The accounts were grim. One can only imagine the hell reporters witnessed last month in Tehran’s Mohseni Square.
”Women and girls in tight clothes and transparent scarves and guys dressed in Western fashion lit candles and laughed their hearts out,” wrote Ya Lesarat Weekly, organ for the vigilante group Ansar-e Hezbollah. Equally indignant, the conservative daily Jomhuri-ye Eslami reported, “In this disgraceful event, which was like a large street party, women and girls…as well as boys…mocked Muslim beliefs and sanctities in the most shameless manner…. Some long-haired guys would openly cuddle girls, creating awful and immoral scenes. Fast, provoking music…nearby gave the street party more steam.”
Worse, this depravity occurred during Ashura, holiest of Shiite holidays. But rest assured, Ansar-e Hezbollah broke up the gangs of spooning youngsters, returning the commemoration to its solemn purpose of observing the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. “Let the officials realize that the heroic and passionate people of Iran can easily deal with a handful of hoodlums and promiscuous elements that ridicule our sanctities,” Jomhuri-ye Eslami vowed.
Across Mesopotamia, however, the Syrian chapter of Hezbollah is having more trouble shoving the erotic djinn back in the bottle. As the world has witnessed, the Lebanese have been smart-mobbing Beirut’s Martyr’s Square with protest rallies, which, if the media is to be believed, are comprised entirely of attractive women. Already, Internet pundits (a largely male lot) have dubbed these bodacious avec-culottes the “Babes of Democracy,” while the cover of Newsweek gave them star treatment. In response, Hezbollah threw a We ¢¾ Bashir!-fest, but–outclassed in the pulchritude department–its snarling, testosterone-heavy hordes came off looking more like a Mideastern version of the Million Orc March.
Meanwhile, mainstream media is taking increasing note of a phenomenon that has been percolating through the Middle East the last few years: Arab music videos. Beamed throughout the region via satellite networks such as Saudi-based ART-TV, these superbly-produced “clips,” as they’re called, showcase singers like Lebanon’s Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wahby and Egypt’s Roubi in erotically charged tableaux filled with beauty, glamour and sex appeal that owe more to The Arabian Nights than Koranic scripture. Produced primarily for entertainment and star promotion, these videos are fast becoming political as well, with many young women seeing in the exotic settings, flamboyant clothes and sensual fantasies encouragement to take control of their identities and social roles. As if that weren’t haram enough, the clips serve as electronic bulletin boards for text-messaging kids whose flirtatious messages run like a news zipper across the bottom of the screen. “Music videos,” wrote the Financial Times recently, “are now the only uncensored mass cultural form in the Arab world.”
What can we make of this anarchical coochie-coo? Across the Middle East, it seems, an inventive erotic energy–manifested in surreptitious courtship rituals, impromptu street demonstrations, and subversive music videos–is challenging, or at least bedeviling, the establishment. Not that this is new; hardliners in Iran have complained for years about the lax morality of their youth–women pushing back their chadors to expose their hair, kids listening to rock music, that sort of thing–while President Mohammad Khatami has bemoaned the fact that Iranian youth, two-thirds of whom were born after the 1979 revolution, is losing interest in religion. As an anonymous “analyst” said in a recent Reuters article, “In general, religious events like Ashura have become a way for young people to interact freely in public. The religious side of it is much less important to them than the social aspect.”
Lately, though, these cracks in the wall of Muslim Puritanism have taken on more serious dimensions. Sex and charismatic women have long formed a part of Arabic folklore–from The Arabian Nights to the proverbial belly dancer–but not until music videos did the Middle East, and more particularly, the region’s teenagers, see such overt displays of female sexual power on their TV sets. At the same time, the U.S-led invasion of Iraq and the Orange and Cedar Revolutions in the Ukraine and Lebanon have created a cascade of reports depicting young people, particularly women, swept up in a kind of democratic fervor. Forget yesterday’s banners of militant socialism, Arab nationalism, or pan-Islamism–today’s hip images are a smiling woman with an ink-stained fingertip or a buxom beauty leaning out of a car, arms outstretched, Lebanese flag streaming overhead. Conveyed by the international media, the Internet, and SMS devices, these pictures combine concepts of women’s liberation, social interaction between the sexes, and political freedom. The result is a potent new idea that goes beyond anything America “neoconservatives” could have hoped for: Democracy is exciting, it’s cool–and most explosive of all, it’s sexy.
Not that Middle Eastern kids are wearing George W. Bush T-shirts or pinning “Make Love, Not Martyrs” posters on their walls. And indeed, it’s hard to quantify to what extent they link democracy with sex, at least as a remedy for the sexual repression that stultifies the region. But the guardians of their morality make that connection, and have done so for some time. In the late 1940s, for example, Egyptian ideologue Sayyid Qutb visited the United States, where the licentious behavior he discovered at a Colorado church dance so outraged him, he went on to pen the Mein Kampf of Islamofascist literature, Milestones. The mullahs of Iran have long inveighed against the lax morality of America. The handlers of Palestinian suicide bombers frequently direct their charges to Israeli nightclubs where they murder young people engaged in flirting, dancing and other social behavior. Last year, Dutch authorities busted a Moroccan pizza deliveryman who was planning a terrorist attack on Amsterdam’s Red Light district. As for Arab music videos, the FT has Egyptian Brotherhood member Mohammad Mursi opining that clips “are a tool for moral destruction. There is no doubt about that. They are against our religion and our morals.”
In Basra earlier this month, some 700 university students met for a picnic where, according to press reports, women were unveiled, music played, and the sexes intermingled–in short, kids doing what kids always do in the spring. Taking a page from their Iranian counterparts, however, men loyal to clerical firebrand Moqutada al-Sadr attacked the gathering, firing weapons into the air and beating students with sticks. The assault did not go over well with many Basrans, who held three days of demonstrations, compelling Sadr to issue an apology. Still, one Sadrist sheik, Ahmed al-Basri, was unrepentant: “We beat [them] because we are authorized by Allah to do so, and that is our duty. It is we who should deal with such disobedience and not the police.”
It’s hard to imagine a stupider statement, or one more certain to alienate the hearts, minds, and hormonal urges of young people–unless you consider Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi’s declaration of “bitter war against democracy and all who seek to enact it.” The Z-man’s target list must now include eight million Iraqi voters and 60 percent of the country’s college students, who believe that democracy is superior to other forms of government, including Iranian-style theocracy. Add to this a million Lebanese swarming the streets of Beirut. Meanwhile, an entire generation of young people is absorbing images of women who seem to transcend their narrow societal roles to express a free sensuality and overt power over men. It’s only a matter of time–if that time has not already arrived–before young people will make the Rousseauian connection between natural instinct, sex and freedom on one hand, and terrorism, sterility, and puritanical Islam on the other. In the life of Mohammad himself, democracy, eroticism, and Allah appear as natural allies, their energies reinforcing one another. It’s ironic that salafists and ayatollahs have long feared this communion, and the erosion it portends for their power. Now, it seems, their nightmare is coming true.
–Steven Vincent is a freelance investigative journalist and art critic living in New York City. He blogs about Iraq at www.redzoneblog.com.