“Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West. . . As a cultural apparatus Orientalism is all aggression.”
~ Edward Said
In his book “Manufacturing Consent,” Noam Chomsky discusses the role of the mainstream, corporate media in conditioning the public to conform to the views and policies of society’s powerful ruling elite.
Regarding these media outlets- as supposed to independent ones- he argues that “their role is quite different, it’s diversion.” He describes those who distort facts to suit the interests of the powerful as living “in a world of comforting illusion.” They present a narrative that is more fiction than fact, one of fantasy rather than analysis. It’s actually “a form of propaganda, which is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,” Chomsky argues.
One such enabler is New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. His frequently shallow and eccentric analysis of events in the Middle East has been noted for many years, whether it is his deliberate misrepresentation of the Camp David negotiations in July 2000, or his hyped columns regarding alleged – and as it turned out non-existent- weapons of mass destruction in Iraq on behalf of the Bush administration in the prelude to the 2003 war.
And now he’s at it again, with his incredible contention that the revolutions sweeping the Arab World, from Tunisia Egypt, and Libya, to Yemen, Bahrain, and beyond are due to external factors. In Friedman’s delusional world, the presence of decades-long repression, police state, corruption, poverty, economic strangulation, lack of infrastructure, or, in short, the collapse of the modern civil state in the Arab World for the benefit of thugs, thieves and Western underlings were not the real factors in the uprisings and revolutions of millions of Arabs from the Atlantic Ocean to the Persian Gulf.
In his column on March 2, 2011, Friedman gives five reasons for these great revolutions, none of which is true. He starts by ridiculously claiming that it was President Barack Obama who inspired the Youth in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries because of his race, middle name, and his 2009 Cairo speech. Clearly such opinion is an ethnocentric and distorted view of the Arab Middle East. Obama may inspire minorities in the West, but why would his skin color or the religion of his forefathers inspire people in the Middle East?
Former Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice did not inspire the Arab masses although they were also African Americans occupying high positions in government. On the contrary these Secretaries attained the Arabs’ scorn because they represented a U.S. administration that invaded two Muslim countries, killing tens of thousands of Arabs and Muslims, with millions more suffering. Their administration used torture, carried out unjust prosecutions, and abused its power against Arabs and Muslims not only in Guantanamo Bay and other prisons around the world, but also inside the U.S. against many Muslim leaders and charitable organizations. Arabs are not so naïve as to be inspired by the symbolism of skin color or middle name. It is a government’s policies and principles that inspire the oppressed whether in the U.S. or the Arab World.
Undoubtedly people around the world had hoped that the election of Obama would bring a new dawn of American foreign policy that would not only reverse much of the previous administration’s atrocious policies with regard to the Muslim World, but also institute pro-people policies against their dictators.
But Obama has broken nearly every meaningful promise he made in his June 2009 Cairo speech (see my article Promises Made.. Promises Unkept). If anything, Obama is perceived as a big disappointment across the Arab World. He exhibits the image of a weak and ineffective leader, as in the case of closing Guantanamo, as well as an unprincipled and hypocritical politician with regard to the illegal Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian lands.
How could Obama inspire a small child, much less revolutionaries, when he has just vetoed in the U.N. Security Council his own declared policy that the Israeli settlements are illegal and must stop? During the 28 and 18 revolutionary days of continuous demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt respectively, not a single statement by any opposition figure had mentioned Obama in a positive light.
During the Tunisian revolution, Obama was MIA until the deposed Tunisian president left town on January 14. On Egypt, his administration kept wavering between asking Hosni Mubarak to leave and agreeing to keep him in power. In the beginning both his White House spokesperson and Secretary of State claimed that the Mubarak regime was stable before revising their assessment a few days later.
When Obama’s special envoy to Egypt Frank Wisner stated only days before Mubarak stepped down that he should stay as president until September, the following day Obama again reversed course to agree with Wisner. Freidman is fooling no one but himself if he thinks that Obama’s flip-flop on Mubarak was lost on the Egyptian people.
According to Friedman, the second factor that “fed the mass revolt” was Google Earth. This pitiful argument is based on a statement by a Bahraini man who supposedly looked at Google Earth and found out that Bahrain has “vast tracts of land” while he was living in a crowded home (at 257 square miles, Bahrain is one of the smallest countries in the world without really any vast tracts of land.)
In fact, the genesis of the uprising in Bahrain lies in the country’s repressive system in which a minority Sunni monarchy has been ruling with an iron fist a Shi’a majority for over two centuries. The fact that Bahrain serves as the headquarters of the U.S. navy’s Fifth Fleet, where foreigners living there are given many privileges, including significant tract of lands, over the oppressed population, clearly did not cross Friedman’s mind. People across the Arab world do not need Google Earth to know who has been looting their lands, resources, and wealth.
Friedman then claims Israel as the third cause for the Arab revolts. He argues that since Israel tried a former president, prime minster, and chief-of-staff on criminal conduct and corruption, then surely the Arabs must have been inspired by this Israeli “democracy” and “transparency.”
The foolishness of this argument is that it is presented in a vacuum. In every decade since Israel’s founding in 1948, scandals and investigations have forced many of its leaders out of office. David Ben Gurion, Pinhas Lavon, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and even the current PM Benjamin Netanyahu, had to resign or leave office under a cloud of suspicion or accusations. But such affairs never aroused the Arab masses.
Only an ignorant or depraved mind could even consider such factor to inspire the Arab collective mind. For the majority of Arabs Israel represents an illegitimate and a racist regime that has been illegally occupying Arab lands for decades while mercilessly oppressing their Palestinian brethren. In the Arab street Israeli leaders are considered war criminals perpetrating dozens of massacres (for the latest see the Goldstone report and last year’s Turkish flotilla). No revolutionary authority could seriously look up to Israel as an inspiring example.
Further in his column, Friedman contends that somehow the spectacular Olympic games organized by China in 2008 helped inspire Egyptians to take to the streets. One wonders whether he wrote this while sober. Indeed, Egyptians are proud people with great civilizations behind them, but their revolution was about restoring their freedom and dignity. The China model of state-controlled prosperity at the expense of political freedom and human rights is not an inspiration to any Arab.
But perhaps the greatest insult to the Arab revolutionaries is the last factor Friedman mentions as the source of inspiration to the Arab protesters, namely, the unelected Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Salam Fayyad
If anything Fayyad is viewed as a Western-imposed autocrat that could never be elected as a small town mayor. The only reason he is in power is due to the pressure applied on the president of the PA, Mahmoud Abbas (whose term by the way has already expired), by the U.S. and Israel. During the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in January and February of this year, not once has Fayyad or any PA official said anything positive about the Arab revolutions in the streets. On the contrary, they continued to lament in the media the loss of Mubarak.
Since 2008 Fayyad has been coordinating with the Israeli occupation against his own citizens causing hundreds to be arrested and detained without charges, sometimes even tortured. In a speech before the pro-Israel think tank, the Washington Institute on Near East Policy (WINEP) in May 2009, Lt. General Keith Dayton, the former U.S. Security Coordinator in the West Bank, exposed the Palestinian PM when he said “I don’t know how many of you are aware, but over the last year-and-a-half, the Palestinians have engaged upon a series of what they call security offensives throughout the West Bank, surprisingly well coordinated with the Israeli army.”
He further admitted that during the twenty-two day Israeli onslaught on Gaza in 2008/2009, Fayyad’s security forces prevented Palestinians in the West Bank from organizing mass protests against the Israeli army, which ironically allowed for the reduction of the Israeli military presence in the West Bank in order to redeploy those troops to Gaza. Dayton added, “As a matter of fact, a good portion of the Israeli army went off to Gaza from the West Bank— think about that for a minute, and the (Israeli military) commander (of the West Bank) was absent for eight straight days.”
Moreover, in February 2010 Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak praised Fayyad for his security cooperation during a security conference in Herzliya. Incredibly he credited him with providing security for Israeli settlers in the illegal settlements in the West Bank. Barak told the conference, “The settlers are also saying that the security situation is better than ever, and that is thanks to the work of both sides.”
In the Muslim World today there are two kinds of leaders despised by the public: autocrats and dictators supported by the West such as Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, and agents who were directly installed by the West like Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai. At the height of the Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrations, the Palestine Papers released by Al-Jazeera and comprising hundreds of confidential documents from the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, portrayed Fayyad as another hireling for the West and Israel. In the Arab world he is neither respected nor inspiring.
One of the problems in Western media and political circles -as embodied by Friedman- is that great events somehow have to revolve around Western powerful elites in order for them to be meaningful. But the impressive Arab revolutions of 2011 are about the great awakening of the Arab people. It is their moment of glory. The sooner Western elites recognize this fact, the easier Orientalist stereotypes could be disposed of.
In his great work, Us and Them, Jim Carnes asks whether racism “is promoted by a sense of inferiority that makes us want to dominate others to protect our turf and to seek a status with no competition?”
Sadly Friedman’s explanation of the proliferation of the Arab revolutions of 2011 positively answers that question.
ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org