Hard as I try, my mouth is fixed in an unattractive gape — unable, it seems, to correct itself. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, in his usual clumsy attempts to suggest liberal sympathy while in fact propagating many, many Mideast myths, has caused this unfortunate disfigurement.
In his most recent column on Saturday, Friedman decided to help us understand a phenomenon sweeping the Arab and Muslim worlds, and was generous enough to coin an actual phrase to simplify this concept for the benefit of all Western civilization — he calls it “The Narrative.”
According to the New York Times columnist, “The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11.” Yes, he capitalizes it. Like “The Donald.” Or “The Treaty of Versailles.”
Kind of him to generalize this way. It would have been far more difficult for me if I actually had to think about the Arab-Muslim world as a diverse grouping representing real-life individuals from varying cultures, histories, religions, political persuasions and stages of social, political and economic development.
In his column, Friedman expands on his “The Narrative,” saying these Arab-Muslims feel that “America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.”
I don’t suppose that our declaration of a grandiose “War on Terror” which refused to distinguish between extremist Salafi militants and legitimate resistance movements — dubbed a “mistake” by no less a figure than British Foreign Secretary David Miliband earlier this year — had anything to do with that perception?
Miliband wrote in the Guardian in January that the term “War on Terror” is “misleading and mistaken,” and that efforts to “lump” extremists together had been counterproductive, playing “into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common.”
How positively Friedman-esque.
He might further note that the current Obama administration has also ceased to use such terms because they have been singularly divisive and entirely unsuccessful.
But I digress. My mandibular deformity was actually caused by Friedman’s pronouncement that for at least two decades…
“U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny.”
Where does one begin, pray tell? Tyranny, might be a good starting point. Friedman may care to note that two of the most tyrannical governments in the Arab world — Egypt and Saudi Arabia — are, in fact the US’s closest allies in the Arab Mideast. Egypt has been ruled with an iron fist by President Husni Mubarak for three decades, a man who hits slam-dunks every election year by garnering an eyebrow-raising 90% of the popular vote — and whose prisons are notorious torture cells for political dissidents. The theocratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia doesn’t even try to feign democratic trappings. No elections, state-controlled media, zero tolerance for dissent — women forbidden to drive by religious mandate.
So let’s count the Egyptian and Saudi populations out from Friedman’s description, because they probably don’t feel like they have been “freed from tyranny.” Let’s instead turn our conversation to his “rescuing Muslims” scenario.
Hundreds of thousands of Arab and Muslim men, women and children ceased to exist after our onslaughts in Iraq and Afghanistan. US politicians cheered on Israeli troops as they decimated entire civilian neighborhoods in Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2009, destroyed non-military infrastructure vital to these areas and killed over a thousand innocent civilians in each place. Israel fired off one million cluster bomblets in Lebanon, most of these in the war’s final three days while ceasefire agreements were being negotiated – knowing full well that 98% of victims are civilians, a third of them children. Says Friedman:
“Have no doubt: we punched a fist into the Arab/Muslim world after 9/11…primarily to destroy two tyrannical regimes — the Taliban and the Baathists — and to work with Afghans and Iraqis to build a different kind of politics. In the process, we did some stupid and bad things. But for every Abu Ghraib, our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.”
Forgive me, but is Friedman saying that our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were about regime change? I foolishly thought we had sold the notion to the global community that this was about bringing Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda to justice for their role in 9-11. If this is so, Arabs and Muslims should forgive us for being liars as well.
“A million acts of kindness?” Name three.
And then Friedman posits that “most of the Muslims being killed today are being killed by jihadist suicide bombers in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia…” Tell you what. Name three Americans who can read and do not know that the US government funded, groomed, armed and created the jihadists we are fighting in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq today.
“You need to tell us what it (Islam) is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques,” Friedman urges Arabs and Muslims worldwide. Perhaps if we ceased our efforts to block the popular and balanced coverage of Al Jazeera’s English channel from being broadcast on our television screens, we would get a clearer picture of the Muslim word, Tom.
Most galling, however, is Friedman’s attempt to coin a phrase and insert it into our own nation’s narrative. It smacks of Hasbara, a Hebrew term — often interpreted as ‘propaganda’ — used by Israel and its supporters to direct the Middle East debate and reshape public opinion abroad.
This is a matter of significant priority for the Israeli government, and it has at its disposal a veritable army of Hasbara activists in all the important international capitals and campuses. For an unusual — meaning, available to the public — example of Hasbara in action, one need only look to the 116-page document “The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary” published on Newsweek‘s website, with talking points for Hasbara activists on everything from Iran’s nuclear energy program to the Gaza War to illegal Settlements in the West Bank.
I can only imagine that Friedman wrote this column at 3 am one morning in a full-flegded Jerry McGuire moment that he will hopefully come to regret. He has no facts whatsoever to back up his assertions, and his only source for information on this supposedly widespread “The Narrative” that has infiltrated the collective Arab-Muslim brain is — wait for it — the claims of an anonymous “Jordanian-born counterterrorism expert.”
Forgive me for saying this because I actually think well of Jordan and its resourceful citizens. But, the current Jordanian establishment, like many other Arab and Muslim elitists, is so far up the collective US, Israeli and Saudi arse, it would take major surgery to find it, let alone free it. Find some new friends, Friedman.
“Many Arab Muslims know that what ails their societies is more than the West, and that The Narrative is just an escape from looking honestly at themselves,” concludes Friedman.
Tom, look honestly at yourself. Do you really think that if Arab-Muslim societies were free of external interference and able to elect their leaders in democratic elections, they would hold these alleged grievances?
I suggest that our double standards in dealing with the Middle East and our many, many failed policies there, including propping up brutal leaders to do our bidding, justifiably engenders resentment and anger, not just in the region, but globally too. You ought to have passed by Europe during Israel’s Gazan military adventure earlier this year when hundreds of thousands of Europeans in all their major cities protested angrily against the IDF’s killing spree. Then again, maybe we would have been forcibly subjected to another one of your columns on the Misinformed European Narrative.
First published: November 30, 2009, Huffington Post