Exploring the world after September 11


Thomas L. Friedman 

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002, 383 pp.

03-1-3 FriLong

 New York Times Foreign Affairs Columnist, Thomas Friedman, deals with global issues.  His two earlier books are also outstanding:  From Beirut to Jerusalem (1989) and The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (1999).  This book contains selections of his columns before and after September 11 (up through June 2002) as well as parts of his diary.  Friedman gets beneath the surface and finds out from real people in the Middle East (and elsewhere) the forces behind the 9/11 massacre.  He returns frequently to the Palestinian issue.  He understands much about the cultural forces in the world, but I’m not sure he really understands the religious issues.  It is still difficult for me to read why others hate us. 

Two concerns drove this reporting:  Who were the 19 hijackers?  What attributes of our country explain why we are the targets of anger and envy?  (Intro) 

A new international context of integration (characterized by the web) has replaced the cold war system of division (characterized by “the wall”).  “Globalization can be an incredible force-multiplier for (super-empowered) individuals.  Individuals can increasingly act on the world stage directly, unmediated by a state.”  (Prologue)

I am only interested in what Mr. Arafat says to his own people in Arabic.  (24)  At Oslo, Mr. Barak “offered Mr. Arafat 94 percent of the West Bank for a Palestinian state, plus territorial compensation of most of the other 6 percent, plus half of Jerusalem, plus restitution and resettlement in Palestine for Palestinian refugees.  And Mr. Arafat not only said no to all this, but described Israel as ‘fascist’ as Mr. Barak struggled for reelection.”  (25)  (Israel responded by electing Mr. Sharon)  (column pub. Feb 2001)

“It is hard to trust anything after such an attack, because trust is based on a certain presumptive morality, a sense that certain actions are simply outside the bounds of human behavior or imagination.”  “What we know of these terrorists is that they were evil, educated, and suicidal.  That is a combination I have never seen before in a large group of people.”  (58-9)

The biggest Islamic school (madrasa) in Pakistan has 2800 live-in students all studying the Koran with the hope of becoming mullahs.  There were 3,000 madrasas in 1978 and there are 39,000 today, “the vast majority of them factories churning out young men who are unprepared for modernity, have little exposure to women, and are hostile to everything the West stands for.” (101, 320). 

I asked a 12-year old Afghan refugee student his reaction to September 11.  He said: “Most likely the attack came from Americans inside America.  I am pleased that America has had to face pain, because the rest of the world has tasted its pain.” About Americans generally, he said, “They are unbelievers and do not life to befriend Muslims, and they want to dominate the world with their power.”  The real was for peace in this region is in the schools.  Until then, nothing pro-American will grow here.  (101) (Nov. 2001)

“Many Arab-Musloim states today share the same rigid political structure.  Think of it as two islands.  One island is occupied by the secular autocratic regimes and the business class around them.  On the other island are the mullahs, imams, and religious authorities who dominate Islamic practice and education, which are still based largely on traditional Koranic interpretations that re not embracing of modernity, pluralism, or the equality of women.  The governing bargain is that the regimes get to stay in power forever and the mullahs get a monopoly on religious practice and education forever.

“This bargain lasted all these years because oil money, or U.S. or Soviet aid, enabled many Arab-Muslim countries to survive without opening their economies or modernizing their education systems.”  “Bin Laden’s challenge was an attempt by the extreme Islamists to break out of their island and seize control of the secular state island.”  (103-4)

For many young Arabs bin Laden is Robin Hood.  They are attracted by his sheer defiance of everything young Arabs and Muslims detest—their hypocritical rulers, Israel, U.S. dominance, and their own economic backwardness.”  (109)

“Terrorism is just a tool.  We’re fighting to defeat an ideology: religious totalitarianism.  World War II and the cold war were fought to defeat secular totalitarianism….”  (112)

“Just as many African-Americans felt abused for decades by the U.S. judicial system and expressed their anger by rallying to O.J. and refusing to acknowledge his apparent guilt, many Arabs and Muslims now passively back b in Laden to express their rage at U.S. support for Israel and repressive Arab regimes.  America is to many Arabs and Muslims today what the LAPD was to many African-Americans—an unfair power structure.”  (118)

“Saudi Arabia is the keeper of the Muslim holy places and leader of the Islamic world it finances thousands of Islamic schools and mosques around the globe….”  Fifteen recent graduates of those Saudi schools were involved in the attacks.  Saudi Arabia is the source of the money, ideology, and people who are threatening us.  (128)

“A free society is based on openness and on certain shared ethics and honor codes to maintain order…  We are becoming much more keenly aware of how freedom and order go together.  “America’s technologies are being universalized—planes that go faster and faster and electronics that are smaller and smaller—but the American values and honor system that those technologies assume have not been universalized.”  (140-1)  [One could perhaps argue that they are deteriorating here as well.  Dlm]

“I don’t want to be dependent on Mideast oil anymore.”  “Oil is their curse, as well as ours.  It’s corrupted their rulers, enabled them to keep their women backward and out of the workforce, and prevented them from developing innovative economies….”  (144)

“…we have to eliminate the killers and they have to delegitimize his ideas.  I fear, though, that we’ll do our part, but Arab-Muslim leaders won’t do theirs.”  (145)

“…while America has won the war in Afghanistan, it has not won the hearts and minds of the Arab-Muslim world.  The cultural-political-psychological chasm between us is wider than ever.”  “There is enormous cultural resistance to believing anything good about America.  Some of this is deliberately fanned by the state-run press in certain Arab countries to deflect criticism from the regime.  Some is revenge for America’s support for Israel….”  (161)

“What radicalized the September 11 terrorists was … that they suffered from a poverty of dignity.  Frustrated by the low standing of Muslim countries in the world, compared with that of Europe or the United States, and the low standing in which they were personally held where they were living (in Europe), they were easy pickings for militant preachers who knew how to direct their rage.”  “The Islamic terrorists were university-educated converts to an all-encompassing neo-totalitarian ideology.”  (164)

“As one middle-class Saudi put it to me: ‘The problem here is not Islam.  The problem is too many young men with no job and no university and nowhere to go except to the mosque, where some [radical preachers] fill their head with anger for America.’”  (186)

“The problem is not the books, but the preachers who use their Friday sermons to tell young people that America wants to destroy Islam.”  (confided by a U.S.-educated Saudi.  They won’t say anything like this in public.)  (189)

There is intense Saudi competition with Iran for dominance over the Muslim world.  This involves financing conservative Muslim schools and mosques from Pakistan to Indonesia.  (191)

Israel is a constant reminder to Muslims of their own powerlessness.  How could a tiny Jewish state amass so much military and economic power if the Islamic way of life is the ideal religious path?  (196)

“When Hindus kill Muslims it’s not a story, because there are a billion Hindus and they aren’t part of the Muslim narrative.  When Saddam murders his own people it’s not a story, because it’s in the Arab-Muslim family.  But when a small band of Israeli Jews kills Muslims it sparks rage—a rage that must come from Muslims having to confront the gap between their self-perception as Muslims and the reality of the Muslim world.”  (197)

“The questions is whether Palestinian extremists will do what bin Laden could not: trigger a civilizational war.” (per Stephen P. Cohen, 199)

“The reason Islam seems like such an angry religion today is because so many Muslims are angry.  The reason so many Muslims are angry is because most of them live under antidemocratic regimes backed by America, with lagging economies and shrinking opportunities for young people’  (206)

“September 11 could have been worse.  One of bin Laden’s human missiles could have carried a nuclear device.  The only reason it didn’t happen was because the hijackers couldn’t get one.”  (212)

“Historically, there has always been a gap between people’s individual anger and what they could do with their anger.  But thanks to modern technology and the willingness of people to commit suicide, really angry individuals can now kill millions of people if they can get the materials.”  (quoting Graham Allison, Harvard, 212)

“In recent months, the explosion of Arab satellite TV stations and Web sites has had a profound impact on Arab public opinion by showing live, nonstop images of the Israeli crackdown on Palestinians in the West Bank.”  (238)  Arab satellite TV stations “compete for audiences by showing the most gruesome, one-sided images of Israel brutalizing Palestinians.”  The most popular TV program in Jordan is Hezbollah television!  (239, May 2002)

“Stir is all together, and what comes out is a single big idea melding in the minds of many young Muslims: America, Israel, and the Jews are working together to undermine Islam and dominate the world.  This is not good.  But how does one reverse it?  Spreading democracy in the Muslim world would help enormously, but that’s not going to happen soon.  In the near term, Israel has got to get out of the West Bank and Gaza any way it can—just get out—and get this war with Palestinians off TV.”  (242)

“If there’s one ting I learned from this trip to Israel, Jordan, Dubai, and Indonesia, it’s this: thanks to the Internet and satellite TV, the world is being wired together technologically, but not socially, politically, or culturally.  We are now seeing and hearing one another faster and better, but with no corresponding improvement in our ability to learn from, or understand, one another.  So integration, at this stage, is producing more anger than anything else.”  (248)

“The lie that four thousand Jews were warned not to go into the World Trade Center on September 11 was spread entirely over the Internet and is now thoroughly believed in the Muslim world.  Because the Internet has an aura of ‘technology’ surrounding it, the uneducated believe information from it even more.”  “And you can scrap the BBC and just get your news from those Web sites that reinforce your own stereotypes.”  (248)  [Yesterday, (Jan 15, 03), NPR interviewed the manager of Al Jazeera who says they will have satellite TV in a few weeks. Dlm]

The anti-Semitism coming out of Europe today suggests that deep down some Europeans want to get rid of the guilt of the Holocaust by describing Sharon’s actions as a massacre.  (251)

“The failure to prevent September 11 was not a failure of intelligence or coordination.  It was a failure of imagination.”  No one in the FBI or CIA or White House would have imagined evil on the scale that Osama bin Laden did.  (253)

“But the very nature of this war against small groups and individuals bent on terrorism is that you can never win it definitively.  It will be with us forever.  But we can limit the number of attacks—and keep terrorist cells on the run and disrupted enough to reduce their capabilities….”  (257) [And we have to keep the mass destructive materials secure!]

“The idea people who inspired the hijackers are religious leaders, pseudo-intellectuals, pundits, and educators, primarily in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia, which continues to use its vast oil wealth to spread its austere and intolerant brand of Islam, Wahhabism.”  (265)

“Egypt is the center of gravity of the Arab world.  It has the biggest middle class, the best-educated population, and the people with the most potential.  Egypt should be the Taiwan of the Mediterranean.  But it is a country that has been stagnating….  …too many years of controlled press and authoritarian politics.”  (268-9)

“…there are three trends converging in the Middle East today.  The first is this vicious Israeli-Palestinian war.  The second is the population explosion in the Arab world, where …(young people) are marching toward a future where they will find a shortage of good jobs and a surplus of frustration.  The third is an explosion of Arab satellite TV stations, the Internet, and other private media. 

“Basically, what’s happening is that this Arab media explosion is taking images of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and beaming them to this population explosion, nurturing a rage against Israel, America, and Jews in a whole new Arab generation.   Of that new generation there are going to be ten who will go to Dad one day and say, ‘Dad, there is a Pakistani gentleman at the door selling a suitcase nuclear bomb.  He wants a check for $100,000, and I would like to personally deliver the suitcase to Tel Aviv.’”  (287)

“The GDP of Spain is greater than that of all twenty-two Arab states combined.”  (289)

“While the twenty-two Arab states currently have 280 million people, soaring birthrates indicate that by 2020 they will have 410 to 459 million.”  (289)

“Out of seven key regions of the world, the Arab region has the lowest freedom score—which includes civil liberties, political rights, a voice for the people, independence of the media, and accountability of government.”  The whole Arab world translates about 300 books annually. (290)

The Soviet Union loved life more than it hated us.  In the end, it backed away from the Cuban missile crisis.  But these suicide bombers hated us more than they loved life.  (300)

“Only the host society can penetrate itself enough to effectively restrain or delegitimize its own suicide bombers.  Outsiders can’t.”  (301

“Our civic religion is built on the faith that anyone can aspire to come to our shores, become a member of this American nation, work hard, and make of him- or herself whatever he or she wants.  The economic strength of America derives from millions of individuals doing just that, and the military might of America derives from the ability of all these different individuals to come together into a fist when these bedrock values are threatened.”  (306)

“…for bin Laden, the Twin Towers were the symbol of a godless, corrupt, materialistic society—a society that got rich and powerful precisely because it had no values.  Of course, what bin Laden never understood was that the truth was exactly the opposite: We are rich and powerful because of our values—freedom of thought, respect for the individual, the rule of law, entrepreneurship, women’s equality, philanthropy, social mobility, self-criticism, experimentation, religious pluralism—not despite them.”  (308)

[What I think Friedman doesn’t understand is that this incredible strength arose from a broad understanding that we are accountable to a God who is concerned about both individuals and society, about truth and justice.  As this base is being lost, the values it supports it are being lost.  The failures and gradual degradation of our corporations, justice system, education, media, and public discourse are the evidence. Dlm]

“Not everything America has done or does now is right….  But in more places on more days in more years, America has done more to make this world a better, more livable place for more people than any other country in history.”  “There really are people who hate us for who we are, not just for what we do, because who we are is the refutation of all that they believe in.  It is the opposite of the world they want to construct.”  (310)

“This is a matter of religion and creed.  There is no way to forget the hostility between us and the infidels.  It is ideological, so Muslims have to ally themselves with Muslims.”  (quoting Bin Laden from Al Jazeera TV, November 3.)

In the U.S., Friedman’s greatest frustration has been on campus.  “The idea that there are radical Muslims who hate us because they see us as ‘infidels’ and blame us for all the ills that plagues their own societies is simply not allowed to be said on most college campuses.”  (312-3)

“When you are with modern, progressive Arabs … who really let down their hair, you start to realize the simmering frustration that boils in them every day—having to live in a world so full of lies, so full of religious leaders they don’t respect, so full of newspapers they can’t believe, so full of political leaders they’ve never elected.”  But their children are likely to believe that bin Laden is a good man, the closest thing to Robin Hood, who challenges the power structure! (316-17)

“Not everything is mandated by history and geography.  How people are governed, what voice they have in their own lives, what opportunities their kids have to live a better life than their parents, determine a lot about how they treat each other and the rest of the world.”  (322)

“It is not East versus West anymore.  It is the stable versus unstable worlds…” “Democracy is a difficult and uncomfortable way to control people.  But [to do otherwise turns out] to be a very bad mistake.”   (quoting a Moscow editor).  (324)

“It is the poverty of dignity that can really drive people to do extreme things—much more than the poverty of money.”  (334)

“They see America as the most powerful lethal weapon destroying their religious universe, or at least the universe they would like to build.  And that is why they transform America into the ultimate evil, even more than Western Europe, an evil that needs to be weakened and, if possible, destroyed.  Even by suicide?  Why not?  If America is destroying the source of meaning in their lives, then it needs to e destroyed back.”  (336)


Sobering thoughts.  Dlm