Who's to blame for the rise of violence and extremism in the Middle East? Repressive dictators? Osama bin Laden? Islam?
According to a top Egyptian state official, it's Tom and Jerry, the feuding cat-and-mouse duo from the classic children's cartoon.
Sure, why not.
As reported by Egyptian Streets' Mohamed Khairat, during a speech at a conference called "The Media and the Culture of Violence" at Cairo University, Ambassador Salah Abdel Sadek, the head of Egypt’s State Information Service, told the audience that the Tom and Jerry cartoon, which is popular with children across the Middle East, sets an idea in the viewer’s mind that violence is natural.
"[Tom and Jerry] portrays the violence in a funny manner and sends the message that, yes, I can hit him … and I can blow him up with explosives. It becomes set in [the viewer’s] mind that this is natural," said Sadek.
Following the ambassador's statements, the privately owned Egyptian media outlet Youm7 ran an article titled "Causing terrorism: 5 charges faced by the cartoon 'Tom and Jerry' in Egypt," which warned parents that the cartoon "conveys negative habits like smoking and drinking alcohol," "teaches children that stealing is normal," "distorts the concept of justice," and helps children "invent sinister plans" using "sharp instruments" such as chainsaws and pistols.
(Who knew there was so much sociopolitical commentary in a 1940s cartoon about a cat trying to catch a mouse?)
Of course, blaming pop culture for youth violence is nothing new, nor is it unique to Egypt (or even the Middle East): Americans may recall that in the 1990s, shock rocker Marilyn Manson's music was unfairly blamed for the Columbine Massacre (the perpetrators didn't even like his music).
But Tom and Jerry isn't exactly Marilyn Manson. And in the Middle East, blaming the corrupting influence of Western culture for the region's problems has a long and much more insidious history.
Authoritarian leaders blame corrupt Western influence to deflect from their own failings
The strategy of blaming the corrupting influence of the West for the Middle East's woes has long been used by the region's corrupt authoritarian leaders to deflect blame from themselves and obscure how their own policies of violence, repression, and intolerance also contribute to violence and extremism.
The daily arrests, torture, beatings, and disappearances of journalists, activists, students, and regular citizens by the Egyptian security services in the three years since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seized power in a coup in 2013 has arguably done far more to "normalize" violence in the minds of Egyptian youth than a lifetime spent watching Tom and Jerry chase each other around the house with cartoon weapons.
And ISIS's strategy of seizing and maintaining power through the use of extreme brutality and shocking violence owes much more to the legacy of Saddam Hussein's decades of brutal, bloody rule than it does to any Western television show, video game, or movie.
The idea that a Western cartoon from the '40s is more to blame for the rise of violence and extremism than the actual violence authoritarian governments perpetrate against their own citizens (often using Western weapons and equipment) would be laughable if it weren't so utterly depressing.
If people in the Middle East internalized the lesson that violence gets results, they learned it from watching their own governments, not a cartoon. As legendary shock rocker Alice Cooper once famously pointed out: "There's more blood in 'Macbeth' than in my show, and that's required reading in school." And in this case, there's far more blood on the hands of the Egyptian government than there is on the hands (or paws) of a cartoon cat and mouse.
This is terrible political strategy that plays right into the hands of extremists like ISIS
This strategy of blaming the West for all the region's problems also plays right into the hands of groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda, who are then able to claim that by defeating the West and removing all vestiges of Western cultural influence, the Middle East will once again be returned to its glorious past.
And since these same authoritarian leaders who blame the region's problems on Western influence often rely on Western influence to remain in power (thanks to things like billion-dollar weapons contracts from the US and Europe and special training for their security forces by elite Western militaries), one obvious way to get rid of this pernicious Western influence is to — surprise! — get rid of these leaders.
Blaming the corrupt influence of the West for your country's problems while using Western-made weapons to repress your citizens may not be the smartest political strategy, in other words. Because when a group like al-Qaeda or ISIS comes along and tells people it's time to take up arms and drive out the Western influence once and for all, where, exactly, do you think they're going to start?
Hint: It's probably not at Tom and Jerry's house.