Professor: [As the Martian ambassador starts disintegrating congressmen with his ray gun]: “Mr. Ambassador, please! What are you doing? This doesn’t make sense! It’s not logical! It’s not !” – Mars Attacks
It is distasteful when Western intellectuals, politicians, and journalists who pride themselves on their enlightened, humanitarian views watch people abroad fall subject to ruthless forces of dictatorship and dogma. When these same people actually cheer the new tyrannies, put their arms around the shoulders of those who despise them, and tell everyone else that there’s nothing to worry about, that’s actively disgusting.
Many in the West have so acted toward Egypt during the last year. They have previously done so toward the Gaza Strip, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. Perhaps no one has touted these ideas and policies more loudly and enthusiastically than Thomas Friedman has been one of them but In doing so, of course, he has echoed U.S. government policy.
Now, Friedman goes all-out to explain that the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t radical, isn’t a threat, in fact is a good thing, and will only become even more moderate once it is in power.
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In a column called “Watching Elephants Fly” — obviously a reference to seeing something impossible happen — Friedman writes,
Here is what was so striking: virtually all the women we interviewed after the voting — all of whom were veiled, some with only slits for their eyes — said that they had voted for either the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists. But almost none said they had voted that way for religious reasons.
Many said they voted for Islamists because they were neighbors, people they knew, while secular liberal candidates had never once visited. Some illiterate elderly women confided that they could not read the ballot and just voted where their kids told them to. But practically all of them said they had voted for the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafist candidates because they expected them to deliver better, more honest government — not more mosques or liquor bans.
My reaction is, “So what?” They voted for an authoritarian, Sharia regime (and let’s remember a hardline interpretation of Sharia, not the interpretation of Sharia offered by New York Times reporters). That’s what’s important. People also had diverse reasons for supporting Communism, Fascism, and Nazism. Indeed, they always voted for such regimes because “they expected them to deliver better, more honest government.” Hasn’t Friedman ever heard that Mussolini made the trains run on time, Hitler built the autobahns, and the Communists promised to give land to the peasants?
But there’s even more irony here. These women are already living lives governed by Sharia and, as traditionalists, are happy (and told to be happy) with that situation. Thus, they have ample reason for supporting Islamists. There is nothing surprising in their political behavior, except to people like Friedman who predicted last year they would back liberal, Westernized Facebook kids.
Once again, Friedman shows a striking inability to think logically. If women were voting on the basis of family orders — I’d bet on the husbands and fathers rather than the children so instructing them — how can he then say that they voted because of specific personal motives or (after reporting they were told what to do!) claim that their vote is a sign of freedom?
Why are all their neighbors Islamists? Because there are so few secular liberals they’ve never actually met one. A large portion of the voters for non-Islamist parties were Christians, who they’d never socialize with. And their Brotherhood and Salafist neighbors want an Islamist dictator?
As for “more mosques” being the supposed Islamist demand that they “reject” it shows ignorance on the author’s part. Egypt has plenty of mosques and the Brotherhood and Salafists don’t make mosque-building a top priority. The question is what will be taught in those mosques and how it will direct society.
Why is Friedman dishonest? Because if he claimed that these women weren’t interested in enforcing an “Islamic” lifestyle or destroying Israel or spreading Islamism elsewhere or enforcing on all Egyptian women the dress code they follow, then readers would see through such an argument and view it as ridiculous. So he must create silly demands for the Islamists so he can claim that the people don’t want those things.
The same point applies on the supposed disinterest in bans on liquor sales. How many of these people have ever seen a liquor store? There are already proportionately few in Egypt and they cater overwhelmingly to Christians and tourists. Such a ban would not affect their lives but would make them feel that Egypt was a moral, Islamically correct county.
Again, these are trivial issues. We can all think of far more serious ones that the Islamists and their supporters do focus on.
An aspect of Friedman’s work that makes it so popular is that he constantly invents simple new theories and catch phrases to explain Middle East politics. After reading his column it is possible to believe that one has easily achieved understanding of the region. Of course, the reason that he must come up with so many theories is that they almost always fail.
Now he has a new, materialistic explanation for why Islamists will become moderate: they need the money. He cites how Egyptian Islamists have issued conflicting statements about allowing tourists to have alcohol and bikinis as proving that they must make lots of accommodations with reality. No oil money, you see.
But I heard similar things about Iran in the late 1970s — they’ll have to be moderate because they need to sell the oil — and about Yasir Arafat at the start of the peace process in the early 1980s — he’ll have to be moderate because the Palestinians he rules will demand garbage collection and decent schools. One might just as well have posited that the Turkish government would never turn against Israel because Israeli tourists brought in so much money.
There have been many examples of the Friedman theory since Karl Marx first wrote that the means of production detemined the shape of society. When Lenin invoked the New Economic Policy to get the new-born USSR through its tough, post-World War I period, naive Westerners announced that Communism had been tamed. My relatives and their neighbors in Poland — I can document this — comforted themselves by thinking the Germans wouldn’t kill them because the Nazis needed their forced labor.
It is awesome how our political geniuses simply don’t learn from history.
The tourism problem is simple. Visitors will be segregated into specific areas like beach resorts where they can drink, party, and bikini away without contact with many Egyptians. The same applies to the up-the-Nile cruises to antiquities sites. Problem solved, except perhaps for the occasional Salafist terrorist attack.
I vividly remember the moment 30 years ago when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini gave his own response to Friedman’s “new” theory. Allow me to paraphrase: Western observers don’t understand Iran’s revolution. They think it is about lowering the price of watermelons (i.e., material well-being) but it is about invoking the will of Allah. Once you have enough people who think this way, forget about Western-style materialistic pragmatism.
Much of the Western intelligentsia cannot conceive that there are many people who don’t think like them in other parts of the world. So much for cosmopolitan international sophistication. (Of course, they often make the same mistake about their own fellow countrymen, too.)
All of this, however, is standard Friedman and standard Western media. That’s not why what Friedman is doing now might be described as his Jane Fonda moment.
The first reason is his shocking enthusiasm for the Brotherhood, summed up in his reported phrase: “The Muslim Brotherhood is a legitimate, authentic, progressive alternative.” Mr. Friedman has responded that he was referring not to the Brotherhood but instead meant to say, “the Egyptian elections produced, for the first time legitimate, authentic, liberal, secular, nationalist, progressive alternatives to the Muslim Brotherhood and now the Brotherhood would have to compete with such alternatives — for the first time.”
If that is what he meant it is not very impressive. “Nationalist” alternatives to the Brotherhood have been running Egypt since 1952, after all, and “liberal, secular” movements were very active in the latter Mubarak years. I wonder who Friedman is referring to as “progessive,” the radical nationalist-Marxist parties? Moreover, under Egyptian law, the Brotherhood was outlawed and while it did function it was weak compared to now. So to act as if alternatives to the Brotherhood have now arisen is like saying after the fall of the czar and the Russian revolution that things were better because now there was an alternative to the Bolsheviks.
Friedman has never written anything critical about the Brotherhood and Salafists. He certainly didn’t say, “Great election, too bad about the result.” And so he and many others including the U.S. government have given not just grudging acceptance but absolute approval to a party with a long history down to the present day of anti-Americanism, antisemitism, and support for terrorism, as well as the desire to transform Egypt into a repressive society and a political dictatorship.
But since even Friedman agrees that he used such words, let’s examine them:
– “Legitimate.” Does “legitimate” merely mean here that a lot of Egyptians accept the Brotherhood as their leader? But by this definition Stalinism, Nazism, fascism, and Japanese racist militarism were all “legitimate” doctrines. What is an “illegitimate” doctrine? I suppose nowadays only Zionism gets presented as such. Friedman, who is never short of criticisms on Israel, finds revolutionary Islamism more to his taste.
On the other hand, it is not at all clear that secular and liberal groups are now “legitimate” since they have been overwhelmingly rejected by the voters and are likely to face significant harassment from the army, Brotherhood, and Salafists.
On broader grounds, Western leftist intellectuals cannot understand how a dictatorship can be popular and yet still be a dictatorship that those who believe in democracy and freedom should criticize. This was the basis of the great divide among leftist and liberal intellectuals of earlier generations over the Soviet Union and other left-wing dictatorships. Since real liberals today have been, at least temporarily, wiped out, few are left other than conservatives to make this point.
–”Authentic.” That usually means something arising from one’s society and properly fitting into it. But here’s a problem. Today, democracy as known in the West is not an “authentic” doctrine for Egyptians. It is seen as an import and doesn’t have a strong cultural, intellectual, political, economic, or religious basis. And since liberal parties didn’t get many votes, that tends to indicate that liberty, equality for women, tolerance, and all the other elements of a real democracy also aren’t “legitimate” in Egypt either.
–”Progressive.” In recent years, “progressive” has become a false flag for extreme left-wing movements in the West. Friedman says he did not apply that word to the Brotherhood, so let’s leave him out of it personally. Still, though, there is no doubt that many people who consider themselves “progressive” are also enthusiastic about the Brotherhood. In fact, I’ve never heard any such person criticize the group, or Islamists generally for that matter.
So “progressives” see revolutionary Islamism as the proper Middle East counterpart of the Western left. Observers often ask how these two forces can work together when their views and values are apparently so different. Here’s the answer: many or most Western leftists do view Islamism as a kindred movement. In part, that’s because they don’t understand Islamism; and in part they don’t understand Islamism because when they see it they shout not, “Down with the reactionary clerical-fascists!” but rather: “Comrade!”
Unfortunately, the Islamists don’t reciprocate this love.
Isn’t Friedman aware that real Egyptian democrats are rushing to get visas and leave the country? That many Christians are getting out and the rest are trembling?
Within hours of the Friedman statement, the Free Egyptians Party — the most “authentic” liberal party in Egypt — declared a boycott of the remaining elections, claiming electoral fraud. Personally, I don’t think electoral fraud was a major factor but, rather, the party is reacting out of hopelessness, knowing that an open democratic society has no chance now in Egypt and that it cannot depend on any help from Western governments, which support its enemies.
The real moderates and democrats are in despair, knowing what they will be living under. And Friedman cheers their oppressors and says there is nothing to worry about. How is this better than becoming a booster for some Latin American military dictator or African tyrant or ruthless Communist oligarchy?
In playing these games, Friedman and the U.S. government ignore the mature adult way to handle such issues. A foreign policy professional should say something like this:
The Muslim Brotherhood won elections and clearly enjoys support from many Egyptians. It is now up to the Brotherhood to live up to those hopes and fulfill the promise of true democracy. To do so, the Brotherhood will have to break with past beliefs and policies. We all hope this change does indeed happen. But we will be watching closely and never hesitate to point out when it acts in a different manner. The Brotherhood will have to prove, to Egyptians and the world alike, that it truly is now moderate and democratic. Only then would we accept such a claim.
You see the difference? My version says: We have an open mind, we are willing to work with you, but the burden is on you to prove your claims. We know enough about you to be skeptical and we will not be fooled.
His version says: Two, four, six, eight, who do we appreciate? Brotherhood! Brotherhood! yay, Brotherhood!
The second thing that disgusts me is Friedman’s attempts to win applause by sucking up to his Egyptian audience. He tells them that the U.S. Congress is profoundly corrupt. Aside from demeaning his own country and civilization, the signal that statement sends is: Hey, democracy doesn’t really work!
And what does an Egyptian audience think of when it hears this line about money ruling? Not insider stock-trading but rather the old Arab assertion that the Zionist lobby directs U.S. policy, that’s what.
If Friedman actually was knowledgeable on the Middle East he would have understood the message he is conveying to Egyptians and might have avoided such statements. Oh, wait, Friedman himself has made such a charge, saying that the Jewish lobby bought Congress’s enthusiastic reception of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, being saved from accusations of antisemitism only because he is the son of Jewish parents.
“Money will kill your democracy like it did ours,” said Friedman. So Egypt is now a democracy but America isn’t? And, again, who do Arab ideologues identify with using “money” to control politics? Answer: Not Tony Rezko.
Friedman calls Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum an example of an American extremist. This tells Egyptians: We have no right to criticize you! You now have leaders who openly call for genocide against Jews. Well, we have people who don’t favor gay marriage!
Friedman (and Obama) can’t think a move ahead. If (ok, when) the Brotherhood starts to crack down and at some point even Obama might feel inclined to criticize its repression, Egyptian leaders and writers will respond: How dare you criticize us! According to your own Friedman you are ruled by money, don’t have proper democracy, and are full of extremists. So mind your own business.
And yet at the end of his lecture in Cairo the audience was still reportedly critical of Friedman, one more proof that you cannot win over those who hate you on the basis of a seriously constructed worldview by flattering them and bashing your own side.
I’m almost done but there’s one more thing important for you to know. It’s from a column I wrote a year ago, in the midst of the revolution. The radical blogger Angry Arab made fun of Friedman back then. Referring to Friedman as a “Zionist,” the blogger mocked him for claiming that the revolution would produce a moderate pro-American Egypt ready to keep the peace with Israel. Every Arab understood, said Angry Arab, that the exact opposite would happen.
A humorous example of Friedman’s lack of self-awareness is the fact that he called his column, “Watching Elephants Fly.” Can many Americans hear that phrase and not think of a certain famous animated film by Walt Disney?
It’s title is most appropriate: Dumbo.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His book, Israel: An Introduction, will be published by Yale University Press in January. Latest books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center is at http://www.gloria-center.org and of his blog, Rubin Reports, http://www.rubinreports.blogspot.com