The Faulty Logic of Thomas Friedman
Thomas Friedman is one of the most popular and widely read journalists
writing on the Middle East. This is not only because his articles are
usually meaty and informative, but, also, because they deal mostly with
ongoing events in the region, especially those events affecting relations
between the United States and the countries of the Middle East.
A most eloquent testimony to Mr. Friedman’s standing in the Arab World as a
journalist is the fact that when King Abdullah wanted to make known his
peace initiative for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – which was eventually
approved unanimously by the Arab countries in the Beirut summit of 2002 –
Friedman was one of the first journalists to be informed of it. Since then,
many of his articles in the New York Times have been translated into Arabic
and published in the international daily ash-Sharq al-Awsat.
However, the pressure of writing regular articles for a daily newspaper may
sometimes deprive the writer of adequate time to reflect on what he writes
and to weigh his arguments properly. A good idea may flash through his mind,
but then he does not have the time to articulate it well and – in an effort
to compensate for his flawed logic – he may resort to exaggeration to make
This is exactly what Friedman did in his article published in the New York
Times on January 31 under the headline: “Not-So-Strange Bedfellow”.
The publication of the article brings to mind
the Arab proverb: “even a thoroughbred is bound to stumble at least once”.
The intention of Friedman’s article was to discourage the US from launching
an attack against Iran. This is a noble intention with which no reasonable
person would disagree.
But the article reads as if he were urging the US to turn its guns away from
Iran and to direct them against Saudi Arabia.
He starts by trying to prove that Iran is the natural ally of the US while
Saudi Arabia is its natural enemy. To make his point he gives a list of all
the pluses of Iran, while completely forgetting the minuses; on the other
hand, he gives a list of all the minuses of Saudi Arabia, never mentioning
one plus. He goes even further by trying to show how more progressive,
liberal and dynamic the Shi’a Islam of Iran is compared to Sunni Islam.
For example, he thanks Iran for helping the US in its fight against the
Taliban in Afghanistan, but forgets to thank Saudi Arabia for helping the US
expel the Russians from there. He reminds us of the 9/11 attacks, and
forgets to mention the humiliating capture of the American embassy in Tehran
in 1979. He dwells on Al-Qaida – which he says is an offshoot of Sunni Islam
– and forgets the assassins of the Shi’a Ismaili, unless he means to say
that only violence against Westerners counts.
There is a lot more I can say along these lines, but I only wanted to give
just few examples without falling into the same trap into which Friedman has
fallen. I will not balance all the pluses of Saudi Arabia against all the
minuses of Iran, for I am not interested in showing Iran in a bad light or
showing Saudi Arabia in a good light at the expense of Iran. Only an
illiterate ignoramus would fail to pay homage to the historical and cultural
depth of the Iranian people and Iranian civilization.
Friedman dwells on Al-Qaida in his article. Al-Qaida is a political movement
using – or rather, abusing – religion as a justification for its murderous,
heinous acts. Since its first appearance, all Sunnis have disavowed it and
repudiated its methods. One would risk stating the obvious by saying that
Al-Qaid is a scourge from which the entire international community is
suffering, including Saudi Arabia and all Sunni Muslim countries.
Some citizens of Saudi Arabia may espouse some extremist Islamic views or
express sympathy with Al-Qaida, but the government of Saudi Arabia never
declared itself as a champion and exporter of revolutionary Islamic
But Mr. Friedman wants to demonize an entire nation of 15 million people,
because of a freak act perpetrated by 15 people. He wants to make of 9/11 an
unforgivable ‘original sin’, which will tarnish the characters of all
Muslims, especially the Saudis, and will haunt them till judgment day.
This is a slippery path to tread in pursuit of any argument, for every creed
and every nation at one point or another in its history has practiced
violence against others. In the history books of most nations you will find
pages detailing atrocities of one sort or another – from the Crusades to the
Inquisition to the Holocaust to racism. We all live in brittle glass houses
and, therefore, we should give each other a chance to reform and leave doors
open for rehabilitation and reconciliation.
Mr. Friedman completely ignores the suffering of Saudi Arabia and the Saudis
at the hands of Al-Qaida. He also overlooks the serious measures Saudi
Arabia has been taking to restructure its educational and financial
institutions in order to curb the mushrooming and proliferation of
extremists and extremist activities.
Meanwhile, without meaning to belittle the status of Iran in the Muslim
world, it must be admitted that it is no match for Saudi Arabia – the land
of the two Holy Mosques, which are sacred to all sects of Islam; in addition
to this incomparable religious stature, Saudi Arabia has the added dimension
of its influence in the Arab world and its economic weight in the
international community. It has always been a good friend of the US in the
Arab World. It was from Saudi Arabia, not from Iran, that the allied forces,
led by the US, launched their offensive to liberate Kuwait. It is Saudi
Arabia which plays the moderating role in OPEC to make sure that the oil
price is kept at a level that benefits the industrial nations.
Equally, Saudi Arabia has always pursued a peaceful and constructive foreign
regional and international policy. It is the voice of moderation in a
volatile region. It is constantly busy putting out the political flames
ignited by radical groups supported by Iran in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine.
The kingdom pays millions of dollars to rebuild and repair damages brought
about by the reckless behavior of these groups.
It is revealing, however, that at the end of the article, Friedman
seems to forget the praises he has lavished on Iran, by admitting that “Iran
is the key backer of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Syria” and that
“Iran's active help could be
critical for stabilizing Iraq.”
So, why is the logic he pursues in this article faulty? It is because it is
based on racial and colonial assumptions, rather than on a truthful and
accurate political analysis. His attack is not so much directed against the
regime of Saudi Arabia and its political system, but against the people of
“By dint of
culture, history and geography, we actually have a lot of interests in
common with Iran's people. And I am not the only one to notice that.” The
insinuation here of course is that Iran shares Aryan roots with the
Indo-Europeans. I do not need to go into all that defunct literature
regarding the Aryan mentality versus the Semitic mentality. But I may point
out that Friedman here seems to deny his own racial background.
What I mean
by the ‘colonial assumption’ is his insistence that solving the
Israel-Palestine conflict is not the most important thing America could do
today to stabilize the Middle East. To him, this is of second and minor
importance. He makes this abundantly clear when he writes: “The most
important thing would
be to resolve the Iran-U.S.conflict.” Here he is looking at the region
purely as an arena for the USA to flex its muscles and exercise its
political influence for the sole purpose of serving its own self-interest,
regardless of what is good for the native population. After all, the people
of the Middle East should leave it to the US to arrange the region’s
priorities. Clearly, Uncle Sam knows best.
Friedman’s article can really only be regarded as understandable if seen as
the work of somebody who does not ultimately entertain a deep and heart-felt
sympathy for the Arab cause. What is not understandable, however, is for
articles by such an inconsiderate writer to appear on the pages of ash-Sharq
al-Awsat, an international, daily newspaper published by the Saudi
establishment – an establishment that bans native Saudi writers from
publishing on its pages critical articles which are much more constructive
and much more sympathetic and concerned about the stability and future
well-being of the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is emerging as a power broker and peacemaker in the region.
This is a challenging role with big responsibilities. However, to shoulder
these responsibilities and enhance the effectiveness of its role, the
kingdom needs to promote its standing and respectability within the
Arab-Muslim World. It has to open up and move towards more progressive
policies regarding the media, and to learn how to accommodate diverse points
of view. It needs to make good use of all the human resources and native
talents available to it and provide a credible and exemplary model of
Above all, it is time to realize that diversity is a sign of a healthy
society, and that it is an indication of political maturity that we become
able to diagnose and detect both our virtues and our vices, our needs and
our vision. By doing so ourselves, we will no longer be vulnerable to the
faulty, self-interested logic of outsiders who have made careers out of
telling us who we are and what we should be.