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April 11, 2005

Rotten and Vicious in Arabia

Posted by William G. Ridgeway

Osama bin Laden and Eminem are the current Sex Pistols of Arabia. William G. Ridgeway explains why.

Driving to Al Taraf, I passed through a small, poor village. Goats roamed freely, munching on rubbish, while young boys ran alongside the car, waving excitedly. Passing an old, disused building, I noticed two pieces of graffiti, both in red paint. The first was in Arabic a fairly standard scribble praising Osama bin Laden. The next was in block-lettered English EMINEM, it said. As I whizzed out from the town, it occurred to me that these simple scribbles explained a great deal about Middle Eastern politics, and regional attitudes towards the West.

Young men such as the village scribes are at the root of many of the world's problems not just graffiti. Certainly, if one could insert a silicon chip into British young men, rendering them peaceful, tolerant and hardworking, then violent crime would disappear overnight. Football hooliganism would cease to exist. Extremist politics would wither. The same is true in all parts of the world. This demographic problem child is particularly acute in the Middle East, a region that has the world's youngest population. In Oman, for instance, the average birth rate per family is seven, and families with ten or more children are common, particularly in poor rural areas. In Arab societies, the infant mortality rate is lower in males, meaning that the region is pumping out young men at an extreme rate.

The only place that can come close to matching this is South America, a region where state infrastructure is famously disorganized, corrupt and ineffective. Although people there are famously religious, the ambiguity and hypocrisy at the heart of paganised Catholicism means that it has little control over the personal behaviour of young, poor men, who roam the streets in a drugged-up frenzy of rape and pillage. Sao Paolo at night is a terrifying place.

Jeddah, on the other hand, is not. In Arabia, the State is organized and effective (though still highly corrupt). Unlike, its pagan Catholic counterpart in Latin America, Islam holds few ambiguities for believers, and holds a tight grip on the morality of personal conduct even for young men. Another key difference between the two regions is that the Middle East provides little or nominal domestic political engagement. Unlike their Latin cousins' chaotic and endless series of riots, revolutions, coups and assassinations, Arabs are forced to endure the political stability of the police state. Whereas young Fernando has a channel for his testosterone fuelled revolutionary politics, there is none for Abdullah. Domestic politics does not exist in Arabia.

The contrast between Latin America and Arabia, then, is one between young, poor barrio warriors deciding who to rob, kill or overthrow next, and young, poor testosterone crazed Arabs deciding which shopping mall, mosque or relative to visit next. At the moment, Arab police states have Abdullah just where they want him, but just like over-strict parents, they are sitting on a teenage time bomb. Abdullah is getting up to all sorts of unwholesome stuff.

Crazed with the visions of freedom he glimpses on the Internet and TV, Arab youth is starting to rebel. At the moment, the Latin American routes to chaos and disorder are not open to him. He cannot rob people on the street, as he will be found and imprisoned. He cannot attempt to overthrow the government, as he will be arrested and may disappear. So what can he do? He wants to shock people, shake things up, that's for sure that's what young men like to do.

On the political front, all political discourse is externalized. The 'newspapers' are full of detailed information about the evils of America and Zionism alongside a bland feting of the latest move by an Arab leader. Arab police states know that they have to provide some channel for youthful political exuberance, so they tacitly encourage this demonisation of the West. The only political demonstrations allowed throughout Arabia are thus those against America or Israel. Passing a university recently, I heard "Down, Down USA," as three hundred students brandished anti-Bush placards while walking around in a big circle. There was no audience it was a hidden act for defusing their seething passions. As for most young men, this act is not enough. They want more, the real thing, uncomplicated by the responsibilities, compromises and commitments of adulthood.

Osama offers this. His politics correspond with the only political paradigm they know, anti-Americanism, but it is more than that. He twins anti-Americanism with domestic revolution. The fact that he wants a Taliban-style regime prevailing in the Middle East is by the way. The nihilism of his politics does not matter in just the same way as it did not matter when British young men adopted Johnny Rotten as their hero. 'Anarchy in the UK', Johnny Rotten sang. 'Anarchy in Arabia', sings Osama. The pull on young men is identical.

The McCartney to Rotten's Lennon was the infamous Sid Vicious, a man who cared little about the State, the Queen, the Berlin Wall, which Rotten denounced so effectively. Vicious cared about nothing at all. Not other people; certainly not himself. The denouement of Vicious' brief heroin-addled story came when he woke up next to his dead ex-prostitute girlfriend in a pool of blood. Soon afterwards, he himself was found dead from a heroin overdose. Sid was the ultimate symbol of personal nihilism.

The appeal of the Sex Pistols to young men (apart from their urgent, brilliant music) was this combination of the political nihilism of Rotten and the personal nihilism of Vicious. For those young men looking to escape from their circumstances and themselves, the Sex Pistols were the complete answer. Sid died young, and his legend lives on among those who grew up. Johnny Rotten on the other hand grew to become a genial and much loved British icon, whose main interests nowadays are flora and fauna. There are even occasional calls for a knighthood.

In the same way, Eminem is the other side of Osama bin Laden. Osama symbolizes political nihilism to millions of young Arab men, striking horror into the hearts of their more conservative parents. Eminem on the other hand cares nothing of politics, but rants (quite brilliantly) about self-destruction, murder, suicide. He swears a great deal and is sexually graphic in his lyrics. Like them, he was poor and ill educated 'trailer trash', in Bill Clinton's famous words. Whereas Osama symbolizes 'anarchy in Arabia', political nihilism, escape, albeit a temporary escape, from the strictures of police states; Eminem symbolizes escape from selfhood and the moral regulation thereof, particularly by Islam. What better means of challenging the indigenous strictures of personal identity and behaviour than goofing over a swearing, sexually explicit, white American? For many angry young men in the Middle East, Osama bin Laden and Eminem are two sides of the same coin the yin and yang of nihilism. They come as a set. They are in many ways the current Sex Pistols of Arabia, providing virtual escape from oppressively tight political and personal regulation.
retained by author 2005

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This is most interesting, and rings true at least in part. But I have no knowledge of Saudi Arabia, little of the Arab world but rather more among Muslims in South Asia.

There we also find bottom-heavy demographics full of young men starved of educational and economic opportunity. But in Pakistan since independence, short-sighted political cronies snapped up lucrative appointments (like Customs and Excise) leaving relatively profitless education to the mullahs -- who in return provided street muscle and enforcement to the political parties. The result is not a kind of James Dean 'rebel-without-a-clue' but radical Islamists in considerable numbers. Whether they also listen to Eminem I know not.

But a lot of Pakistani support for bin Laden comes from his being a co-religionist, part comes from his appearing to be an underdog outfoxing a superpower, and part from Western governments that have been particularly clumsy in the messages sent to the Muslim world, both stated and implied. But, as I said, I do not know Saudi.

Posted by: s j masty at April 11, 2005 08:41 PM
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