Thomas Friedman Against the Arab World: How the New York Times Columnist Objectifies Muslim Women and Shills For War
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Tom Friedman: New York Times foreign affairs columnist, Pulitzer Prize collector, Iraq war champion, and dogged anthropological investigator whose discoveries have included that Palestinians are “ gripped by a collective madness ” and that what Syria requires to extract itself from the present quagmire is a “ well-armed external midwife .”
In honor of Friedman’s ongoing civilizing efforts on behalf of Arabo-Islamic peoples, we offer the following excerpt from Belén Fernández’ The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work , published by Verso. All quotes properly cited in original.
An examination of Friedman’s treatment of the subject of women in the Arab/Muslim world is integral to any study of his mission civilisatrice, given that he invokes reasons such as that Mideast rulers “keep their women backward” to justify U.S.-guided regional rectification. Friedman provides confirmation of the righteousness of his mission in his book Longitudes and Attitudes, where he excerpts a personal email received from a young Saudi female in 2002: “I dream of having all my rights as a human being. Saudi women need your pen, Mr. Friedman.”
Leaving aside for the moment the fact that Friedman’s pen is during this very same time period also known for producing such statements as “I don’t want to see the Saudi regime destabilized”—and that it goes as far as to include the homeland of bin Laden and fifteen of the 9/11 hijackers in “The World of Order” alongside the West and other esteemed company—let us review some of the interventions on behalf of Arab/Muslim females by Friedman’s writing utensil. These include an article from 1999 in which we are told that, although the first two Arabic sentences Friedman learned in college were “The Nile River is the biggest and longest river in the world” and “Women are half the nation,” only one of these “is actually believed in today’s Arab world,” as opposed to Singapore where “Miss Internet Singapore” has just been chosen “on the basis of how well she could design a Web page.”
In Longitudes, meanwhile, Friedman comments in reference to the jeans-clad Saudi passenger seated next to him on a British Airways flight to Riyadh: “What a waste! What a waste that such a lovely woman had to be covered,” but promptly announces on the following page his belief that, even if the veil were no longer mandatory in Saudi Arabia, a lot of women, “particularly [those] age thirty and older,” would continue to wear it: “It is not an Islamic thing—there is nothing in the Koran that dictates that women have to be veiled—it is a cultural thing, a conservative desert Bedouin thing.” The fundamentally inferior and archaic nature of certain cultures is underscored in the very next paragraph when Friedman describes his visit to a Riyadh hospital where he observes an elderly heart attack victim: “She had the oxygen mask covering her mouth and then had put her black face veil over the oxygen mask. It was scary even to look at, and struck me as almost medieval.”
Oddly, some of the most Orientalist gender-related musings captured by Friedman’s pen occur in his alleged tour de force on environmentalism. Eighty-two pages into Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman asserts that the most important geopolitical trend to emerge from the “onset of the Energy-Climate Era”—defined as the historical epoch that is being “giv[en] birth to” by the “convergence of global warming, global flattening, and global crowding”—may be a “shift in the center of gravity of Islam—away from a Cairo-Istanbul-Casablanca-Damascus urban/Mediterranean center ... toward a Salafi Saudi/desert-centered Islam, which [is] much more puritanical, restrictive toward women, and hostile to other faiths.” It appears that the Mediterranean-vs.-desert reduction—which fails to account for a host of landscapes, such as the world’s most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia, and vast deserts in the proximity of Cairo, Casablanca, and Damascus—may have been appropriated from the little-known “writer William G. Ridgeway, who penned a thoughtful and provocative series of ‘Letters from Arabia’” containing the idea of a struggle between “Desert Islam” and “Urban Islam,” which Friedman mentions only after he has passed the topographical dichotomy off as fact. Of no concern, evidently, is that Shia Islam, and specifically Tehran, which Friedman casts as America’s primary regional adversary, does not factor into either Egyptian-Turkish-Moroccan-Syrian or Saudi centers of gravity.