Tom Stoppard talks about how Syd Barrett partly inspired his new play, Rock 'n' Roll, which deals with young Czechoslovaks in the late 60's, turned on by Western culture and music, negotiating their identities under a suffocating Communist dictatorship.
Fred Kaplan uses Stoppard's play to ask whether this phenomenon could repeat itself in America's relationship with Arab publics.
"What inspired many of the Eastern bloc dissidents during the Cold War—what they found so alluring about the West—was not so much our market capitalism or parliamentary democracy; still less was it our government's policies. It was the insouciant freedom of our culture. It was our rock 'n' roll.
What does America have going for it now? What could we send out to the world that might have the same impact on, say, Arabs and Muslims today that rock, jazz, and B-movies had on Russians and Europeans during the Cold War?"
Kaplan notes an important difference between then and now:
"Since the world was divided into two blocs (the American-led West and the Soviet-led East), those who hated the East were predisposed to like the West. But today, in a world of dispersed power, people have many models from which to choose; Saudis or Egyptians who despise their autocratic regimes are more likely to find solace in Islamic fundamentalism than in any Western beacon."
I think this is right, but I also think that Kaplan gives too little credit to the debate taking place within the category of "Islamic fundamentalism." Marc Lynch has a long piece on the role that a new, tech savvy generation of reformers is playing in the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and how many young MB bloggers are using online debate fora to contest identities and develop new, multiple understandings of what it is to be modern, Arab, Egyptian, and Muslim. Though the MB rank and file is still dominated by a salafist orientation which looks suspiciously on attempts to accomodate Western ideas into Islamic cultures, these young activists are using their online pulpits to reframe the debate and wield influence disproportionate to their numbers.
Importantly, the fact that these discussions are happening online also enables women to participate in a way which would not be conceivable were they taking place down at the local mosque.
So while we can't really say that these activists are embracing U.S. popular culture in the same sense that the Charter 77 activists did, they are embracing U.S.-developed technologies in order to participate in the processes which are central to democracy: open and vigorous debate over the direction of their party and their nation. Needless to say, this is a positive development, and I think the best thing the U.S. could do at this point is say nothing, as any perceived U.S. support for these activists would severely undermine their credibility, while doing whatever we can to prevent President Mubarak from moving against them and replaying the too-common scenario of the regime crushing the moderates and strengthening the extremists in order to neccessitate continued authoritarian rule.