‘Thomas Friedman: The imperial messenger’

Thomas Friedman’s writing on the Middle East is condescending and often misleading.

Friedman has contradicted himself consistently in his writing and statements over the years [GALLO/GETTY]

This excerpt is from Belen Fernandez’s book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso Books.

This excerpt begins with late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s criticism of the Orientalist tendencies Friedman exhibits in his 1989 bestseller From Beirut to JerusalemAll quotes appearing in this excerpt are footnoted in the work itself.

Edward Said has challenged Friedman’s superimposition of desert scenery onto the contemporary Middle East in his explanation of the Hama massacre of 1982, which Friedman attributes in part to the notion that Syrian President Hafez al-Assad viewed the Sunnis of Hama as “members of an alien tribe – strangers in the desert – who were trying to take his turkey”, something we are told happens in Bedouin legends. Said comments:

“So astonishing a jump, from modern, predominantly urban Syria to the prehistoric desert, is of course the purest Orientalism, and is of a piece with the moronic and hopelessly false dictum offered later in the book that the Arab political tradition has produced only two types: the merchant and the messiah.”

It should be noted, however, that Said’s original conception of Orientalism as Eurocentric prejudice must be amended slightly in Friedman’s case to incorporate his generalisations about Europeans themselves, collectively denounced as “Eurowimps” when they do not exhibit sufficient enthusiasm for US military endeavours against Arabo-Islamic peoples. Friedman alternately cajoles particularly intransigent language groups with persuasive slogans like “Ich bin ein New Yorker”, advocates removing France from the UN Security Council because, “as they say in kindergarten, [it] does not play well with others”, and warns Spain that a withdrawal from Iraq in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings of 2004 is a potential modern-day equivalent of the European appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

The Arab merchant/messiah dichotomy criticised by Said meanwhile expands in complexity with Friedman’s detection in the 1990s of the latest, most immediate threat to America and the world, the “Super-Empowered Angry Man”, who is both angry at American hegemony and empowered by globalisation and technology to wreak large-scale havoc in response. 

Saudi hijackers first came into contact with al-Qaeda and went through Terrorism 101 when they signed up for the jihad in Afghanistan.

– Thomas Friedman

The Super-Empowered Angry Man is not bound by ethnic specifications, although it quickly becomes apparent that his most probable incarnation is as an Arab Muslim, and in 2000 Friedman offers the example of Osama bin Laden, said to be the proprietor of a “sort of Jihad Online (JOL)”.

Friedman occasionally drops roundabout hints as to the role of the United States in the creation of such networks, such as “It seems likely that some of the Saudi hijackers first came in contact with al-Qaeda and went through Terrorism 101 when they signed up for the jihad in Afghanistan against the Soviets”, or his note in The World Is Flat that, once bin Laden and his jihadi companions had forced the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in 1989 “(with some help from US and Pakistani forces)… bin Laden looked around and found that the other superpower, the United States, had a huge presence in his own native land, Saudi Arabia, the home of the two holiest cities in Islam. And he did not like it”.

In 2010, meanwhile, Friedman admits that: “the Middle East we are dealing with today is the product of long-term trends dating back to 1979. And have no illusions, we propelled those trends. America looked the other way when Saudi Arabia Wahabi-fied itself. Ronald Reagan glorified the Afghan mujahidin and the Europeans hailed the Khomeini revolution in Iran as a ‘liberation’ event”.

Terrorism and US foreign policy

Of course, not only did the United States fund, train and equip the mujahidin to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Pentagon was also instrumental in transporting thousands of Islamic fighters to Bosnia in the 1990s to aid the Bosnian Muslims in the war against the Serbs, once again sanctioning the notion of intercontinental jihad. However, Friedman’s rare acknowledgement that al-Qaeda and similar phenomena might have logical and readily detectable foundations in US foreign policy choices is decisively overwhelmed by his predilection for identifying endemic Arab/ Muslim deficiencies.

Consider, for example, his explanation in Longitudes of the “cognitive dissonance” among young Muslim males in Europe “that is the original spark for all their rage”. Undeterred by the fact that he possesses no qualifications in any of the behavioural sciences, Friedman packages his faux expertise in language easily comprehensible to the average computer-savvy Westerner:

“They [the cognitively dissonant Muslims] must be saying to themselves: If Islam is God 3.0 and Christianity is God 2.0 and Judaism is God 1.0, how could it be that those living in countries dominated by God 2.0 and God 1.0 are, on average, doing so much better – politically, economically and educationally – than those living in countries practicing God 3.0?”

According to Friedman, young Islamists answer their own question by assigning blame to Europe, the United States and Israel, while refusing to understand that “much of Christianity is really God 2.0.1 – it is the updated version that has gone through the Enlightenment. The same goes for much of Judaism, which is actually God 1.0.1. Islam would benefit so much from a reformation of its own, a version of God 3.0.1”, which would permit the faith to “embrace modernity”.

“There are a lot of angry people in the world. Angry Mexicans. Angry Africans. Angry Norwegians.

– Thomas Friedman

Evidence of Islam’s incompatibility with the modern world ranges from a lack of separation of mosque and state to a “minority” of Saudi preachers who invoke Quranic verses to justify 9/11, while Friedman claims that “there was no Christian or Jewish terrorist leader I knew of who was citing… references [to Christian and Jewish holy books] as justification for going and killing non-Jews or non-Christians”.

That Friedman continues to attribute George W. Bush’s murderous military campaigns to “moral clarity” suggests that the church/state separation is not fundamentally threatened when god instructs US presidents to go to war against mainly non-Jews and non-Christians. The relentless invocation of the Bible by Jewish leaders and Christian Zionists to justify ethnic cleansing of Palestinians meanwhile underscores the relatively lenient enlightenment standards to which Gods 1.0 and 2.0 are held.

The Islamic “struggle with modernity” temporarily becomes the sole dominion of Sunni Muslims in 2005, when Friedman relates the following quandary in an article:

“There are a lot of angry people in the world. Angry Mexicans. Angry Africans. Angry Norwegians. But the only ones who seem to feel entitled and motivated to kill themselves and totally innocent people, including other Muslims, over their anger are young Sunni radicals. What is going on?”

Why not Mexico, Africa and Norway?

Friedman’s sectarian selectiveness in this case is presumably due in large part to the current failure of Iraqi Sunnis to cooperate with Friedman’s various decrees, among them: “You cannot imagine how much distress there is among certain Arab elites that the people of Iraq preferred liberation by America to more defiance [of the West] under Saddam”.

One simple answer to the question of “What is going on?” might incorporate the fact that the United States has not, in the past two years, engaged in a full-fledged military occupation of Mexico, Africa or Norway while simultaneously spawning a civil war.

As for Friedman’s portrayal of suicide bombing as a distinct characteristic of “Sunni Islamic civilisation” – a result of young Sunnis being “on the one hand, tempted by Western society, and ashamed of being tempted” and “on the other hand… humiliated by Western society” and the superior “spirit of innovation” fostered by Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism (which has debuted as God 0.0) – ambidextrous Sunni humiliation is merely the latest manifestation of Friedman’s failure to keep abreast of his own views on certain issues.

Consider his pronouncement three years earlier, in March of 2002, according to which “every day for the past six months, Palestinian men and women – many of them secular, not religious [i.e., not Sunni] – have strapped dynamite around their waists and blown themselves up against Israeli targets”.

The following week, Friedman declares a threat to the security of “all of civilisation… because Palestinians are testing out a whole new form of warfare, using suicide bombers… to achieve their political aims,” and denounces as “a huge lie” the argument that Palestinian suicide bombing is an effect of “desperation” under the Israeli occupation, since “a lot of other people in the world are desperate, yet they have not gone around strapping dynamite to themselves”.

A little over four months later, in August of 2002, Friedman surfaces in Sri Lanka with the following lede: “It’s often forgotten that while suicide bombing started in the Middle East, the people who perfected suicide as a weapon of war were the Tamil Tigers militia”. It thus appears that suicide bombing is not in fact a “whole new form of warfare” and that Palestinians are not the only ones blowing themselves up, although Friedman still fails to mention other relevant precedents, such as suicide attacks conducted against the Israeli occupation in Lebanon prior to Israel’s withdrawal. It also bears emphasising that neither the Tamil Tigers, the Lebanese suicide bombers of Shia, Christian, and Communist background, or the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War II were Sunni.

Regarding the “huge lie” that desperation has led Palestinians to strap dynamite to themselves, Friedman meanwhile backtracks into acknowledging in 2004 that “I don”t buy it myself, but one can plausibly argue that 37 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank have made Palestinians so crazy that scores of them would have volunteered for suicide bombing missions over the last few years”.

Another rare reference to possible causality occurs in 1997: “The reason Israel’s security chiefs warned Mr Netanyahu that his [settlement building] in Jerusalem could trigger violence was because they understood that the Palestinians, having no other means to stop Israeli bulldozers, would resort to terrorism”.

Politics, not religion

As University of Chicago professor Robert Pape points out in an interview, published in The American Conservative three days after Friedman poses the question of why young Sunni males are “so willing to blow up themselves and others in the name of their religion”:

“The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion as much as they are by a clear strategic objective: to compel modern democracies to withdraw military forces from the territory that the terrorists view as their homeland. From Lebanon to Sri Lanka to Chechnya to Kashmir to the West Bank, every major suicide-terrorist campaign – over 95 per cent of all the incidents – has had as its central objective to compel a democratic state to withdraw”.

The central fact is that overwhelmingly suicide-terrorist attacks are not driven by religion.

– Robert Pape, professor at University of Chicago

Pape is speaking in the interview about his book Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, which – interestingly enough –  appears on the recommended reading list that Friedman composes on his short-lived New York Times blog in 2005 (though he does specify that the list is composed of “books that I have read, read about or read parts of”).

Pape’s reminder that, prior to the US invasion, “Iraq never had a suicide-terrorist attack in its history. Never” goes unheeded by Friedman, who prefers to rely on the analysis of his biographer/translator friend Raymond Stock, “a long-time resident of Cairo”, who informs Friedman that Sunni suicide attacks in general are “the modern incarnation of several deeply rooted and interlocking wars” dating back to the seventh century.

The prudence of Friedman’s decision to temporarily exempt the Shia faith from the “struggle with modernity” is meanwhile called into question when he subsequently discovers that the “cold war” between the United States and Iran is “the real umbrella story in the Middle East today – the struggle for influence across the region, with America and its Sunni Arab allies (and Israel) versus Iran, Syria and their non-state allies, Hamas and Hezbollah”.

The Orientalist tendency to anchor Oriental subjects in antiquity, where they remain in perpetual need of civilisation by the West and its militaries, is viewable time and again in Friedman’s discourse – from his outright insistence that Arabs and Muslims are “backward” and intent on maintaining a situation in which “the past buries the future”, to his more refined anthropological assessments, such as one made during his foray into Umm Qasr, Iraq, a month following the 2003 invasion: “It would be idiotic to even ask Iraqis here how they felt about politics. They are in a pre-political, primordial state of nature”.

Shaping the Iraqi primordial mush proves a daunting task for the United States, despite various assistance from Friedman, ranging from his encouragement of national cohesion via articles like “Are There Any Iraqis in Iraq?” (answer: there is an Iraqi silent majority, but it is being outperformed by the Iraqi Khmer Rouge posing as the Iraqi Viet Cong), to advice regarding treatment of elected Iraqi leaders: “We should lock them in a room and not let them out until they either produce a national unity government, so Americans will want to stay in Iraq, or fail to produce that government, which would signal that it’s time to warm up the bus”.

In 2010, Friedman once again brings up the “simple but gnawing question” that has yet to be resolved concerning Iraq’s prewar incarnation: “Was Iraq the way Iraq was (a dictatorship) because Saddam was the way Saddam was, or was Saddam the way Saddam was because Iraq was the way Iraq was… incapable of self-rule and only governable by an iron fist?”

The disingenuous irony of championing a war-based “democracy experiment in the Arab-Muslim world” when one admits to not knowing whether the demos on the receiving end of the war is interested in the sort of democracy that one intends to install is even better highlighted in Friedman’s previous explanation that, “unlike in Eastern Europe [in the late 1980s] – where a democratic majority was already present and crying to get out, and all we needed to do was remove the wall – in Iraq we first need to create that democratic majority”.

As for the limits that govern disingenuous experiments in democracy, Friedman hints at these with such statements as “While we would like an Iraqi national movement – binding Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis – to coalesce, we don’t want it coalescing in opposition to us”.

This excerpt is from The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso Books. Reprinted here with permission.

Belen Fernandez is an editor at PULSE Media. The Imperial Messenger is available for purchase at Verso, Amazon, and numerous other sites. Read interviews with the author at Jadaliyya and the NYTimes eXaminer.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.