Falling arches

McDonald's is under fire all over the world -- with Thursday's bombing only the most recent. Can the fast-food conglomerate withstand the heat of global anti-Americanism?


Michelle Goldberg
December 6, 2002 6:01AM (UTC)

Around the world McDonald's restaurants have been burning. One was torched in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Nov. 20. Another blew up in Moscow on Oct. 19, while less than a month before, a small bomb ripped through a franchise in a suburb of Beirut. According to Reuters, militants arrested in July for the bomb attack on the U.S. consulate in Karachi had also been planning to bomb McDonald's. In December 2001, a McDonald's was bombed in Xian, in central China, and in September 2001 a pipe bomb exploded on a McDonald's in Istanbul.

And Thursday, according to early reports, a bomb tore through a McDonald's in Makassar, in eastern Indonesia, killing at least three.

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While no one claimed responsibility for the bombing in Turkey (nor, yet, in Indonesia) the others were attributed to Islamic extremists. And, in fact, some Muslim fundamentalists have called for attacks on the burger empire. Arabic-language Web sites watched by scholars because they frequently publish dispatches from al-Qaida, have also targeted McDonald's and other global American companies, according to As'ad AbuKhalil, a research fellow at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of "Bin Laden, Islam and America's New 'War on Terrorism.'"

For more than three decades, the public's craving for those limp little hamburgers has fueled a massive global expansion, making McDonald's the most recognizable company in the world, with franchises in 121 countries. There's a meat-free McNistisima menu for fasting Greek Orthodox in Cyprus, a McRye burger in Finland, a McNifica burger in Argentina, a kosher McDonald's in Israel, and in France, wine to set off the standard greasy fare. But since the end of the Cold War, that growth has also made it a global favorite for those looking to blow up their own little piece of the American empire.

And along the way, the Golden Arches have become a Rorschach test of domestic and international discontent, mirroring anxieties at home and abroad. In United States, the company is blamed for the obesity epidemic, today's hot-button medical panic. McDonald's faces two separate lawsuits from customers claiming the food made them fat. One was filed by 56-year-old 270-pound Caesar Barber, the other by 19-year-old 270-pound Jazlyn Bradley and 14-year-old 170-pound Ashley Pelman. In Europe, McDonald's symbolizes a gauche, encroaching hyperpower and the decline of national epicureanism. To pro-Palestinian activists, McDonald's helps keep Zionist expansion alive by investing in Israel. And to terrorists, it offers a way to strike at the heart of the American global economy. Since 1990, franchises have been bombed or burned by various groups in France, Belgium, Mexico, London, Chile, Serbia, Columbia, South Africa, Turkey and Greece.

Not surprisingly, none of this is beefing up the company's bottom line, though it's unclear precisely how much foreign rancor is hurting the company. McDonald's just closed 175 restaurants overseas, including two in Jordan. It pulled out of three countries entirely -- Bolivia and two in the Middle East that it declines to name. McDonald's did not return calls for this article, but according to Reuters, the company has attributed the shutdowns to shaky overseas economies and a corporate retrenchment necessitated by weak sales in the United States and the fallout from mad-cow disease. Yet the recent upsurge in bombings is more than routine. "I think it is a big threat looming large on the horizon. Until recently, all these cases of arson, vandalism and bombing were sporadic," says Mohammed Elahee, assistant professor of international business at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. Now they come monthly, if not weekly.

Meanwhile, the key to the success of McDonald's abroad, according to Philip Zeidman, a Washington lawyer who writes for Franchise Times magazine, is whether people will continue to buy franchises. But since 9/11, the "unsettled conditions and the reluctance of people to travel ... has reduced the willingness of American companies to send salesmen over to support local operations."

But the bombings have more than an immediate economic impact. They're symbolic of a larger rejection of Americana, the culmination of separate strains of opposition that all spell trouble for U.S. companies that depend on relentless expansion. "Foreign expansion should be the most crucial part of their business strategy because the U.S. market is already saturated," says Elahee. "The only way they can grow is to go abroad and gain market share. Even if [anti-American sentiment] does not reduce their profit significantly right now, there are serious implications for their profitability in the future."

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"In many parts of the world if people can't reach the embassy, there's always a McDonald's," says James L. Watson, a Harvard professor of anthropology who studies McDonald's, particularly its function as a "worldwide political target."

Fast-food bombings began after the Cold War, when opposition political groups -- whether it was Chilean splinter group FPMR/D or the Greek Fighting Guerrilla Formation -- started to focus more on the sources of "cultural power," Watson says: "to questions of cultural imperialism as opposed to rather old-fashioned forms of military imperialism."

"During the aftermath of the Korean war, I don't think there were many protests against Spam even though it was very dominant during the 1950s and '60s," Watson says. "Coca-Cola, too, has long history of engagement in the world but didn't become a political target until fairly recently."

So why McDonald's, and why now? "McDonald's represents an entire packaged cultural system," he says. "The fact that it's food makes it even more dangerous and more powerful -- there's nothing more powerful than food in any society as a symbol of identity."

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As dissidents have become more sophisticated about the mechanics of globalization -- its effects on local agriculture, health, mealtime rituals, domestic economies and cultural homogeneity -- reasons to hate McDonald's have multiplied, so that right now opposition to the chain is coming from several different, occasionally overlapping, directions.

In Europe, it emanates from the environmentalist and global justice movement, whose hero, French farmer José Bové, became famous in 1999 after leading protesters to tear down a McDonald's that was under construction in Millau, France. For people like Bové, the problem with McDonald's isn't what it symbolizes -- it's what it is. "Attacking McDonald's is not a surrogate for attacking America's foreign policy," says Benjamin Barber, author of the bestselling "Jihad vs. McWorld." "They're attacking McDonald's because it directly stands for things that they oppose."

In Bové's case, that means "malbouffe," or bad food. The activist farmer is a devotee of local, organic agriculture and the leisurely relishing of traditional French eating -- and living. McDonald's, of course, stands for precisely the opposite -- factory farms, standardized production, bad taste in both senses of the phrase.

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"What fast food is about is a fuel stop for an individual," says Barber. "It's an alternative to a home family meal or a three-hour restaurant meal. It quick and throwaway. You don't have to bring your family, and it takes less than a half hour. You fuel up for the business day. Fast food is part and parcel of modern efficient capitalism."

But in the Middle East, it's Zionism, not turbocapitalism, that has people enraged. There, McDonald's is part of a much larger boycott of American companies -- including Starbucks and Coca-Cola -- that operate in, or support, Israel. As the British Guardian reported in November, "During the past year business at western fast food and drinks firms has dropped by 40 percent and trade in American branded goods has shrunk by a quarter" in the Islamic world.

As AbuKhalil points out, much of the movement is led by secular leftists as opposed to Islamists -- their hero is Bové, not bin Laden. Unlike Bové, though, these peaceful activists don't want to drive American companies out -- they want them to change. "We're asking companies, especially ones that have invested in Israel after 1993 because they thought it would be a gateway to the Middle East, to reconsider and see it's very unfair for the Palestinians," says boycott activist Kirsten Scheid, a 32-year-old American Princeton graduate student who has lived in Lebanon for 10 years.

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The boycott's success can be measured in part by the growing popularity of Muslim-produced goods that are sold as alternatives to boycotted products. As Zeidman recently wrote in Franchise Times, the boycott of U.S. sodas has caused an Iranian company, Zamzam Cola, to grow past its usual base -- Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan -- to Bahrain, and it may soon enter markets in Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. "The company has 'discussed orders with about 50 big companies' in those countries as well as in Asian countries like Indonesia," according to the story. Meanwhile, Zeidman notes, "sales of Coke have declined by half in Northern Morocco since the boycott began."

Thus the bombings partly represent an extremist attempt to co-opt a pacifistic movement with deep resonance throughout the Arab world. Speaking of bin Laden, AbuKhalil says that "he is now more attuned to public opinion than Karl Rove."

As Barber says, "The rage has been there for a long time, but until somebody started throwing bombs people didn't pay attention. When rage and anger and resentment and fear go unrecognized, it does escalate into this jihadic war against both the virtues and vices of the Western world."

For its part, McDonald's is trying hard to counter that rage by emphasizing its local roots as opposed to the American origins that made it popular in the first place. "You will see companies that close down for prayers a certain number of times a day, that have a dietary regime so that the products being sold meet all local requirements, that have separate seating for men and women," Zeidman says.

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In countries where there have been bombings, the restaurants have taken out ads to say that the franchises are owned and staffed by local people. Several years ago, McDonald's in France ran an ad using a corpulent cowboy to mock America while stressing that its food was made in France with French ingredients. Earlier this year, McDonald's France attempted to respond to concerns that it was bringing American-style obesity to sleek French children by taking out ads warning parents not to take their kids to the restaurant more than once a week.

Will this approach work? The answer usually depends on how one feels about McDonald's in the first place. Those like Watson or Zeidman who are generally positive about the company think the ads will help, while the company's critics see them as pandering.

And bombers operate under their own, far less discerning, logic. After all, it's not just McDonald's -- other fast-food outlets associated with America have been targeted, too. On Nov. 12, two Pizza Huts and a U.S.-owned restaurant called Winners were bombed in Lebanon, part of a campaign that began in May with an attack on a Kentucky Fried Chicken. One KFC was trashed in April in Cairo, and another was burned last October in Karachi. These attacks, Elahee says, "are a bad sign not just for McDonald's but for all U.S. businesses, because it shows that people in other countries are becoming increasingly hostile to American business."

The sheer ubiquity of McDonald's makes it a much easier target, though, and more and more often, Islamists are specifically designating it as the enemy.

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A month after 9/11, an article in the online Islamist magazine Khilafah declared, "The restaurant chain McDonald's and the military aircraft manufacturer McDonnell-Douglas have come to represent, respectively, two devices that are used for ensuring American global reach ... The fast food chains have become imperial fiefdoms, sending emissaries far and wide."

AbuKhalil says that last week, an Arabic Web site that frequently disseminates messages from al-Qaida was festooned with the logos of various American companies and instructions to join the boycott. So it doesn't surprise him, he says, that "lately all the attacks have been against American companies."

Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama Bin Laden," has noticed something similar. Before the recent, highly publicized Osama bin Laden audiotape there was another one -- allegedly from bin Laden, though it was never proven -- that Bergen says didn't get much play. That one called for attacks on Western economic targets. Attacks on McDonald's, he says, would be part of that campaign. "If I was running a McDonald's in Pakistan right now, I'd seriously consider closing it down."


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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