New Straits Times
More original thinking to tackle problem
Byline: Farish A. Noor
Edition: Main/Lifestyle; 2*
Section: Saturday Forum
Column: Cross currents
VISITORS to Muslim countries may soon find that they will not be able to quench their thirst with a sip of Coca-Cola. Instead, they may well be offered the real thing instead: Mecca-Cola.
Contrary to what some people may think, Mecca-Cola is not a joke. The new brand of Cola was launched earlier last month in France by a French- Tunisian entrepreneur who saw both the market potential and political necessity to break the near-hegemonic grip of American consumerist culture on the rest of the world.
He could not have chosen a better time to launch his new product, what with anti-American sentiment at an all-time high the world over.
Armed with the catchy slogan “Don’t drink like an idiot, drink with commitment”, the Mecca-Cola company was inundated with orders as soon as the red-and-white look-alike bottles hit the shops.
Within a week, orders for nearly half a million bottles came from Muslim countries the world over, mostly from Pakistan.
But Mecca-Cola is not the first Muslim initiative at reproducing fast food products that are, ironically, American-inspired but also aimed at challenging American hegemony.
There has also been Qibla-Cola in the Arab world, and for those living in Shia communities, Zam-Zam-Cola pioneered by Iranians.
Nor are these initiatives exclusive to the Muslim world. In former East Germany there was the equivalent of Coke, called Vita-Cola.
Vita-Cola still exists today, and the company even sponsors a football team of its own, Hansa Rostock.
Oddly enough, sales of Vita-Cola remain confined to the parts of Germany that were once Communist. Till today one can find Vita-Cola only in East Berlin.
The growing popularity of brands like Mecca-Cola, Qibla-Cola and Vita- Cola reflects the contradictions of the times we live in. On the one hand they show just how low the status and image of America is the world over, and how people are prepared to alter their consumption patterns in a show of protest against what they see as American arrogance and cultural imperialism.
But at the same time it cannot be denied that all of these brands have one thing in common: they reflect precisely the same thing that they reject – and imitate that which they deny.
Here, then, lies the twisted irony of hegemony. For one feature of cultural and political hegemony is that it conquers and subdues in the most sophisticated of ways.
As the North African philosopher and founder of modern political sociology Ibn Khaldun argued in his text the Muqadimmah, it is when people imitate the ways of their conquerers that they are well and truly defeated. This is the true sign of submission.
We now live in a globalised world that bears the heavy cultural, political and economic imprint of America and its consumerist culture. All over the world, anti-globalisation and anti-American groups and movements have appeared to challenge and resist growing American dominance.
A survey of the state of cultural affairs in the Muslim world today will support the claim that Muslims hate America more than ever before, and are closer to becoming Americans themselves as never before too.
On our campuses we can see young girls wearing the tudung as a symbol of their Muslim identity and rejection of Western values except that sometimes these head-scarves happen to be made of denim, like the Yankee- style jeans they wear.
The fact, however, remains that one cannot simply negate an enemy through simplistic dialectics, for the simple reason that being in an oppositional dialectical relationship with the Other merely confirms one’s dependence on that Other in the first place.
The present impasse between the West and the Muslim world sums this up, with the leaders of both sides mouthing a bellicose and confrontational rhetoric that sounds more and more similar by the day. (There are times when one even feels like locking up George Bush and Saddam Hussein in the same cell, as both seem to think according to the same confrontational zero-sum logic.)
But the nations and communities of the developing world must learn that to confront Western (and specifically American) hegemony cannot be done through piecemeal gestures like imitating Western products and lifestyle.
This does nothing to challenge American hegemony. If anything it merely reinforces it and confirms its dominant status. Mecca-Cola may be a challenger to Coke, but it remains an imitation and as we all know imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
The anti-globalisation movement must therefore set about to rethink some of its fundamental premises. One could even argue that it is not their clueless leader (whose election remains in doubt) who is the problem.
The problem lies in an uneven and unjust global economic order that favours the rich and powerful while systematically impoverishing and disempowering the rest.
The lure and charm of Coca-Cola lies not in the fact that it is an American product, but in the fact that America happens to be the most economically powerful and culturally influential country in the world today.
America’s power and influence is neither accidental nor preordained: it is the result of unfair and unequal economic practices in a world governed by market forces that are unbridled and beyond the control of anyone. To deal with this problem requires more original thinking than simply imitating American products. It will require a sustained political commitment to changing the fundamental laws and norms of global economics and international finance instead. Thus far, the developing world has not been able to do that.
So for Muslims to think they have defeated the Great Satan by drinking an Islamic soft drink every bit as bad as Coke, would be a cruel joke on ourselves. American hegemony will not disappear with a gulp.