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How ‘Generation Wealth’ Is a Boon for Islamist Extremists

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Generation Wealth. Inset: Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apartment decorated with Versace furniture, her favorite brand, 2005. In 1994, Xue started an industrial cable company and has since run four more. She is a member of three golf clubs, each costing about $100,000 to join. Background: A Wall Street investment banker's cuff links collection being sold in an upscale jeweler's shop in Greenwich, Connecticut, home to America's richest neighborhood, 2012 (Photos: Flickr/A.Davey)
Generation Wealth. Inset: Xue Qiwen, 43, in her Shanghai apartment decorated with Versace furniture, her favorite brand, 2005. In 1994, Xue started an industrial cable company and has since run four more. She is a member of three golf clubs, each costing about $100,000 to join. Background: A Wall Street investment banker’s cuff links collection being sold in an upscale jeweler’s shop in Greenwich, Connecticut, home to America’s richest neighborhood, 2012 (Photos: Flickr/A.Davey)

The popular film, Generation Wealth, is playing into the hands of Islamist extremists and their plans for the West. Here’s how:

Islamist extremists won’t ever need to wage some final apocalyptic battle against the West. At the rate of our own self-sabotage — particularly the unraveling of American exceptionalism —  all Islamic extremists have to do is wait.

What one of the proofs? Look at our culture of extravagance, as documented in the now-popular film Generation Wealth (see trailer below).

Generation Wealth is film about American excess that offers peripheral insight into the mindset that drives Islamist extremists and their ability to successful recruit the next generation of devotees — some of whom will end up being terrorists.

While the film doesn’t directly discuss Islamist extremism, nor did it intend to offer any kind of commentary on religious extremism, it does speak to the the decay of the West that ISIS and other jihadi groups use to drive their narratives of a corrupt Western culture.

 

The Woe of Decaying American Culture Are the Same Talking Points Used by Islamic Extremists

Photo journalist and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield spent 25 years producing “Generation Wealth” as a project that tracks the lives of the super rich and those aspiring to mimic affluence. As I watched streams of disturbing narratives and the trail of their stories over a generation — their obsessions, vulnerabilities, successes and failures — there was essentially another stream that ran through my mind:

“Islamic extremism doesn’t have to defeat the U.S.
It just needs to outlast it.”

I don’t remember where I first heard that, but I’ve heard it several times. I’ve heard it most often when the conversation of a clash of cultures and the conflict of values arises. Those conversations are more frequent now that American political culture has become so polarized, with our common value system fraying at the seams.

The more uncertain America is about its values, and the more those values are debated in unhealthy ways, the more the way gets paved for other types of extremism.

This conflict or shifting of ethos inadvertently gives more ground to extremist talking points. Those talking points circle around some of the key touch points raised in Generation Wealth:

  • The “American Dream” has morphed into a form of voyeurism. It’s not enough to have something, but people need to see you have it or experience it.
  • The American ethos has moved from creation to consumerism.
  • The value of the human being is shifting from who you are to what you have.
  • The presentation you give to the rest of the world through your material life (that often cannot be afforded or maintained) denies your own reality. One of the interview subjects is a mother whose desire for plastic surgery eventually spiraled into an inability to pay rent, obsession with money and irreversible loss of her children.
  • Social media hyper speeds consumerism and desire to display affluence and influence, regardless of whether or not someone actually has either.
  • Instagram is a particularly painful reflection of the new value system, where worth is based on the number of likes a post receives. For youth, particularly young girls, sexually suggestive images will get more likes than images of family and community. Youth are trying to move away from associations with family, community and faith, and toward greater social acceptance through the reward system of social media likes.
  • “Everybody bows to the [expensive designer] bag.” Wealth is the new god.
  • Elite education systems are geared toward fine tuning people to rule the world, versus emphasizing good character and community orientation.
  • 300 years ago, the most exciting thing was to become a discoverer or an explorer. The most exciting thing now is to become a tycoon. Culturally, this shift occurred in the 1980s with fictional characters like Gordon Gekko in films like Wall Street.
  • Addictions are rampant: wealth, physical appearance, acquisition of designer goods, and even an addiction to work and success as defined by the mainstream public.

When the popular culture is saturated with one form of extremism seeped in selfishness, materialism, objectification and essentially dehumanization of the individual, it — by default — makes a system that appears to be it’s complete opposite more attractive.

There is no question about the unique form of dehumanization Islamic extremism (or any other type of ideological extremism) brings in reality. Nonetheless, the exorbitant lifestyles Generation Wealth touches on (whether in the West or in wealthy Muslim nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Brunei) is used as a selling point for Islamist extremism.

For those looking to advance Islamist extremism, there isn’t much that needs to be done than to sit back and watch popular culture and the headlines — and conflict they brew — overwhelm the public, who, in turn, will inevitably look for what appears to be a simpler value system.

Generation Wealth signals our decaying culture. The way to challenge this decline isn’t necessarily to fight decay with argument, but to emphasize an authentic culture by practicing a more benevolent way of being.

And that’s not Islamist extremism.

 

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Shireen Qudosi

Shireen Qudosi is Clarion Project's National Correspondent.