

For Americans, this is a particularly difficult time, as we are compelled to address internal economic and fiscal challenges even as we take stock of our place in the world. But take stock we must. And as we do so, one of the most elusive challenges that we face is coming to terms with the cultural dimension of our encounter with the Muslim world. Even now, as we continue to skirmish over issues such as abortion and gay marriage here at home, Americans fail to appreciate how our cultural values affect our relations with Muslims around the globe — and with Muslims in our midst, many of whom are fellow citizens. This is in part because cultural forces are downplayed or ignored as relevant concerns by our intellectual and foreign policy elites. This neglect is regrettable, for while there are some aspects of American culture that Muslims find problematic or repellant, there are others that Muslims find appealing, even admirable. Our unwillingness or inability to address any of these cultural phenomena renders America all the more ineffective at addressing the Muslim world. This essay aims to begin righting this imbalance by exploring some cultural differences — as well as some similarities — between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Material Acquisitiveness: One Side of the Coin

The nation’s financial and economic crises understandably command our immediate attention. But as should be evident, we are dealing not merely with an economic system but with the beliefs and values on which it is based, which constitute a way of life.

Many Americans, along with our friends and enemies overseas, routinely attribute our current predicament to our acquisitiveness. Lurking beneath the surface of this particular diagnosis is the conviction that the true source of America’s quest for global dominance, however chastened it may be at the moment, is the inordinate appetite of its people for material possessions and pleasures. But is this, as we so often hear, simply a matter of “greed”?

First, it must be acknowledged that Americans’ enormous consumer wants and our willingness to go into household debt to satisfy them distinguish us from most other advanced industrial democracies. But if we stop to examine the origins of the present crisis, it arises in part from otherwise laudable efforts to satisfy the aspirations of economically marginal African Americans and Hispanic immigrants to become homeowners. Indeed, the specific goal of increasing minority home ownership was a critical component of the rationale for the policies and institutional arrangements that got us into the present mess. Put differently, the greed of investors was gratified in part by an effort to promote what was viewed by Republicans and Democrats alike as a laudable social policy goal, even as social justice. Many would prefer to forget this today, but during the 1990s and well into the first decade of the new century, those who cautioned against increasing reliance on the sub-prime mortgages that were being marketed to economically marginal home-buyers risked being accused of indifference toward those struggling to achieve the American Dream. In some instances, such skeptics were accused of racism.

Moral as well as analytic clarity is essential here. Now that the financial system sustained by those practices and institutions has come crashing down, it is these same economically marginal families who are suffering the most. It would of course be naive to deny that the aspirations of such individuals were at times tainted by poor judgment and excess. Nor are human motives easily disentangled and judged. One person’s drive and ambition is, after all, another’s greed. Nevertheless, pointing out that immigrant and minority aspirations contributed to the debacle should in no way be interpreted as blaming those who have lost their homes. Without a doubt, primary responsibility for our current situation lies with the investors who exploited those aspirations and with the government officials whose lax oversight allowed them to take huge financial risks with borrowed assets.

The point is subtle but critical. Our present predicament illustrates how the extraordinary dynamism and openness of American society are sustained by our people’s appetite for material advancement. Opportunities for the rich to grow richer both encourage and permit the non-rich to move up — and perhaps grow rich themselves. In no small way, American ideals of equal opportunity and social equality depend on our acquisitiveness, even on our greed. This of course is no original insight; it was the preoccupation of eighteenth-century moral philosophy. But as is often the case, the insights of philosophers are overlooked just when they can be most helpful.

The stark fact is that if the American Dream is to be kept alive, it will be through continued economic growth. And if we hope to nurture such growth, we will have to continue to countenance greed. Now, as we are just beginning to re-learn, there is unrestrained and restrained greed, just as there are unregulated and regulated markets. In both instances, we will doubtless be seeing more of the latter. But the basic acquisitiveness of our market-based capitalist economy will not soon be changing.

This perspective is one that some Americans will not readily accept. Among the well-educated and affluent, it has frequently been the fashion to reject “materialism” and to view our high levels of consumption as artificially maintained by hucksters and advertisers. Yet while the impact of advertising on specific demographic groups — especially the young — is not to be denied, it is also true that many of the goods and services that Americans aspire to purchase reflect the necessities of daily life in this society.

Put differently, Americans own two and three cars per family not simply or necessarily because their automobiles flatter their vanity on the road — though auto manufacturers clearly seek to manipulate consumers in such ways. In the first instance, Americans own cars because our cities and suburbs are built to be negotiated by such private means of transportation. The alternatives so evident in other affluent societies — inter-city rail and intra-city mass transit, for example — are far less available in the United States. To be sure, this reality reflects the interests of auto manufacturers and their ability to influence policy makers. But such efforts would not have prevailed if they did not coincide powerfully with deeply ingrained cultural expectations of maximum individual choice and geographical mobility.

Clearly, America’s habits of mass consumption cannot be willed away with moralizing sermons. President Jimmy Carter discovered this to his chagrin when his famous “malaise speech,” which explicitly asked Americans to change their ways, succeeded mainly in exacerbating his political decline. This is not to suggest that we will never reconsider our habits. But it is to assert that if this is our goal, then we must face up to the fact that high levels of consumption and maximum choice are deeply embedded in our way of life. (And in this sense, critics of American society — inside and outside the United States — who argue that fundamental change is needed are correct.) In other words, American consumerism is not impervious to change, but change will not come easily or quickly, because whatever its faults and shortcomings, our way of life still affords extraordinary opportunities to individuals and their families from around the globe.

This basic insight was lost sight of amidst the outrage over the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq. Critics charged that the United States invaded that sovereign country “just for its oil.” But this was mistaken, in two critical respects. First, the United States did not topple Saddam Hussein just to gain access to Iraqi oil. However ill-advised and poorly executed that campaign was, its objectives were never defined in exclusively material or economic terms. To be sure, securing control or access to Iraqi oil was clearly one consideration. But it was hardly the sole, or even the prime, objective. The security of Israel figured just as prominently, if not more so. Indeed, America’s oil and energy interests have long been at odds with its role as the guarantor of Israeli security.

Second, and more to my point, oil is not a frivolous indulgence, just a luxury that Americans can or should be able to do without. Nor is it any ordinary commodity, the uninterrupted supply of which does not merit political struggle or even military force. However unwise America’s dependence on foreign oil may be strategically, it will not be abruptly curtailed without significant economic and social costs. And those costs will likely be borne disproportionately by those whose aspirations for upward mobility are most compelling. Once again, we are brought back to the central proposition that our material appetites are intimately bound up with the hopes and aspirations of millions of ordinary Americans — including immigrants who connect the United States to the wider world. And among these are growing numbers of Muslims.

Lifestyle Options: The Other Side of the Coin

Yet this is not the whole story. The American way of life is not rooted exclusively in material acquisitiveness. If we are guilty of greed, it is not simply greed for things. We are also a restless people who crave openness and new experiences. We are greedy for what have come to be called “lifestyle options.” This aspect of our national character is manifested by our sprawling cities and suburbs, by our high rate of geographic mobility — picking up and moving from place to place far more often than Europeans, for example, and by our high rates of drug abuse. And contrary to our reputation as Puritans, Americans have long since shed our sexual inhibitions. Young Americans not only begin sexual activity as early as their Western European peers, they also have many more partners. And Americans are certainly one of the world’s leading producers — and consumers — of pornography.


To grasp how profound is the American taste for individual options and maximum choice, consider how it operates in non-market settings — for example, in our family life. As Professor Andrew Cherlin explains in his book, The Marriage-Go-Round, the United States has one of the highest levels of marriage in any Western nation. Yet we also have the highest divorce rate. Outside of marriage, cohabiting couples break up here more frequently than in other Western societies. And then they establish new intimate relations. As Cherlin sums up the evidence: “Having several partnerships is more common in the United States not just because people exit intimate partnerships faster but also because they enter them faster and after a breakup reenter them faster.”

The biggest impact of such disrupted personal lives is of course on the children, who have marked difficulties relative to their peers from stable two-parent families and perhaps even those from stable one-parent households. As Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks has concluded about our social mores more generally, “America’s laissez-faire economy is unusually productive, but its laissez-faire culture produces an unusually high level of short-sighted, anti-social, and self-destructive behavior.”

Jencks does not mention U.S. abortion policy, but it too illustrates the point. As articulated by the federal courts, the United States today has the most liberal — many would say the most extreme — policy in the world, affording women “the right to choose” an abortion throughout her pregnancy, including the third trimester. This right to late term abortions is rarely exercised, but frequently fought over. In any event, the United States also has one of the highest abortion rates in the world.

The U.S. Supreme Court has anchored this policy in what it deems the individual’s fundamental right of privacy. This contrasts with much more restrictive policies in Western Europe, which typically do not frame access to abortion in terms of rights. For example, in Germany, where women have relatively easy access to abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy but much less so thereafter, the procedure is defined not as an individual right but technically as a crime that the community condones under prescribed conditions and that the state declines to prosecute.

Some libertarians understand how our economic freedoms and cultural liberties are linked, and defend both as two sides of the same coin. Yet most Americans have difficulty seeing this, and today’s polarization of our politics further distorts their view. Liberals and leftists denounce the market for undermining community bonds. Conservatives denounce the left’s cultural agenda for its self-indulgence and hedonistic individualism. The left regards dependence on oil as a sign of greed; the right sees easy access to abortion as an indicator of decadence, even depravity. Neither acknowledges — or perhaps even understands — the connection between these two realms of individual desire and choice. The net result is that Americans end up putting minimal constraints on the individual in both the market and the cultural spheres.

The Water’s Edge

Now, we Americans may not appreciate how these disagreements, which have rent our culture and politics for decades, can be seen as different facets of a coherent whole. But this is precisely how many Muslims — friendly and unfriendly, here and abroad — perceive America’s internal cultural conflicts. In their eyes, Americans may disagree about particulars, but we are united in our preoccupation with unfettered, acquisitive individualism.

It is, of course, hardly surprising that Americans fail to grasp this broader view of our culture wars. These are our culture wars, after all, and we have been fighting them in a characteristically self-absorbed way. Yet this is not the whole story. Since 9/11 Americans have taken some tentative steps toward muting our disagreements and presenting a united front when we turn our attention overseas, especially toward an enemy who defines himself in fundamentalist religious terms. To be sure, controversies over abortion and gay marriage continue, but a bit less intensely than before. This may in part be attributable to economic conditions. In any event, just as Muslims have come together to defend themselves from criticism and attack from non-Muslims, so too have Americans closed ranks vis-à-vis Muslims. It used to be said that partisanship stopped at the water’s edge. That is clearly no longer the case. Yet today the American culture wars tend to stop there.

Consider for a moment the height of those conflicts during the 1990s. Not coincidentally, this era began as the Cold War was ending and controversies were erupting over “transgressive” art that depicted sado-masochistic sexual practices and desecrations of Christian religious and patriotic symbols. A few years later, in reaction to President Clinton’s scandalous private behavior, many conservatives were not only denouncing him individually but characterizing his behavior as typical of a generation of Americans whose blatant rejection of conventional morality was damaging the American family. Judge Robert Bork argued in Slouching Toward Gomorrah that American culture was hopelessly debased, and at one point he and a group of colleagues associated with the journal First Things questioned the legitimacy of the American regime.

Today, in the wake of 9/11, such battles have been largely forgotten. Conservatives who launched fulsome broadsides against the excesses of American culture in the 1990s now mount the barricades to defend its virtues — against the practices and criticisms of Muslims, who all along have been troubled by those same excesses. The ironies here are too numerous to count. The most glaring is that conservatives who just a few years ago roundly criticized the feminist movement and routinely dismissed women’s rights as the leading edge of a troubling liberationist agenda now loudly and insistently criticize Islam’s failure to advance gender equality.

Today, conservatives and liberals alike hold up America to the Muslim world as an exemplar of women’s rights and gender equality. In so doing, conservatives get to assert the superiority of the United States, though in a different key than before 9/11. Feminists and liberals join in and get to advance a favored cause and underscore their embrace of American values at time when they are typically voicing opposition to wars that their countrymen are fighting against violent jihadists.

Yet in our preoccupation with how Muslim societies treat women, we turn a blind eye to how our own liberal values have fostered a commercialized culture that condones and even glorifies sexual promiscuity and pornography that denigrate women — and men. These powerful forces that we have helped unleash on the world are one reason why many Muslim women seek refuge in Islamic modesty, including the head scarf. Of course, promiscuity and pornography offend and alarm many Americans. Yet when we turn our attention overseas, we uncritically close ranks and defend “our way of life” — much as Muslim societies have.

Taking Culture Off the Table

In an era noted for its polarized domestic politics, Americans have achieved some unity by focusing on an external foe. This should come as no surprise. Yet it is surprising and especially worthy of note that we have also downplayed our cultural differences with this foe, particularly since he defines himself in religious terms. More generally, we Americans have for a variety of reasons persuaded ourselves that our differences with Islam are not cultural in any important sense.

With regard to gender equality, for example, we consider it not so much a cultural value to be encouraged as a human right to be secured. This perspective is epitomized in a 2007 study from the RAND Corporation. Building Moderate Muslim Networks specifically equates gender equality with freedom of worship and designates both as “internationally recognized human rights.” Here as elsewhere in contemporary discourse, human rights — claims whose infringement on account of societal, cultural, or political conditions is presumptively impermissible — are asserted without any elaboration or justification. This is a complicated and controversial topic that cannot be adequately addressed here. My point is simply to highlight this resort to the language of rights as a salient example of how Americans sidestep the cultural dimension when we turn our attention to the Muslim world.

Another such example is evident among those who interpret the American encounter with radical Islamists through the lens of the Cold War, and insist that we are now engaged in an ideological struggle against “Islamo-Fascism” akin to the battle against communism. Intriguingly, this perspective has typically been advanced by neo-conservatives, who in the past have emphasized cultural factors when, for example, assessing social policy in America or development policy overseas. Yet once the Cold War was won, many neo-cons rededicated themselves to the promotion of democracy and human rights and came to de-emphasize the role of culture in social, economic, and political affairs.

The term “Islamo-Fascism” is clearly offensive to Muslims. Yet it is not without some merit. Like the Cold War, today’s struggle is being pursued incrementally, over a protracted period of time without the sustained engagement of huge armed forces. And as we did in Western Europe and elsewhere during the Cold War, Americans are now attempting to win “the hearts and minds” of millions of ordinary people whose loyalty is up for grabs. Finally, as Francis Fukuyama, among others, has pointed out, extremist Islamists are driven less by religion than by a modern ideology that has clear affinities with communism and fascism.

Yet despite such similarities, the most critical distinction between the Cold War and today’s struggle is that the latter has a substantial cultural component. Indeed, America’s contests against fascism and communism were waged against adversaries who shared our Enlightenment heritage, albeit in perverted forms. Today, we confront enemies who emerge from a distinctive civilization that is not Western and that in fact has a long history of rivalry, contention, and conflict with the West.

The implications of such a cultural perspective are varied and vital. To begin, cultural conflicts are arguably more wrenching — personally and societally — than ideological ones. Consider, for example, the difference between the apostasy of a Communist such as Whitaker Chambers and that of a Muslim such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali. While the former clearly pursued a painful and bitter path, sundering ideological ties with and then betraying old comrades, the pain and complexity of that experience must pale in comparison with the latter’s renunciation and condemnation of the foundational beliefs and practices of her own father and mother.

Such treacherous shoals are undoubtedly one reason why our leaders insist that we are not engaged in any such cultural conflict with Islam. Yet on reflection, this hardly seems credible. Recall my earlier point that America’s fiscal and economic crises are rooted in our values — some admirable, others not. Taken together they constitute our way of life. This is certainly how Islamist extremists see us. But so do many ordinary, law-abiding Muslims who are mindful, though perhaps themselves not always observant, of Islamic principles of thrift and self-restraint.

Let me be clear. America is not at war with Islam. Nor is there any unified, global Muslim community that confronts us — however much many Muslims invoke the ummah. Nevertheless, it would be disingenuous and self-defeating to ignore the cultural basis of today’s encounter. In fact, our sometimes violent struggle with extremist Muslims is being fought on cultural terrain — and being watched by a vast audience of non-extremist but culturally conservative Muslims who are keeping close track not only of who is winning but of how Americans are waging the battle.

Those who cavil at such a cultural interpretation of the present struggle should stop to consider why gender equality in Muslim societies (albeit under the rubric of human rights) gets raised by non-Muslims so quickly and so often? Or why many Muslims are so averse to our popular music and figurative art? Or why the Muslim world is so profoundly hostile to any hint of open homosexuality? Such issues clearly loom large for many non-Muslims, as well as for most Muslims.

Nevertheless, America’s political and intellectual elites habitually relegate culture to the background of contemporary discussions and debates. This is not just because doing so suits the immediate political interests of agile liberals or clever conservatives. It is also because, as I have already suggested, broader intellectual currents are at work. With regard to the Muslim world specifically, the mere mention of “culture” raises the specter of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” thesis. Indeed, most academics and analysts reject Huntington’s emphasis on the importance of culture in global politics — a backlash that he helped to provoke when, in support of his thesis, he bluntly asserted that “it is human to hate.” Huntington’s point, of course, is that cultural conflicts are nasty and intractable, especially in this post-Cold War era. Yet he did not welcome such conflicts, nor did he regard them as inevitable. Indeed, Huntington opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a fact overlooked by critics who incorrectly associate him with that war’s neo-conservative proponents.

In any event, long before Huntington advanced his controversial thesis, social scientists were vigorously rejecting cultural explanations of human affairs. In part, this rejection of culture reflects among American elites a disaffection with or even an outright rejection of religion as a valid basis of action or of analysis. More specifically, our academics and intellectuals have identified such perspectives as “essentialist,” by which they refer to the imputation of inherent or unchanging traits to groups, especially disadvantaged or marginal groups. The underlying concern here is that such groups will come to be seen as unresponsive to meliorative public policies, thereby fueling negative stereotypes and aiding conservative or reactionary political forces. In contrast, environmental or social structural perspectives have been seen as “progressive,” on the assumption that such factors are more susceptible to governmental interventions. The irony of course, confirmed by several generations now of social policy experience, is that neither cultural nor structural factors are necessarily more amenable to policy initiatives.

Our Cultural Blind Spot

The consequences of disregarding the cultural dimensions of America’s contemporary encounter with Islam are considerable. One such is a failure to reckon with the global impact of our own culture. America’s cultural footprint is arguably just as significant as its economic and military footprints. Yet apart from advocates of so-called soft power, few of us seem to appreciate this. This is not to suggest that our cultural impact is uniformly negative or positive. As I argued above, American appetites and aspirations are of a piece. Just as our extraordinary cultural fare simultaneously attracts and repels many Americans, so too does it attract and repel audiences around the globe. Certainly much of our popular culture appeals to the basest instincts, especially the stuff aimed at adolescent males here and abroad. Yet on occasion, our cultural output also speaks to the better angels of human nature.

Either way, we Americans remain largely oblivious to our cultural footprint. A disturbing example emerged from the shocking behavior of American military personnel in Iraq at Abu Ghraib prison. Few Americans have not been exposed to those bizarrely horrific amateur photos, what we might expect from tourists at an exotic zoo. Yet while most of us have regarded this as a nationally embarrassing episode of abuse and torture, John Agresto offers a strikingly different interpretation from a rather unique vantage point. Agresto is an American educator who served in Iraq under Ambassador Paul Bremer as Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. In his book, Mugged by Reality: The Liberation of Iraq and the Failure of Good Intentions, Agresto draws on his conversations and experiences in post-invasion Iraq to show that Iraqis were hardly surprised by the egregious behavior at Abu Ghraib. He quotes his Iraqi translator: “We are a cruel people. It’s in our DNA.”

But then Agresto makes a point lost on many Americans: “It wasn’t the revelations of torture, as such, that so troubled Iraqis . . . it was the character and sexual nature of these abuses.” He elaborates:

Abu Ghraib, displayed not only Americans’ abandonment to perverse sexuality, up to and including homoerotic sadism, but also the willingness of American females to be photographed sexually abusing naked men, and the joy that they all seemed to display at not only degrading Iraqis but at degrading their own natures as well.

Agresto goes on to characterize the Iraqi perspective:

Abu Ghraib looked less like severe treatment of detainees in order to wrest important information from them as much as it seemed depraved fun and sexual games . . . To a people told by our enemies that modernity stands for indulgence and the loosenin