If history is any guide, British comedian Sacha Baron-Cohen, creator of the faux-Kazakhstani reporter Borat, is well on his way to becoming the next Madonna. No, he doesn't sing--apart from a brilliant live rendition of "Throw the Jew Down the Well" recorded before an enthusiastic audience in Tuscon, Arizona. But he does something just as important: he gets scholars to take his largely pedestrian talents seriously enough to convince the rest of us that there's more to Borat than we might otherwise think is there.
The last time a pop culture figure got this much attention from scholars was back in the 1980s, when Madonna's "Material Girl" act took the world by storm. Almost as soon as young girls began dressing as virgin-whores scholars, particularly of the feminist persuasion, began writing about the significance of the Madonna phenomenon. Some found her blend of spirituality and sexuality liberating for women at a moment when Reaganite conservativism was reaching its political and cultural zenith. Others felt Madonna's image signified the hyper-commodification of sexuality and the sexualization and exploitation of young girls. Whatever they thought however, the important thing was that everyone was talking about Madonna.
Ironically (or perhaps not), Baron Cohen was first brought to the US by the Material Girl herself, when another character he created, Ali G--the lead character in Baron Cohen's HBO show, "Da Ali G Show"--was featured in the video of her 2000 mega hit, "Music." Madonna fell in love with the Ali G character, supposedly a London-based gangsta rapper wanna-be of South Asian heritage, after seeing Baron Cohen's Christmas Special for the BBC.
That's right: A Jewish comedian who portrays a Muslim gangsta rapper does a Christmas special for the BBC, which then attracts the attention of the quintessentially Catholic Madonna, who goes on to become a devotee of the Jewish mystical tradition known as the Kabbala. Maybe there's hope for peace between the three Abrahamic religions after all, especially if Madonna moves on to Sufism once the Kabbalah Center takes enough of her money. Even if she doesn't, the Madonna-Baron Cohen relationship and the rise of Borat offers scholars a gold mine of postmodern analytical possibilities.
On Da Ali G show, skits involving Borat generally revolve getting the predominantly southern, conservative Christians he interviews to discuss sex--particularly homosexuality--and bodily functions in much more vulgar manner than we would imagine they normally do. More interesting, however, are the moments when he uses his supposed ignorance to goad people into revealing prejudices that most probably didn't know they harbored.
But this isn't what has gotten my colleagues in the field of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies interested (and for many, angry) about Borat. Instead, it's what--or more precisely, whom--Borat supposedly represents. With his dark hair, bushy moustache, and faux-Kazakhstani identity and accent, it seems that many if not most viewers assume that he is Muslim. And this worries many of my colleagues, who fear that Baron Cohen's depiction of Kazakhstan as a backwards, deeply misogynistic and anti-Semitic country, is adding grist to the mill to America's ignorance of and prejudice towards Islam.
The trouble is, Kazakhstan isn't a Muslim country. More than half the population is in fact Christian (split between Russian Orthodox and Ukranian Catholics). And at least from the episodes of the show I have seen, Borat has done or said nothing to suggest that he is Muslim. In fact, in one episode, where he's campaigning through Mississippi with a local conservative congressional candidate (whom he earlier got to admit that Jews are all going to burn in Hell), he explains to a potential voter that the man will be "strong like Stalin." I don't recall Stalin being that popular with the jihadi set, whose example of a strong leader is more likely to be Salah al-Din.
One of my colleagues suggested that it would have been better if Baron Cohen gave Borat a made up identity, similar to the "foreign man" character, created by Andy Kaufman, who ultimately developed into the lovable Latka Gravas on TV's "Taxi." But Latka was a foreigner for a kinder and gentler era, when Americans sense of Central Asian geography was far more sketchy than it has become five years into the war on terror. The anonymous foreigner as floating signifier doesn't work when we're building an 800 mile long fence to keep out Mexicans and spending hundreds of billions of dollars each year to finance wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and against Islamo-fascism more broadly. Borat's much more cynical naivete seems more germane to the time in which we're living, when Americans, and America and the world, are more divided than they've been in decades.
In the end the trouble with Borat is not Islam, which has little if anything to do with the character. It's that he reveals to Americans just how brutish and ugly we can be underneath our veneer of civility and hospitality. Of course, Iraqis have already discovered this the hard way, while the rest of the world has looked on in disgust. Let's hope Americans get the message Borat has brought from Kazakhstan, and don't just sit in the theater singing along to his music, like so many patrons of that country and western bar in Tuscon.