Those small town Americans are so racist.
It’s a message constantly echoed by English language channels here in the Middle East. For writers at Vox, the NYT, the Guardian and many American comedians, the backwardness of Middle America is a constant source of material. Call it a trope. Perhaps an obsession.
And why not? For Muslims or LGBT individuals, many parts of Texas or the American south are far less accommodating that New York, or San Francisco or Austin. That’s a fact. In these places, Islamophobia is real.
But slow down a second. Would Sacha Baron Cohen try the same stunt in small-town Saudi Arabia, or even downtown Amman? How would a video detailing the response of the Muslim Brotherhood to a proposed Cathedral in their part of town be perceived by the same audience, who so energetically applaud Cohen’s Mosque prank?
A video pointing out that Christians and LGBT individuals in the Middle East can have a very hard time, would be factually accurate. Many liberal audiences, while recognising this, might also feel uncomfortable; the rhetoric would feel targeted, unkind, and likely to divide. There’s an element of point scoring. Western audiences watching this kind of content, might assume that ‘all Muslims think this way.' The elite in the Middle East would be sympathetic; ‘we warned you’, they would say. ‘This is how ordinary people in our country think’!
There’s a certain genius to it all. Left leaning Americans get to smirk at the backwardness of their fellow countrymen, at the same time as congratulating themselves on their own moral superiority.
When it comes to exposing public officials or Republican lawmakers, Cohen is performing a public service.
On the other hand, attacking ordinary people for prejudice or lack of education, feels very similar to right-wingers who attack the people of the Middle East for a long list of talking points. It feeds the status quo, the culture wars, and a media construct that has facilitated division. A similar situation exists in the Middle East. Constantly pointing to the attitudes of ordinary people in the region, has increased inequality, shielded a corrupt elite, and hardened attitudes.
A cynical onlooker might conclude that the real point of the video is not to combat prejudice in the abstract, but to expertly stoke the flames of a American tribalism. It’s not really about fixing attitudes towards Islam. It is about exploiting them.
The Kingman Mosque prank is artful. By constantly informing the world how prejudiced Americans are, it keeps things happily situated and fixed. Arabs watch with concern. Inside America, the chasm between the enlightened and the deplorable, grows deeper.
Thanks Cohen - you’re hilarious. We get the joke. We too, feel superior.
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