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Jewish World Review
August 26, 2004
/ 9 Elul, 5764
Is Reality TV the secret weapon in the War on Terror?
Osama's greatest enemy: Hassan the heartthrob
Osama bin Laden and fellow-traveling Islamist radicals believe that Western culture defiles their belief system and that unless it is stopped, it will obliterate what they regard as the one true way of life.
Notwithstanding materialistic excess, free expression, individualism, political and spiritual independence and the pursuit of happiness the underpinnings of Western culture fly in the face of the hierarchical subservience and sacrifice of personal will at the core of their extreme imagining of Islam. And if unchecked, the allure and sheer volume of Western culture most especially the broadly accessible pop-culture expressions of television, movies, music, fashion and the popular press would undermine and overwhelm any bin-Ladian ideal of society. ("Ideal" defined as something resembling the suffocating rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan.)
But the Islamists are wrong on two fundamental points: First, this would not be a bad thing; no sensible inhabitant of Earth in 2004 regards a 10th-century lifestyle as a step forward. Second, they can no more stop this force than they can keep the sun from rising in the east. Ask the now-free people of the Czech Republic, Poland and Romania, among others, about the impact of Western culture.
A current case in point: "Superstar 2."
While Shiite insurgents, Iraqi forces (so to speak) and American troops fight and die over shrines and cemetery slabs in Najaf, the rest of the Arab world is working itself into a delighted frenzy of expectation over the second-season finale of the Lebanese-produced TV show "Superstar 2."
This Sunday, Ammar Hassan, a 26-year-old Palestinian from the West Bank town of Salfit, and Ayman al-Atar of Libya will sing their hearts out on "Superstar 2" in the finals of a pan-Arab version of "American Idol." Millions of viewers throughout the Middle East then will choose a winner by voting via the Internet and cell-phone text messages.
This is the second season of "Superstar" (hence the "2"). It began Feb. 29 with 83 contestants including 32 women selected from some 40,000 applicants. A panel of judges then took a couple of months to winnow the field to 14 for final sorting by viewers.
Religious fundamentalists and terrorist groups in the Middle East have denounced "Superstar" and other reality shows being broadcast by Arab networks and satellite distributors. "These kinds of programs are in contradiction with our habits and with the principles of Islam," a Lebanese sheik told Agence France-Presse. "We are seeing youngsters kissing and expressing emotions. This is indecent."
A Palestinian spokesman for Hamas told a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, that "(we) are not in need of singers, corruption mongers and advocates of immorality."
Hamas apparently is irked that the Palestinian people seem more interested in a TV competition featuring the appealing Hassan than they are in strapping on vests packed with explosives and nails and blowing themselves up at Israeli military checkpoints. Go figure. The upcoming "Superstar 2" climax also is draining attention away from what has turned out to be a poorly timed hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
The Palestinian Authority, however, is playing the situation cleverly, declaring a week of solidarity with Hassan, setting up giant outdoor viewing screens in towns in the West Bank and Gaza and persuading the major Palestinian telecommunications company to offer discounts on text-message votes sent to the show.
"People are very bored with the political and security situation," an official for the authority's Ministry of Culture told the Jerusalem newspaper. "For them, the show is an escape from the distress and frustration. We believe that creative art contributes to the people's struggle for freedom."
It is also an expression of that freedom, and its pull is powerful.
In 2003, the first season of "Superstar" became a focus for national pride in the region, even provoking some accusations as there have been in the United States from time to time about "American Idol" of vote rigging. Thousands of fans protested loudly in the streets of Beirut at the headquarters of Future Television, the show's producer, when Lebanese semifinalist Melhem Zein was voted out in favor of Syria's Rwqaida Attiyeh and the eventual winner, Diana Curazon of Jordan.
Zein from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, previously famous as the place where Hezbollah terrorists received training and sanctuary was enormously popular with his fellow Lebanese, and problems with overloaded phone lines and Web servers only heightened suspicions of a fix. But Future Television is owned by the billionaire family of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri; the company had no rational incentive to make Zein lose. Still, public pressure persuaded Future to give Zein a three-hour solo TV special the next week and sign him to a record deal.
In Jordan, a "Superstar" fan told United Press International that the show was "a good exercise in democracy for the Arab masses." That's a stretch on both democratic and cultural grounds. "Superstar," after all, isn't exactly a Hopper canvas, a Shakespeare tragedy, "On the Waterfront," "The Sopranos" or the Gettysburg Address.
But the power of the creative spirit even at the level of a cheesy TV talent competition surpasses that of terrorism, war and oppression. Osama and his ilk are right to be very, very afraid.
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Eric Mink is commentary editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, t. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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