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A McDonald's in Kabul?

A McDonald's in Kabul?

2 Mins
March 15, 2010

November 9, 2001 -- Benjamin Barber, author of Jihad vs.

McWorld, claims in a Washington Post interview (November 6, 2001) that it is not the United States’ involvement in Saudi Arabia or support of Israel that is behind the anger and discontent of the Islamists and other anti-Americans. What they are really upset about is that they "feel they are being colonized by Nike and McDonald's and by the garbage" that our capitalistic and consumerist culture produces.

According to Barber, “McWorld” is the conformist, bland, and lowbrow cultural products epitomized by McDonald's, MTV, or movies like American Pie. He sees these as trivial and childish, without any moral merit. Moreover, he sympathizes with the fundamentalist critique of American culture, saying that they are right to be wary of our cultural exports. He may be right that these particular cultural products are ghastly—but he misses the point that no one, anywhere, is being forced to consume these products.

While Barber is taking unfair pot shots at American culture, he actually is onto something important, though he doesn't know it. This is about culture—the Islamists and other fundamentalists are angry about the cultural infiltration by America and the West. But it's not the culture of McWorld that is troublesome to these folks; it is the culture of the Enlightenment and the values of this culture that are at the heart of this conflict.

What bin Laden and those like him fear is not a McDonald's in Kabul, but the Enlightenment values and ideas that would make such a thing an un-extraordinary affair. The McDonald's itself doesn't pose a threat to their worldview, a world of fear and obedience to God, a world of close-minded adherence to ancient tenets. But the phenomenon of McDonald's—a small hamburger restaurant transforming itself into a worldwide corporation and changing the retail world forever—is made possible by the freedom, reason, achievement, and individualism of the Enlightenment. And these values undermine the fundamentalist's worldview because they break down the close-mindedness and question the blind obedience that are so essential to it.

Shawn E. Klein
About the author:
Shawn E. Klein
Foreign Affairs