One of the stranger things about East–West relations these days is the schizophrenic attraction to, and hatred of, Western culture that characterizes many foreign leaders and celebrities.
Did these mixed-up folk idealistically flock to the West, and then end up bitterly disappointed that their experience did not match their dreams, in the infamous manner of Sayyid Qutb (“The America That I Have Seen”)? The Egyptian intellectual Qutb leveraged his subsidized residence in Colorado into an unhinged and racist screed against Western popular culture; among his targets were provocative women, “primitive Negroes,” rampant divorce, and heartless capitalism. Qutb’s two years in the U.S. were the font of his anti-Western and Islamist thought, which he developed as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. His work in turn inspired much of the anti-Americanism of al-Qaeda specifically and current radical Islam in general.
Mohamed Morsi was briefly president of Egypt and is the currently jailed head of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, whose attempt to create an Islamic theocracy (in one-election, one-time fashion) was thwarted by a military coup. In his year-long tenure, Morsi sought to institute Islamic law and to bargain for the freedom of the terrorist killer responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Omar Abdel-Rahman, serving a life sentence in a U.S. prison. Morsi labeled Israelis “bloodsuckers” and the “descendants of apes and pigs,” as well as claiming that Israel had no right to the territory it has occupied since 1948.
In short, Morsi’s Brotherhood sought to reify Qutb’s anti-Western views in a theocratic government in the Middle East. Morsi apparently was so suspicious of the West that he used a scholarship from the Egyptian government to go to the University of Southern California from 1978 to 1982 and lived well in culturally liberal Los Angeles. Then, in a tough academic job market in the early 1980s, Morsi landed an assistant professorship at California State University, Northridge. He returned home in 1985 after eight apparently successful years as an American academic. Perhaps he was vested and now receives a Public Employees’ Retirement System pension while in prison in Egypt. Two of his children were born in California and remain U.S. citizens. Why would the Muslim Brother wish to live in Los Angeles, of all places, or have his children tainted with American citizenship.
Perhaps critics of America go through a sort of rite of passage, like the current Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who is seeking to fool the United States into greenlighting Iran’s nuclear program. The 1980s were a chaotic — and dangerous — time in Iran, especially for its entrenched elite, to which the Zarif family belonged. An Islamist reign of terror killed or exiled millions of Iranians on mere suspicion of lacking proper Islamist zeal. The war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq saw hundreds of thousands of poorly equipped conscripted troops obliterated at the front. The wealthy and connected Zarif clan had already, during the increasing unrest that led to the toppling of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, sent the 17-year-old Javad far away to a tony prep school in the Bay Area of California.
The young Zarif must have loved American free speech, academic freedom, and the freewheeling popular culture of the West Coast. Otherwise why would he have spent eleven years on an easy, subsidized path through American academia (a BA and MA from San Francisco State; a second MA and a PhD from the University of Denver) when his revolutionary nation was in extremis?
Many of the world’s leading anti-Western public figures were trained in the West, seek Western medical care when ill, and in general adopt Western customs that they claim to hate.
By the time he returned to Iran in 1988, Zarif had chosen to spend years in America — avoiding the Iranian theocracy’s reign of terror and nihilistic war with Iraq back home. He is now the theocracy’s point-man in trying to end U.S. sanctions and thereby prepare the path for Iran to get a nuclear weapon. His fluent English and his American savvy charm the naïve — even as he insults his American interlocutors with glib lectures on the limitations of the American political system and the pathologies of American culture in which he once indulged.
Note that Zarif can speak so knowledgeably and in English because he is a product of the system he now seeks to thwart. The smooth Zarif goes mum, however, when asked about Iran’s practice of stoning homosexuals, executing women accused of adultery, jailing and executing apostates, banning free speech and assembly, incarcerating foreigners, rigging elections, and subsidizing terrorist murderers. He certainly would never have gone to America if Americans had treated Iranians the way his Iran now treats Americans — and indeed its own people. One wonders whether Zarif’s fury at the U.S. will force him to seek the revocation of the Great Satan citizenship of his two children — or whether their blue passports are too valuable as insurance policies for when Iran goes through the next round of revolutionary purges, and Zarif might once again need a parachute to land back in Godless America?
The list of Westernized anti-Westerners could easily be expanded. Mohamed Atta, one of the terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, spent over a decade in Germany, apparently not under coercion. In fact, lots of the 9/11 hijackers had come into the U.S. under expedited student-visa programs and indulged their appetites before purging them on hijacked suicide planes.
The Pakistani playboy cricketer Imram Khan made millions in Great Britain as a celebrity athlete, married an heiress to the Goldsmith fortune, and has children who are British subjects. Recently, the retired Khan has reemerged as a Pakistani politician, spouting anti-Western platitudes and running for various offices on a platform that includes reaching out to the Taliban and institutionalizing Islamic rule. Khan is infamous for his stirring up of global protest and riot over the phony 2005 Newsweek story that American guards had supposedly flushed a Koran in a toilet at the Guantanamo Bay Detention Center. Khan now seems to be intent on banning the Western lifestyle that he enjoyed as a rich, famous, and notoriously promiscuous athlete in Britain.
In truth, many of the world’s leading anti-Western public figures were trained in the West, have Westernized children and other relatives, seek Western medical care when ill, and in general adopt Western customs that they claim to hate.
There are lots of explanations for these moth-to-flame pathologies. A sense of inferiority can permeate the psyche. After a Zarif or a Morsi has lived in the West for some period of time, paradoxical reactions can ensue. Too seldom do we see a simple sense of gratitude for getting a chance at a liberal education and constitutionally protected freedoms unknown at home. One common Qutb theme is a sense of self-loathing for having been “corrupted” by the West. Morsi did not run home after a year at USC. Khan does not discuss his Western party-boy behavior when he meets with the Taliban. They assume that it was a debased Western culture, not their own appetites, that made them stray from Islamic purity.
They assume that it was a debased Western culture, not their own appetites, that made them stray from Islamic purity.
There arises anger as well: Why is Pakistan or Iran such a mess and California in comparison is not? A man from Mars might point out that the former places do not have constitutionally protected human rights, consensual government, protections of private property, free markets, equality between the sexes, meritocracy in lieu of tribalism, religious tolerance, and cultural and religious diversity, but the U.S. does, and that makes it a far safer, wealthier, and more humane place. Instead, a sense of inferiority prompts victimization and blame-gaming: Iran or Egypt or Pakistan could have had wealth comparable to America’s if not for imperialism, colonialism, and corporate exploitation.
Finally, the young people sent here for university training do not get out much during their stay in the West. They do not often go off campus and meet normal, unapologetic Americans. Most elite foreigners who come to the U.S. do so to be branded with American degrees, and they spend most of their time in the fantasyland that is now the typical academic environment. They are exposed to a mostly left-wing homegrown anti-Americanism; their own similar views are fertilized and rarely questioned, and their appetites can be satiated, while their guilt is indulged, on the sybaritic campus. Two reactions then follow: They decide that if the Americans they associate with do not defend their own culture, then that culture is not worth defending; and they eventually develop a contempt for Westerners who do not, as they do, feel proud of their own civilization.
A final note of warning. Naïve Westerners believe that they can welcome any and all foreign elites into their universities, and that the resulting exposure to liberal values will only make them sympathetic to the West. But more likely the opposite is true. Such familiarity instead breeds contempt, for a variety of both understandable and sick reasons. Liberals assume that exposure to postmodern liberal culture will make a foreign national become liberal in their own Western sense, and therefore a friend and ally. Any anti-American sentiment is presumably based on the observation of American right-wing behavior abroad, which can be corrected by liberal nostrums. In truth, liberals are clueless that people like Zarif and Morsi, to the degree they are not complete cons and hypocrites, hate the U.S. not for what it does, but for what it represents and what it brings out in people. In other words, an openly gay couple in San Francisco or a young single woman in skin-tight jeans and a halter top in Georgetown would offend a Zarif or a Morsi just as much as, or perhaps more than, a U.S. frigate sailing the Mediterranean to maintain the postwar world order.
As a general rule, when we encounter Westernized anti-Westerners, we should expect that the more they know about who we are at home, rather than what we do abroad, the angrier they will become.