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.

Asserting citizenship as a Muslim

The founding fathers said it: "President George Washington, who, in a letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, declared that the United States, 'gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.'" - from MoJo piece by Matteen Mokalla.

Make sure you read Matteen Mokalla’s piece from Mother Jones today about the absurdity of the “Ground Zero Mosque” debate and how it shows just how far our attitudes toward Muslims have pulled this country away from many of its ideals. You may remember Mr. Mokalla from past posts on this blog, where he answered questions about Iran’s election, articulated the ridiculousness of not translating “Allah” in news reports, and where I described riding shotty with him as we campaigned  for Obama in southern Ohio.

Which is, incidentally, where the key vignette in his post appears. Continue reading

How badly has U.S. policy failed Somalia?

“The only people who care at all about Somalis are the people who are working out of mosques. But I’m told that if they’re working out of mosques, they’re bad guys.”

That’s the conundrum that Columbia Professor Richard Bulliet says a CIA desk officer related to him at a conference in Washington a decade ago. Despite that clear revelation in the rank and file of the intelligence community, the United States has spent the 2000s doing everything possible to disable the Islamists in Somalia–even if it meant propping up brutal warlords with no real vision for a Somali state.

Bulliet recalled the incident last night during the event “The Obama Administration and the Middle East”, co-sponsored by the Arab Student Association, Columbia University Amnesty International and several other groups. Panelists–even as they expressed their happiness at Obama’s election–gave a sobering analysis of the limited prospects for fast, fundamental change in American policies in the Middle East. (Other panelists included Columbia profs Gil Anidjar and Peter Awn, CUNY professor Amir al-Islam and ACLU attorney Hina Shamsi.) Continue reading

Capoeira Jihad for the new year

OK, don’t freak out. I’m not advocating a Brazilian-martial-arts-based holy war on infidels here. Jihad simply means “struggle” in Arabic and carries no inherent connotation of religion or violence. If you don’t know what capoeira is, please read the Wikipedia entry.

Capoeira Jihad is a concept I came up with last year when I was really getting into capoeira, training four to five times a week. I also happened to be taking an extremely time-consuming Arabic class at Columbia. Continue reading