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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. Friedmans 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 his point.

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 Friedmans 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 Shia 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 Shia 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 ideologies.

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 Saudi Arabia.

He writes: 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 regions priorities. Clearly, Uncle Sam knows best.

Friedmans 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 tolerance.

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.

 







  

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