Thomas Friedman Against the Arab World: How the New York Times Columnist Objectifies Muslim Women and Shills For War
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A glance at Ridgeway’s “Letters from Arabia” reveals possible reasons he has won the sympathy of Friedman, such as a shared conviction that Arabs can be referred to generally as “Ahmed” as well as a propensity for ethno-technological generalizations. (Consider two consecutive sentences from Ridgeway’s first “letter” in 2004: “Ahmed is a whiz. Arabians have rapidly evolved into CyberArabs, and they love it.”) As for the thoughtful and provocative contents of the particular letter that is referenced by Friedman—the title of which he does not share: “Those Drunken, Whoring Saudis: Desert Islam’s Problem with Women”—these include the assertion that the Saudis were “previously an insignificant mob of goat-herders and woman-beaters” before acquiring “delusions of grandeur” from the combined hosting of oil reserves and Mecca, which enabled them to set their sights on becoming “the most important women-beating goat-herders in the world.”
Friedman quotes selectively from the article, such that the women-beating goat-herders are lost in the ellipsis he inserts to take the place of approximately eleven paragraphs of Ridgeway’s report. The ellipsis, which also encompasses Ridgeway’s complaint about the lack of an “Arab version of [British actress] Barbara Windsor, who should be recognised and celebrated as an icon of women’s progress,” ends just prior to the observation that “Desert Islam has taken the spice and color out of Arab life.” Friedman reproduces Ridgeway’s claim that “perhaps the best symbol of all that has been lost is the coquettish, slightly tipsy Arab woman so beloved of old Arab comedies [whom Ridgeway has explained during the ellipsis was scantily clad, sometimes ‘sexy and even lewd’]. Then she was laughed at. Now she would be stoned to death.”
Friedman sees no need to question the suggestion that a comically flirtatious, sometimes lewd, one-dimensional female caricature is the best indication of a modernized, liberal Middle Eastern state. In fact, starting on the very same page of Hot, Flat, and Crowded that features Ridgeway’s coquettish Arab woman, Friedman provides the full text of a 2008 Newsweek article that also implies a connection between modernity and displays of female sexuality. The piece is said to make “clear” the Egyptian inability to counteract the influence of the wealthy financiers of de-modernizing Desert Islam, and discusses how “Abir Sabri, celebrated for her alabaster skin, ebony hair, pouting lips and full figure, used to star in racy Egyptian TV shows and movies” but is now “performing on Saudi-owned religious TV channels, with her face covered, chanting verses from the Qur’an.”
Of course, the point of taking issue with Friedman’s reproduction of such characterizations is not to argue that women must indeed be told what they can and cannot do with their bodies. Rather, it is to demonstrate that, beneath a veil of egalitarian discourse and calls for Arab/Muslim female empowerment, Friedman manages in such cases to perpetuate a view of women as objects to be celebrated, as opposed to thinking subjects. As for Friedman’s representation of non-Oriental females in the U.S. military—specifically those implicated in the door-to-door delivery of the “Suck. On. This” message from Basra to Baghdad, as well as the female F-15 bombardier and the blond guard at Bagram Air Base discussed in the previous section of this book --this is one component of Friedman’s Orientalist policy of discrediting the Arab/Muslim world via humiliation.
With the dedication of someone who is endeavoring to forge reality through repetition, Friedman regularly declares Arabs and Muslims humiliated. Evidence abounds, such as the fact that an “American diplomat in Saudi Arabia” has explained to Friedman that “there are many Arabs ... who are ‘frustrated and feeling inferior.’ They ‘have a lot of pent-up emotions.’” During a discussion with Joseph Stiglitz in 2006, Friedman contends that Arab/Muslim frustration, which is a “big part” of why “we” have problems with them, is a result of the fact that “when the world is flat you get your humiliation fiber optically. You get your humiliation at 100 mega-bytes per second ... [and] you can see just where the caravan is and just how far behind you are really clearly.” Given that mediator Ted Koppel then interrupts Friedman mid-sentence with a reminder about the “paucity of inventions” in the Arab world, we never find out who exactly the “they” is in Friedman’s following thought: “The word they use most often is humiliation—”