Thomas Friedman Against the Arab World: How the New York Times Columnist Objectifies Muslim Women and Shills For War


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.

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 [1]--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—”

One possibility, however, turns up in The World Is Flat, when Friedman invites readers to “talk to young Arabs and Muslims anywhere, and this cognitive dissonance and the word ‘humiliation’ always come up very quickly in conversation.” I, for one, cannot recall having the word “humiliation” come up in the past decade of conversations with young Arabs and Muslims, but perhaps I haven’t been in the right “anywhere.” It meanwhile appears from Friedman’s failure to provide any conversational examples that the “they” might actually consist of former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, who Friedman reports used the term “humiliated” five times in reference to Islamic civilization during his farewell speech in 2003.

A perusal of Mahathir’s speech reveals that the word “humiliated” only occurs in tandem with the word “oppressed,” which indicates that he views humiliation as something inflicted rather than as an essentially intrinsic Muslim quality. Given that Friedman’s concern for the contents of the speech does not extend beyond the authentic confirmation of Muslim humiliation it provides, Mahathir’s remarks on the causes of humiliation are ignored, among them: “None of our countries are truly independent. We are under pressure to conform to our oppressors’ wishes about how we should behave, how we should govern our lands, how we should think even.” Instead, Friedman declares the American Civil War a relevant model for the region and concludes that only the following scenario will resolve Arab/Muslim feelings of disempowerment: “The best thing outsiders can do for the Arab-Muslim world today is try to collaborate with its progressive forces in every way possible ... so as to foster a similar war of ideas within their civilization.”

That this fairly blatant authorization of imperial warmongering in the name of dispelling humiliation occurs in a book first published two years into the Iraq war is somewhat difficult to reconcile with Friedman’s own assertion that “one of the first things I realized when visiting Iraq after the U.S. invasion was that the very fact that Iraqis did not liberate themselves, but had to be liberated by Americans, was a source of humiliation to them.” Even more confounding is that, in a 2004 series on the Slate website entitled “Liberal Hawks Reconsider the Iraq War,” Friedman claims, despite having already visited post-invasion Iraq, that “the right reason for this war was to partner with Arab moderates in a long-term strategy of dehumiliation and redignifiation.” The focus of the strategy, we are reminded, was to be the implementation of the Arab Human Development Report of 2002, which “said the Arab world is falling off the globe because of a lack of freedom, women’s empowerment, and modern education.”

Published by the U.N. Development Program, the Arab Human Development Report has been enthusiastically promoted by Friedman based on his perception that its authentic Arab authors expose “the reasons for Arabs’ backwardness and humiliation” and the details of “the increasingly dysfunctional Arab-Muslim world—which produces way too many terrorists.” Again, if one glances at the report itself, one finds a more discerning use of vocabulary, as in the criticism of “deeply rooted shortcomings in Arab institutional structures”; in fact, the only time in 168 pages that the term “humiliation” appears is in Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi’s statement on how Israeli military checkpoints are “the most brutal expression of a discriminatory and pervasive system of willful humiliation and subjugation.”

That Friedman is quite forthcoming at times about the United States’ role in maintaining Middle Eastern dictators and monarchs—and thus in effectively sanctioning regional political inertia and popular disenfranchisement—is clear from his warning with regard to the report:

“There is a message in this bottle for America: For too many years we’ve treated the Arab world as just a big dumb gas station, and as long as the top leader kept the oil flowing, or was nice to Israel, we didn’t really care what was happening to the women and children out back.”

Given Friedman’s institutionalized habit of self-contradiction, however, the United States is spared permanent and irreversible culpability, and Friedman issues the following decree in 2005 in honor of the Asian tsunami: “It is not an exaggeration to say that, if you throw in the Oslo peace process, U.S. foreign policy for the last 15 years has been dominated by an effort to save Muslims—not from tsunamis, but from tyrannies, mostly their own theocratic or autocratic regimes.” Obviously, the new theme of a decade and a half of Muslim-saving—accompanied by Friedman’s indignant assertions that Americans should not “hold your breath waiting for a thank-you card” in response to tsunami aid and that “the tensions between us and the Muslim world stem primarily from the conditions under which many Muslims live, not what we do”—fails to jibe with Friedman’s assessment in 2002 that the anger of Arabs and Muslims is partly due to “U.S. support for anything Israel does” and partly to the fact that “most of them live under antidemocratic regimes backed by America.”

For additional evidence of the occasionally self-righteous attitude of the U.S. savior, meanwhile, see Friedman’s recounting in Longitudes of his experience at the Islamabad Marriott in 2001, when a female Lebanese TV journalist criticizes him for “unfair” treatment of Arabs and Muslims and asks if he knows “how much the world hates you”—i.e., America: “At that point I nearly lost it. I snapped back: ‘Do you know how much we hate your lack of democracy, do you know how much we hate your lack of transparency, your lack of economic development, the way you treat your women?” This may be a good time to juxtapose Friedman’s reliance on the lack of Arab/Muslim female freedom and empowerment as an indication of backwardness with the findings of a 2011 global survey by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, according to which the incidence of female infanticide and sex trafficking in India have propelled Friedman’s vaunted democracy into the top five most dangerous countries for women, alongside Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, and Somalia

[1] The bombardier is the source of a five-hundred-pound bomb dropped onto a Taliban truck caravan, after which the male F-15 pilot gloatingly shouts down: “You have just been killed by a girl” (Thomas Friedman, “The New Club NATO,” New York Times, November 17, 2002). The “woman with blond locks spilling out from under her helmet and an M16 hanging from her side” is the source of a “mind-bending experience” for Al Qaeda POWs at Bagram who are accustomed to a male-dominated society (Longitudes and Attitudes, p. 349).


This excerpt is from The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work

Copyright © Belén Fernández 2011

Published by Verso Books

Reprinted here with permission.


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