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Who Is Afraid Of the Satellite Dish?

THE Arab world is currently torn apart by two opposing global trends, the need to preserve cultural and ethnic identities and the homogenizing effect of the satellite dish that disseminates Western culture. In parts of the Arab world, the satellite dish is the new enemy; a war on it is taking place - from the Arabian Gulf in the East to Morocco in the West.

Saudi Arabia is an extreme case; the Mutaween (the morality police) literally fire their guns at the rooftops of homes where these devices are located. Saudi conservatives claim that TV programs pollute their ultraconservative culture. But although the Saudi government considers the dishes illegal, they proliferated during the Gulf War. The official Saudi press did not announce Iraq's occupation of Kuwait until two days later and kept secret the influx of American troops for more than a week. Many Saudis are trying to balance a desire for objective news coverage and the dish's impact on their culture.

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In countries with a tradition of openness like Egypt, the war against the dish is one of words. The Egyptian press is conducting a debate on the impact of an alien culture brought by the satellite dish, and how it draws ``the new generations'' away from their Arab-Islamic heritage. Of course, Western films and TV have long been available in Egypt: Programs like Dallas that portrayed extramarital affairs were acceptable as long as the couples were not actually shown in bed together.

MOST recently Al-Shaab, Egypt's main opposition newspaper, opened such a debate; many intellectuals took part. The discussion ranged from the serious to the ridiculous. Women intellectuals like Hiba Saddedeen and Noor Elhoda Saad presented humanistic concerns, and were the only participants to make distinctions between censoring political information and censoring morally offensive content. They would accept the satellite dish if it were limited to news and cultural shows. But they claimed that not all those who bought the dish did so to tune in to CNN; rather they watch movies filled with sex and violence. Ms. Saad was worried about the effect of Egyptian children internalizing Western values.

Professors and columnists like Mohaamed Yahia and Kamal Imam focused on the place of origin of the broadcast and the religious and cultural beliefs associated with it. They argued that TV programs had replaced traditional Christian missionaries in their effort to de-Islamicize the Middle East. But rather than religion, the programs advocated a pro-Israeli slant on the news, secularism, consumerism, sex, and violence. One participant called it ``a promotion of the culture of AIDS.''

However, those who took part in the debate suggested solutions that ran against what they advocate locally. They suggested that the government should take a leading role in controlling what is beamed into Egypt. At the same time these intellectuals also complained of the Egyptian government's monopoly of the local media. They wanted a lifting of censorship of local debates but increased censorship of Western opinions and values.

Arab governments are confused by the dish's impact on political attitudes. CNN informs people about events within their own countries, information kept out of the official media. Hence governments find themselves joining Islamists; instead of opposing free sex, they would restrict free speech.

The satellite-dish war is an example of the Arab world's current confusion. Middle Eastern governments are against the Islamists when they criticize and attack the governments. Yet they ally themselves with Islamists in some attacks on Western culture. The combination of this confusion, the shifting nature of enemies, and the Islamists' challenge is likely to produce more conflict.

However, the war on the dish is not Samuel Huntington's ``clash'' of civilization. ``Clash'' suggests equal combatants. But the communication has been one-way. Satellite dishes beam Western culture and values to the Middle East. But Westerners aren't exposed to Middle Eastern values and culture. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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