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'Thomas Friedman: The imperial messenger'

The following is an excerpt from my book The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released today by Verso. The excerpt, originally published at Al Jazeera, begins with late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said’s criticism of the Orientalist tendencies Friedman exhibits in his 1989 bestseller From Beirut to Jerusalem. All quotes appearing in this excerpt are properly cited 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.

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”.

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.

Click here to read the rest of the excerpt at Al Jazeera.

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