Back in the good ol’ days, when a nuclear family could leave its bomb shelter unlocked at night, America had soft power to burn. The country’s cultural ambassadors and renegade auteurs outgunned the taciturn commies, whose idea of a party still involved military bands and Lenin t-shirts. When the Cold War finally ended, MTV’s Kurt Loder was a global menace and punk rock was still armed and dangerous.
As Shikha Dalmia writes in Reason, the magazine of free minds and free markets, today’s young Muslims are not nearly as susceptible to the calculated chaos of Western pop culture as yesterday’s youth of the East Bloc. “While hip hop and heavy metal have helped inspire some of the street protesters demanding more freedoms across the Middle East and northern Africa,” Dalmia observes, “outside of the hardcore early adopters these cultural subgenres remain more voyeuristic than aspirational.”
This is no small thing, especially since the West’s use of hard power over the past decade—troops in Iraq, drone attacks in Afghanistan—has, in most cases, served to both weaken its reputation and further strengthen religious fanatics, who need a devil to blame for their hateful rhetoric and murderous behavior.
There is hope on the cultural horizon, however. And, no, Lady Gaga will not have to suit up for battle. India’s film industry is the free world’s new shining star—all kitsched-up, scantily clad, and subversively cool. “Islamic fundamentalists have long worried about the threat that Bollywood poses to their puritanical demands,” writes Dalmia, who is a senior policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. “They have ample reason to be worried: About 3 billion people, or half the planet, watches Bollywood, and many of them live in the Islamic world. By depicting assimilated, modernized Muslims, Bollywood—without even trying—deromanticizes and thereby disarms fanatical Islam.”
Like Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the powers that be in Pakistan, “India’s cultural twin in every respect but religion,” have tried to censor Bollywood and demonize its romantic heroes and heroines, who often fall in love outside of marriages already arranged, battle to mediate modernity and tradition, and navigate a Technicolor world free from conservative dress and outdated moral codes.
“Even as Pakistan’s resistance to America’s drones and raids has grown, its resistance to Bollywood’s soft power has crumbled,” Dalmia concludes. “The extremists who find sympathetic audiences when directing fire and brimstone toward the Great Satan are powerless to prevent Pakistanis form consuming Bollywood blasphemies.”