Thomas Friedman teaches us history

Imagine trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube that actually has three too many red pieces and not enough blue and green. Tedious, time-consuming, enraging when you realize there is no solution. Increasingly, this is what I feel like trying to mount an organized rebuttal to — or analysis of — Thomas Friedman’s columns on the Middle East.

His latest gem, “Iron Empires, Iron Fists, Iron Domes,” takes us on a lurching tour of the Levant, from Antakya to Syria to Tel Aviv. There are sentences to agree with and to disagree with here, but in general I’ll bet its Rubik’s Cube of metaphors is a tile or two short, and I’m not going to fiddle with it for too long.

But the part where he talks about the history of ethnic and religious coexistence in the Middle East does warrant a closer look.

At first glance, his account looks like a step up from his classic Beirut to Jerusalem, in which he mostly ascribes modern Middle East conflict to the cultural vestiges of primal desert society. Ultimately though, the step is not a big one. After explaining how the “iron empire” of the Ottomans, with their “live-and-let-live mentality” made minorities comfortable enough not to rock the boat back in those days, Friedman describes the post-Sykes-Picot scene:

When Britain and France carved up the Ottoman Empire in the Arab East, they forged the various Ottoman provinces into states — with names like Iraq, Jordan and Syria — that did not correspond to the ethnographic map. So Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites, Christians, Druze, Turkmen, Kurds and Jews found themselves trapped together inside national boundaries that were drawn to suit the interests of the British and French. Those colonial powers kept everyone in check. But once they withdrew, and these countries became independent, the contests for power began, and minorities were exposed. Finally, in the late 1960s and 1970s, we saw the emergence of a class of Arab dictators and monarchs who perfected Iron Fists (and multiple intelligence agencies) to decisively seize power for their sect or tribe — and they ruled over all the other communities by force.

This sort-of-right passage includes a fundamental misconception about Middle Eastern (and African history) that I hear repeated all the time, everywhere from casual conversations to the mainstream media. Friedman is right that colonialism royally screwed up the region, and created problematic states. But the reason these states didn’t work well is not that they included different ethnicities and religious groups. That idea suggests that people of different backgrounds are incapable of living together in a functioning, stable polity.

The diversity of the Middle East’s nascent states in the 20th Century was a strength as much as a liability. As Friedman correctly notes, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and a mosaic of languages and cultures coexisted in relative harmony for many centuries before European colonialism. The problem with the new states was that the political model they inherited from European colonialists — winner take-all nationalism in which political power was tied to ethnic and religious identity — was contrary to the region’s longstanding diversity. (It is not surprising that Europe, in the wake of centuries of religious wars and ethnic consolidation, foisted such an inappropriate system onto the Middle East.) The subsequent failures have little to do with borders cutting across supposedly more deeply ingrained tribal or religious identities. Much more important to failure has been the inadequacy of the architecture of the state (see Lebanon), and the factors of foreign occupation, military intervention, and oil politics. 

The deficiencies in Friedman’s analysis remind me of those in much writing on African conflicts, such as Mali’s. Africa Is a Country’s criticism of that reporting earlier this year could apply here,  too:

Al Jazeera … has been the place not to go for Mali coverage … [there have been] a few weak pieces of analysis, including one that trots out some of the same clichéd thinking that we try to smother in the cradle when we teach African Studies 101 to American undergraduates (e.g., conflict is due to colonial borders that “split tribes [and] lumped incompatible ethnic groups together…”; what are “incompatible ethnic groups”?). What gives?

This misconception is fundamental because it treats ethnic and religious variety in the Middle East as inherent incompatibilities — ancient, unquenchable hatreds — rather than social differences that the politics of the last century have turned into potential fault lines.

This is important because if we accept that diverse Middle Eastern peoples can only live together under an iron fist, then the only logical future for democracy in the region is some preliminary segregation and ethnic cleansing along the lines of Friedman’s “ethnographic map.” (Maybe someone can locate that map for me in some exhibit on passé anthropological concepts?)

I don’t accept that this is the only path. Cosmopolitan societies are just as viable in the Middle East as they are in North America. Their history of diversity is the proof of this potential, and a vision that stands a chance of taking us past the impasses and killing of today must recognize this.

One thought on “Thomas Friedman teaches us history

  1. what a nuanced and cogent analysis. Thank you for (once again) shedding light on a complex situation by stating some simple and obvious observations.

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