Mideast peace through porn

The Vietnam War-era slogan “Make love, not war” has been taken to its logical extreme by an Israeli pornographic website, which is engaged in a sort of cultural exchange of bodily fluids with the Arab world.

According to a recent report in Daily Variety, when executives at Ratuv installed software that could track where their users were logging in, they found that the site was getting thousands of hits a week from such countries as Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq, even though some of these governments block the ".il” domain address on Israeli websites. So Ratuv responded by translating the entire site into Arabic, and traffic quickly skyrocketed.

What makes this more than a tale of clever entrepreneurs making a buck off Middle Eastern sexual repression is that Ratuv isn’t an ordinary porn site. It’s a clearinghouse of political parody porn, making fun of Israeli affairs such as sex scandals and often featuring Mossad agents or army soldiers getting out of uniform, thus providing a view of the Israeli military seldom seen in the Arab world. The next step, says Ratuv’s manager, is to make movies with Israelis and Arabs performing together, in order to foster more intimate relations between the two peoples.

This may not be as wacky as it sounds. Author Salman Rushdie, in his 2004 essay “The East is Blue,” pointed out that even though pornography is ruthlessly suppressed in many Muslim countries, it is still ubiquitous. What’s more, it can have political ramifications. “Pornography exists everywhere, of course, but when it comes into societies in which it’s difficult for young men and women to get together and do what young men and women often like doing, it satisfies a more general need; and, while doing so, it sometimes becomes a kind of standard-bearer for freedom, even for civilization,” Rushdie wrote.

Expecting Arab men to be swayed by Ratuv’s political content might be a little like expecting American men to read the articles in Playboy, but the site can’t be any less effective in changing public opinion than U.S. media efforts to date. After pouring millions into the Al Iraqiya TV station to create an unbiased news outlet in Iraq, the U.S. handed the channel to the Iraqi government, and it soon became a Shiite propaganda arm for blasting Sunnis and coalition forces. Our Arabic-language satellite TV network, Al Hurra, is thought to attract only a fraction of the viewers of Al Jazeera.

A U.S. porn invasion might not do as much to change hearts and minds in the Middle East as, say, toning down President Bush’s bullying rhetoric toward the region or putting more pressure on Israelis and Palestinians to settle their differences. But it’s a lot more likely to happen.