Analyze This: Thomas Friedman psychoanalyzes the Middle East

I don’t think I can be accused of sympathies for Islamism (or Islam) any more than I can be accused of sympathy for communism (or Marxism). But there comes a point when “Western” criticism of Islamism becomes its own pathology, in the same way and for the same reasons that in the 1950s, McCarthyite anti-communism became its own pathology. Here’s a relatively mild but instructive example from a column by Thomas Friedman called “Freud and the Middle East.

He starts reasonably enough:

When trying to make sense of the Middle East, one of the most important rules to keep in mind is this: What politicians here tell you in private is usually irrelevant. What matters most, and what explains their behavior more times than not, is what they say in public in their own language to their own people. As President Obama dispatches more U.S. advisers to help Iraqis defeat the Islamic State, or ISIS, it is vital that we listen carefully to what the key players are saying in public in their own language about each other and their own aspirations.

Of course, if this were true, it would help to be able to understand what they “say in public in their own language to their own people.” Friedman somehow claims to understand what they’re saying but shows no evidence of understanding the languages they speak. (He apparently has a passable knowledge of Arabic, but I don’t think he knows Turkish, and Turkish is the language at issue in much of this column.) Instead, he quotes throughout from a translation service. The service, MEMRI, has its own political agenda, and translates selectively from a relatively narrow range of items. That limitation doesn’t stop Friedman from giving his readers the idea that he has his thumb on the pulse of the region. His claim, rather sparsely supported, is that Sunni Muslims all–or, well, almost all–covertly desire to re-establish the ancient caliphate, and thus (almost) all harbor covert admiration for ISIS.

Here is what Friedman regards as evidence for his claim:

Well, at least Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is in the modern world. No, wait, what is the name that Erdogan insists be put on the newest bridge he’s building across the Bosporus? Answer: the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge. Selim I was the Sunni Turkish sultan who, in 1514, beat back the Persian Shiite empire of his day, called the Safavids. Turkey’s Alevi minority, a Shiite offshoot sect whose ancestors faced Selim’s wrath, have protested the name of the bridge.

They know it didn’t come out of a hat. According to Britannica, Selim I was the Ottoman sultan (1512-20) who extended the empire to Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, “and raised the Ottomans to leadership of the Muslim world.” He then turned eastward and took on the Safavid Shiite dynasty in Iran, which posed a “political and ideological threat” to the hegemony of Ottoman Sunni Islam. Selim was the first Turkish leader to claim to be both sultan of the Ottoman Empire and caliph of all Muslims.

Here in the States, we just finished celebrating Columbus Day. Christopher Columbus was surely a competitor with Selim I for imperial ambition and militaristic indifference to the Rights of Man. Now recall that Columbus made it to North American shores in 1492–a “crazy long time ago,” as one of my students put it to me. Does that mean that we aren’t part of the modern world, and that we still want to enslave indigenous peoples? After all, we haven’t just dedicated a mere bridge to Columbus, but a whole day to him. If not–and I assume not–why think that the Turks’ naming a bridge after an Ottoman sultan proves that they want to restore the caliphate?

Another cringe-making paragraph:

Vice President Joe Biden did not misspeak when he accused Turkey of facilitating the entry of ISIS fighters into Syria. Just as there is a little bit of West Bank “Jewish settler” in almost every Israeli, there is a little bit of the caliphate dream in almost every Sunni. Some Turkish analysts suspect Erdogan does not dream of building pluralistic democracy in Iraq and Syria, but rather a modern Sunni caliphate — not led by ISIS but by himself. Until then, he clearly prefers ISIS on his border than an independent Kurdistan.

I think I’d want better evidence of Turkey’s facilitating the entry of ISIS fighters into Syria than this. Biden, who has one major instance of intellectual dishonesty in his past, is also known for putting his foot in his mouth on occasion (or two, or…ten). On this particular occasion, he happens explicitly to have withdrawn the accusation against Turkey, so it’s mystifying how Friedman manages to exhume the comment from the dead and use it as Exhibit A of his thesis. One explanation for Biden’s withdrawal of the claim is that he really believes what he said, and was entirely justified in saying it, but simply fears the wrath of the Turkish president. Another explanation is that he spoke too hastily, lacked proper evidence, and realized that he’d embarrassed himself. I leave it to readers to decide between these two hypotheses. I only point out that Friedman neither provides the evidence to decide between them, nor bothers to inform his readers of the need to make a decision. Responsible journalism? No; in fact, it’s positively Oriental in its shadiness.

As for the next sentence in the passage, it’s a double-insult to those it accuses and a complete non-sequitur to boot. What on earth does Biden’s (withdrawn) accusation have to do with Friedman’s claims about non-Turkish Sunnis? And what conceivable evidence could support such a claim, whether about Sunnis, or about Israelis? How many Sunnis are there in the world, and what sample of them has Friedman met? How many of their languages does he speak? For that matter, how many Israelis has he met to justify the claim that they’re all settlers at heart? I’ve been covering inductive generalization with my critical thinking classes here at Felician, but these generalizations are too wild and preposterous even for use in a classroom exercise on fallacious reasoning. They’re the sort of thing I’d expect from an unhinged combox crusader at Jihad Watch, not from a veteran columnist at The New York Times. Under normal circumstances, we’d call generalizations of this kind “bigotry.” Under the present circumstances, one simply furrows one’s brow and wonders what the hell is going through Friedman’s mind.

What, finally, does the column have to do with Freud?

In sum, there are so many conflicting dreams and nightmares playing out among our Middle East allies in the war on ISIS that Freud would not have been able to keep them straight.

That’s it. Bring up “dreams” in one stray sentence in the course of a (very) half-assed column, and suddenly, you’re doing the psychodynamics of “the Middle East.” By this definition, I guess Osama bin Laden was a Freudian.

If you want to grasp the full meaning of the concept of “double standard,” turn from Friedman’s article to a report (first link just below) by the group AMCHA, purporting to document instances of anti-Semitism on American university campuses. The claim they make is that anyone sympathetic to the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel is ipso facto an anti-Semite, ought to be branded as one by name, and ought to be treated accordingly. In fact, such academics, according to AMCHA, are to be blacklisted in full-dress McCarthyite fashion. Here is AMCHA’s idea of an operational definition of “anti-Semitism.”  The AMCHA blacklist has recently been protested by a group of 40 professors of Jewish Studies, but it’s also gotten the support of  Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and others. It’s an unbelievable phenomenon, but really just the predictable result of about a decade-and-a-half of very aggressive lobbying by a certain right-wing brand of pro-Israel activist who would rather engage in libels and defamation than argument.

The lesson here seems to be that you can make unrestrained generalizations about the covert imperial ambitions of Arabs and Muslims based on absolutely nothing–and that you can engage in character-assassination of critics of Israel based on about as much. Further, you can do it in the serene and untroubled conviction that there’s nothing wrong with either thing. You just start here: Arabs and Muslims are irredentist fanatics, and accusations of anti-Semitism can be made of them (or those who support their causes) off the cuff; when it comes to character-assassination, precision is a very low priority. It’s easier to make an accusation than to defend oneself against one, after all. Make the accusation, and you’re half-way home: in a climate of opinion in which the presumption of innocence no longer applies, the damage has already been done.

What we’re witnessing, I think, is the derangement that arises from prolonged immersion in the rhetoric and psychodynamics of warfare. We’ve been at war for so long, and the activity has corrupted our minds so completely, that discourse on topics related to the Middle East now seems to have devolved into something genuinely psychopathological–into schizoid fantasy and hysteria. In other words, welcome to the place where civilization and its discontents merge into the psychopathology of everyday life. It’s going to take more than a few sessions on the couch to work this one out.

Postscript, November 13, 2014: Here’s more grist for the mill, so to speak: The New York Times reports this morning that “[m]embers of a Turkish nationalist youth group assaulted three visiting American sailors in Istanbul yesterday, hurling balloons filled with red paint at them, putting white sacks over their heads and calling them murderers.” Twelve of them were later arrested. Here is the Pentagon’s characteristically tone-deaf response to the event: “A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Steve Warren, was more blunt [than the American Embassy], saying that the assailants ‘appeared to be thugs on the street’ and were ‘a great discredit upon the Turks and the Turkish reputation for hospitality’.”

Honestly, where do they get these “spokesmen” from? That the attack was thuggish and wrong I don’t dispute. But is a single attack by a dozen thugs a “great discredit” upon the reputation of the people of a whole country? I wonder whether Col. Warren has any idea how many visiting foreigners are attacked and robbed when they visit the United States–to say nothing of how they’re treated by border control guards at our ports of entry and exit. Do individual crimes against foreign visitors reflect on my reputation, yours, Col. Warren’s, or that of the American people? How would they? The claim is patently ridiculous, and yet we pay “spokesmen” like Warren handsome sums to make claims like that. Is it any wonder that the stereotype of the “ugly American” persists?

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