Saturday, August 21, 2004


The Al-Jazeera satellite television station has rethought its strategy because of the ban imposed on it by the new Iraqi government. They've choked over taped beheadings, and decided to follow the approach Mel Brooks used with Nazis: make them an object of laughter, so that they will lose their psychological power to frighten. Of course the Arab station's targets are not European fascists, but Western infidels. To mock both Christians and Marxists, they're plagiarizing an old American TV show, Hogan's Heroes.

Their new Arabic sitcom, Hadji's Heroes, is set in the U.S. detention center at Guantánamo Bay. The good guys in this are the noble imprisoned terrorists, always fooling their slow-witted American guards to make the camp a center for espionage and sabotage. The captured Talibaners are led by an anonymous Saudi called Colonel Hadji. Just as in those classic U.S. movies from World War II, his cell includes plenty of ethnic diversity. There are members from Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia. Their most outlandish conspirator is their computer whiz, Sergeant Leroy X, a Black Muslim from Watts who sports an Afro and mirrored sunglasses.

These jihadis run rings around their clueless captors. The camp commander is the Navy's Captain Hoosegow, a timid paper-pushing bureaucrat, made even more laughable for the Arab audience because she's female. She plays the Christian straw figure here, wearing a cross and often stuttering tirades to the inmates about how her God is stronger than Allah. Their other main foil is their jailer, Marine Sergeant Stools, most noted for his desperate refusal to be aware of what's going on right under his nose. He plays the ultimate decadent Westerner, an open agnostic who keeps repeating "I know nothing!" Al-Jazeera decided to prove these two characters were not examples of religious bigotry by having both roles played by Christian actors from Palestine.

The prisoners have built a secret tunnel under the wall that comes out in the office of the head of the Cuban espionage agency, Raúl Sinlafe. He is a caricature of atheist communists, a bearded cigar smoking rum drinker who aids their plots because they will help destroy capitalism. They manipulate him easily by spouting slogans like "Trabajadores del mundo, unen!" From there they engage in clever schemes to mess up the Yankees.

In the premiere episode, a new Muslim chaplain comes to Guantánamo, a very tall Chinese-American pro athlete named Yao. He converted when the U.S. reinstated the draft, trying to get the same exemption that Ali claimed in the 1960's. Unfortunately for him, the new President Kerry was so determined to separate church and state that he ended all ministerial deferments. The Army conscripted Yao and stuck him in the chaplain's corps. Playing on his naive sentimentality, the prisoners soon have him smuggling out coded messages, which he thinks are innocent letters to their families.

While the camp personnel are shown as ineffectual jokes, there is a recurring character who is depicted as a truly nasty fanatic enemy of Islam. That is FBI Agent Everhigh, who dresses like a seventeenth century Puritan, and keeps hissing about a modern Crusade against the Muslim world. He suspects Yao of helping the prisoners, and has him charged as a traitor. Hadji gets Leroy X to hack into Yao's seized computer in Everhigh's office, and replace their coded letters with filthy pictures from the web. That preserves the secrets of their network, but only saves Yao from execution. Lacking evidence to convict him of treason, the frustrated FBI man instead gets him court-martialed for possession of erotic pictures.

This show may seem silly, but it is actually a very clever move in a worldwide cultural war. American conquests in that struggle aren't just with fast food franchises, soft drinks, blue jeans, and rock; another major export is television programs. Look how many of our couch potatoes are glued to their screens for sitcoms, and consider how much social propaganda they unwittingly soak up amid the laugh tracks. Now shows like this one will offer an alternative, aimed not just at Arab audiences, but the entire world.

Way back in 1959, Arthur C. Clarke wrote a classic short story, often anthologized, warning about a Red Chinese plot to morally corrupt America with direct satellite broadcasting of increasingly raunchy and perverse erotic programs. Its title, which now may be prophetic about these efforts at Muslim cultural terrorism, comes from its frightening last three words:
Land of Lincoln and Franklin and Melville, I love you and wish you well. But into my heart blows a cold wind from the past; for I remember Babylon.

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