Sunday, November 29, 2009

Tom Friedman: The Narrative

America vs. The Narrative by Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times

What should we make of Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, who apparently killed 13 innocent people at Fort Hood?

Here’s my take: Major Hasan may have been mentally unbalanced — I assume anyone who shoots up innocent people is. But the more you read about his support for Muslim suicide bombers, about how he showed up at a public-health seminar with a PowerPoint presentation titled “Why the War on Terror Is a War on Islam,” and about his contacts with Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni cleric famous for using the Web to support jihadist violence against America — the more it seems that Major Hasan was just another angry jihadist spurred to action by “The Narrative.”

What is scary is that even though he was born, raised and educated in America, The Narrative still got to him.

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. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.

Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

Although most of the Muslims being killed today are being killed by jihadist suicide bombers in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, you’d never know it from listening to their world. The dominant narrative there is that 9/11 was a kind of fraud: America’s unprovoked onslaught on Islam is the real story, and the Muslims are the real victims — of U.S. perfidy.

Have no doubt: we punched a fist into the Arab/Muslim world after 9/11, partly to send a message of deterrence, but 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.

The Narrative was concocted by jihadists to obscure that.

It’s working. As a Jordanian-born counterterrorism expert, who asked to remain anonymous, said to me: “This narrative is now omnipresent in Arab and Muslim communities in the region and in migrant communities around the world. These communities are bombarded with this narrative in huge doses and on a daily basis. [It says] the West, and right now mostly the U.S. and Israel, is single-handedly and completely responsible for all the grievances of the Arab and the Muslim worlds. Ironically, the vast majority of the media outlets targeting these communities are Arab-government owned — mostly from the Gulf.”

This narrative suits Arab governments. It allows them to deflect onto America all of their people’s grievances over why their countries are falling behind. And it suits Al Qaeda, which doesn’t need much organization anymore — just push out The Narrative over the Web and satellite TV, let it heat up humiliated, frustrated or socially alienated Muslim males, and one or two will open fire on their own. See: Major Hasan.

“Liberal Arabs like me are as angry as a terrorist and as determined to change the status quo,” said my Jordanian friend. The only difference “is that while we choose education, knowledge and success to bring about change, a terrorist, having bought into the narrative, has a sense of powerlessness and helplessness, which are inculcated in us from childhood, that lead him to believe that there is only one way, and that is violence.”

What to do? 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. But none of their leaders dare or care to open that discussion. In his Cairo speech last June, President Obama effectively built a connection with the Muslim mainstream. Maybe he could spark the debate by asking that same audience this question:

“Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, ‘This is not Islam.’ I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn’t. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us — and to yourselves.”


  1. Yo, Friedman,

    How about this narrative? Does America know about it?

    The Anglo-American-Wahabi Alliance

    Or this one here?

    Sanctions, Genocide, and War Crimes


    What sez u?

    Want more?

  2. Well, I'm flabbered that a decent liberal like you should link to a neocon nut like Friedman. It's Saturday and I'm feeling decidedly lazy, so I'll let another member of the 'Tommy Friedman Appreciation Society" do the talking: Jewbonics: Friedman Admits to Being Mentally Unbalanced

  3. Tom Friedman isn't a neocon. I'd say he's somewhere between Bill Kristol and Nicholas Kristof, a kind of somewhat hawkish liberal. If I had to call him names it wouldn't be "neocon", it would be "populist". I like the guy's writing, be he has this rhetorical repetitiveness, kind of like a politician, repeating the same phrases and sentences in different articles and interviews (his catchphrase at any given moment usually has something to do with his latest book).

    I don't agree with everything he says. He, too, has his own narrative, which overlooks a lot of the ills of American foreign policy over the years (though he opposed most of Bush's policies at least since Bush's second term, if not earlier).

    I'm not sure how much all this is relevant, though. I posted one article, not Friedman's whole body of work. The post you linked to is mostly a critique of Friedman himself, not of what he says in the article. Saying "You think Major Hasan in unstable, huh? Well, you're unstable!" isn't very sophisticated criticism.

    The writer on Jewbonics has a good point that Afghanistan and Iraq aren't about freeing anybody, and America hasn't done anything in Darfur. But in some of those other places, like Bosnia, Kuwait, and post-disaster Pakistan and Indonesia, the United States did help Muslims. The point of this article is that the Muslim world tends to ignore anything good the United States has done, and only see it as an enemy.

  4. "The point of this article is that the Muslim world tends to ignore anything good the United States has done, and only see it as an enemy."

    No. The article is ridiculously pro-American and refuses to acknowledge any past and present wrong-doing. It's America the 'freedom lover and bringer' all over again. It's the kind lazy, populist, 'patriotic' quasi-journalism which has given so much the American media a terrible name. Culturally insensitive, buffoonish, gung-hoish, content-free.

    As long as such attitudes continue to exist America's relationship with the RoW will always be tenuous.

    Muslims forget the good the US has done for the 'Muslim world'? That's because the good pales into insignificance compared to the bad. The numbers don't lie...

    It's not very sophisticated criticism either but Friedman is a prat.

  5. Okay, maybe after Iraq and Afghanistan the harm the United States has done to Muslims is greater than how much it helped. But what about before George W. Bush and 9/11? America was no saint back then either, but its record of good deeds vs bad deeds was much more balanced.

  6. Ooh, Ooh, I want to answer this!

    1 - Many Arabs weren't happy about the First Gulf War. It really divided the Arabs - many of whom thought that the US shouldn't be interfering. For some it brought back memories of colonial meddling. This was unfair criticism in my opinion as I thought the first Gulf War was pretty justified, even if it wasn't a perfect example of collective security.

    2 - The big elephant in the room. Israel. The US' traditional, unquestionable support for Israel, doesn't go unnoticed.

    3 - Blowback. Radicalising Muslims in Afghanistan was never a good idea. Printing textbooks for Afghan children glorifying Jihad and teaching them how to blow up Soviet tanks was definitely a stupid thing to do. Many of the fighters in the Soviet-Afghan war were Arab and included the likes of bin Laden. Imagine what happened when they returned home to espouse their propaganda so helpfully prepared by the US government?

    4 - Muslims remember Bosnia, but they also remember how everyone failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre. They don't like the Kurds (huge generalisation here but has some basis in fact). The rest happened after 9/11 and some can't exactly be counted as a plus. e.g. Iraq and Afghanistan - Are you kidding me? The Arabs do care about Drafur, but they also get annoyed that US reporting of the issue comes with so much Arab bashing.

    5 - The Shah

    There probably are others that I've not come across yet, but these are the most apparent ones. The Narrative is a legend, but like all legends, it has its basis in fact.

  7. Interesting about the Gulf War. I thought most Arabs supported it. I didn't know they were divided about it.

    I agree that the United States has hurt Muslims many time. I just think the situation is much more complicated than many Muslims (and Americans) see it.