In November 2008, the Yes Men published a fake edition of the New York Times with welcome front page news: the Iraq war was over, Bush was being indicted for high treason, and Thomas Friedman was resigning as columnist in the Times. If only… we would then be spared columns like his most recent one on the Fort Hood shooting. Friedman’s “America vs. The Narrative” is wrong on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to start.
Friedman proposes a simplistic reading of what happened in Fort Hood, based on the assumption that the only reason a man suddenly decided to shoot his fellow soldiers is because he was a Muslim. End of the story. “Major Hasan was just another angry jihadist spurred to action by ‘The Narrative’” says Friedman. The “Narrative” (which, for purposes of dramatization, deserves a capital “N”) includes the idea that the US has declared war on Islam.
Never mind that Major Hasan tried to get a military discharge before the massacre. Never mind also that Fort Hood soldiers have accounted for more suicides than any other army post since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. And never mind that a strikingly similar incident occurred in May 2009, when a US soldier – who was not Muslim – shot five fellow soldiers at a stress-counseling center at a US base in Baghdad. Who remembers that anyway? The only thing we now remember about Major Hasan is that he is a Muslim. The fact that he was unwilling to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan is secondary. Bottom-line is: Hasan is just one of those “humiliated, frustrated or socially alienated Muslim males” anyway. Ironically, Friedman is guilty of doing exactly what he claims to be fighting against - promoting a simplistic narrative.
How, asks an indignant Friedman, could Muslims ever think the US is at war against them, when we’ve been so friendly to them (and the rest of the world) all this time? His narrative casts the US as a benevolent defendant and promoter of freedom worldwide. Friedman has apparently been living in a parallel universe. Can he really believe that the last two decades of US foreign policy have been “largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny?” Can a seasoned observer of US foreign policy really say seriously that the US acts out of benevolence, not national interest?
His “let’s bring freedom to the world” narrative is simply not credible. It was fatefully undermined by the lies that led to the Iraq war, and the claim that the war was fought for the benefit of the Iraqis. Likewise, the idea that the US intervention in Afghanistan has “liberated” the population – the women especially – has long proven cynical and empty. Not only has the condition of Afghan women not improved, they are now caught in the cross-fire, killed, wounded and forced to flee whenever troops advance in Afghanistan. Malalai Joya, a young politician who was suspended from the Afghan Parliament, has repeatedly asked for the US to leave her country. Last time I checked, she was not a “frustrated or socially alienated Muslim male.” Unfortunately, she doesn’t fit Friedman’s narrative.
In Friedman’s binary world, Muslims are either blood-thirsty terrorists or helpless victims. The US might “punish” the terrorists in ever nastier ways (think: rendition, torture, extra-judicial killings), but fear not, because it also rescues the oppressed: “for every Abu Ghraib,” says Friedman smugly, “our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness aimed at giving Arabs and Muslims a better chance to succeed with modernity and to elect their own leaders.” Not only is Friedman’s narrative offensive, it’s also deeply infantilizing. And Friedman’s sense of timing in mobilizing his evidence couldn’t be worse. He mentions the power of free elections as one of the benefits the US confers on Muslims. We’ve seen how successful these elections have been in Afghanistan, where Karzai was declared the winner after ample proof of fraud.
Friedman complains that “Muslims” - whatever this generalization means - are constructing a narrative that conveniently allows them to blame it all on the West. His own narrative is a convenient but deeply false construct. Isn’t it time to put aside the “frustrated” and “socially alienated” cartoon characters Friedman proposes, and instead look at reality honestly and squarely?