Wanted: Arab Tom Friedmans

The columnist appears to want nothing more than to remake the Arab/Muslim world to fit his neoliberal ideas.

    Wanted: Arab Tom Friedmans
    The more recent brutal regime crackdown on protesters suggests Friedman was perhaps premature in his assessment of Bahrain as "the Arab country doing the most innovative experiments with democracy" [EPA]

    Among the salient functions of Orientalist pseudo-scholarship is the presentation of the Arab/Muslim world as a barbarian backwater in need of civilisation imported from the West. 

    Integral to this function is the co-optation - whether consensual or not - of certain cohorts within the backwater that are deemed to be sufficiently "like us" so as to justify the civilising effort and endow it with a democratic tinge. 

    Consider the methods of New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman, who throughout the course of his career has been forced to endure one Arab/Muslim world-induced headache after another. Whether it's the Palestinians being "gripped by a collective madness", the nation of Afghanistan behaving like a "special needs baby", or the Arab Street insisting on "making potato chips" in an era "when others are making microchips", the region has proved resistant to progress despite Friedman's helpful lectures on the revolutionarily democratic nature of the US devastation of Iraq

    Mercifully, Friedman encounters occasional pockets of relief such as "emphatically pro-Western Saudis, who have studied in America, visit regularly, and still root for their favourite American football teams". These cohorts highlight the relative backwardness of their regional co-inhabitants and reassure American audiences that, with the proper training, Arabs and Muslims can be purged of anti-US sentiment. 

    Tattoos and pizza in Bahrain 

    The emphatic Saudi football fans are discussed in Friedman's supposed homage to environmentalism, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, the same work that features praise for the little-known writer William G Ridgeway, "who penned a thoughtful and provocative series of 'Letters from Arabia'". Friedman quotes from one of these thoughtful missives but refrains from mentioning its title - "Those Drunken, Whoring Saudis: Desert Islam's problem with women" - or its characterisation of Saudi evolution from "an insignificant mob of goat-herders and woman-beaters" into "the most important women-beating goat-herders in the world". 

    Hot, Flat, and Crowded also hosts an appearance by the "innovative Crown Prince" of Bahrain, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, whom Friedman professes to have "known and liked for many years". The pair's excursion to a Bahraini bistro for pizza in 2007 becomes even more innovative when the girl at the next table is "dressed like an American teenager and had what looked like a tattoo on her left shoulder".

     Bahrain deploys paramilitaries to patrol city

    The bearer of the maybe-tattoo prompts a critical political discussion between Friedman and the crown prince on how the departure of US Navy dependents from Bahrain and the threatened "collapse of the sole American-style high school", attended primarily by "the sons and daughters of Bahrain's business and political elite", would have "brought to an end everything from the American women's annual flower show in Bahrain, to American-Bahraini softball games, to young Americans competing in soccer leagues". 

    That the termination of the flower show would not have had a profound impact on the lives of most Bahrainis is of course hinted at by Friedman's own references in The World Is Flat to the extreme socio-economic inequality in the country, the proliferation of land-hogging royal palaces that block access to the sea for fishermen, and the oppression of the country's Shia majority. 

    The more recent brutal regime crackdown on protesters suggests Friedman was perhaps premature in his assessment of Bahrain as "the Arab country doing the most innovative experiments with democracy". 

    A Friedmanisation of the Arab/Muslim world? 

    Why does Friedman temporarily assign the role of democratic poster boy for the Middle East to Bahrain's "progressive king" when the same family has ruled the country for over two centuries? 

    One need not look much past the fact that he considers the following to be signs of democratisation: Bahrain was "the first Gulf state to hire [US consulting firm] McKinsey & Company to design an overhaul of its labour laws ... and the first Gulf state to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States". Under progressive tutelage it also "opened itself more than ever to foreign direct investment from abroad and privatisation of state-supported industries at home". 

    Unluckily for regional regimes that are not military and economic allies of the US, democratic shortcomings are not always forgivable. Case in point: Iraq, where Friedman applauded "the most radical-liberal revolutionary war the US has ever launched - a war of choice to install some democracy in the heart of the Arab-Muslim world". 

    Speaking with talk show host Charlie Rose in May 2003, however, Friedman announced that the real purpose of the invasion was to burst the "terrorism bubble" that had emerged in "that part of the world" and that was to blame for 9/11: 

    We needed to go over there, basically, um, and ... take out a very big stick, um, right in the heart of, of that world ... What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad, um, and basically saying: "Which part of this sentence don't you understand? You don't think, you know, we care about our open society; you think this bubble fantasy, we're just gonna let it grow? Well. Suck. On. This". 

    The Orientalist application of a single "terrorism bubble" to the entire Arab/Muslim world, made possible by the general interchangeability of populations "over there", conveniently obscures the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 - something Friedman had acknowledged three months earlier. The homeland of Osama bin Laden, 15 of the hijackers, and a contingent of American football fans meanwhile finds itself on the receiving end not of sucking orders but rather of curious Friedmanian fatwas such as: "The problem with Saudi Arabia is not that it has too little democracy. It's that it has too much." 

    Friedman would presumably like nothing more than to remake the Arab/Muslim world in his image, that is, ecstatically neoliberal and convinced of the centrality of the US military to human freedom. 

    In theory, though, a "Friedmanisation" of the region could also connote the mass production of vainglorious cheerleaders for a war on the "Other" - including Thomas Friedman himself. 

    Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in 2011. She is a member of the Jacobin Magazine editorial board, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blogThe BafflerAl Akhbar English and many other publications.

    Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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