Keep chewing that qat Mr Friedman — but spare us the visions

Tom Friedman, refreshed and inspired by his recent jaunt to Yemen, writes:

I believe the only way the forces of 1979 can be rolled back would be with another equally big bang — a new popular movement that is truly reformist, democratizing, open to the world, yet anchored in Muslim culture, not disconnected. Our best hopes are the fragile democratizing trends in Iraq, the tentative green revolution in Iran, plus the young reformers now coming of age in every Arab country. But it will not be easy.

The young reformers today “do not have a compelling story to tell,” remarked Lahcen Haddad, a political scientist at Rabat University in Morocco. “And they face a meta-narrative” — first developed by Nasser and later adopted by the Islamists — “that mobilizes millions and millions. That narrative says: ‘The Arabs and Muslims are victims of an imperialist-Zionist conspiracy aided by reactionary regimes in the Arab world. It has as its goal keeping the Arabs and Muslims backward in order to exploit their oil riches and prevent them from becoming as strong as they used to be in the Middle Ages — because that is dangerous for Israel and Western interests.’ ”

Today that meta-narrative is embraced across the Arab-Muslim political spectrum, from the secular left to the Islamic right. Deconstructing that story, and rebuilding a post-1979 alternative story based on responsibility, modernization, Islamic reformation and cross-cultural dialogue, is this generation’s challenge. I think it can happen, but it will require the success of the democratizing self-government movements in Iran and Iraq. That would spawn a whole new story.

I know it’s a long shot, but I’ll continue to hope for it. I’ve been chewing a lot of qat lately, and it makes me dreamy.

The problem with viewing the Middle East in terms of competing narratives is that it leads to exactly what Friedman does: present the region’s problems in terms of defective story telling. It discounts the possibility that the most obvious explanation for the iron grip of the so-called meta-narrative is that it provides a fairly good approximation of the truth.

The hold of this story is not a reflection of a weak Arab mind or of limited access to good education but on the contrary the facts that the region is indeed mired by autocratic rule, the West is indeed hugely invested in controlling the region’s carbon resources and the only country in the region towards which the West and especially the United States displays an unswerving loyalty is indeed Israel.

Call that an imperialist-Zionist conspiracy if you like, but the name is really just a distraction — a way for Friedman to say: “no truth here… please move along. Come check out my dream of modernity — it could be your dream too. (If only I could figure why you think the way you do… More qat please.)”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

One thought on “Keep chewing that qat Mr Friedman — but spare us the visions

  1. John Robertson

    My real problem with Friedman’s little history lesson is that his historical field of view is (as usual) too little. The problems of the Middle East didn’t begin in 1977. And to wax on about the need to “deconstruct” the narrative about Western-Zionist imperialism and colonialism ignores the reality of that imperialism and colonialism. Think Balfour Declaration, Sykes-Picot Agreement, post-World War I mandates, the Seven Sisters and the Red Line Agreement of Big Oil, Operation Ajax, the Suez Crisis of 1956 . . . . Hell, I’m not even to 1960 yet.

    Fast forward then, to Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, or the 2006 Israeli war in Lebanon, or the earlier Israeli Operation Grapes of Wrath in Lebanon, or the ongoing Zionist colonization of Palestinian land in the West Bank . . . .

    I understand the pitfalls of Friedman’s needing to come up with punchy columns in the New York Times, week after week. But that’s simply no excuse for purveying to a huge public such “history lessons” that are so oblivious to the deep historical roots, and grievances, that underlie the current realities. The reductionism of such a “1977 and 1979” approach is a disservice to Friedman’s readers – and with an advanced degree from Oxford in Middle East studies, Friedman ought to know that.

Comments are closed.