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Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Thomas Friedman's Saudi America

Good old Thomas Friedman, always ready to be a complete ass. Here he cautions us against copying Bin Laden by restricting religious freedom. He paints the uproar about the University of North Carolina's assignment of Approaching the Qur'an as being due to "conservative Christians" and "book-burn[ers]" (no mention of bibliophilic atheist bloggers).

He notes that other religions are forbidden in Saudi Arabia, and accuses the US of trying to mimic that.

The problem with the world today is not that American students are being asked to read the Quran, it is that students in Saudi Arabia and many other Muslim lands are still not being asked to read the sacred texts of other civilizations

Let's see, in the US, individuals are questioning the wisdom of a state agency (UNC) requiring the study of religion, in particular a religion in whose name thousands of Americans were slaughtered last year. In Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, the state prevents you from exercising another religion, on pain of death.

Yup, seems equivalent to me!

I understand that some people feel it's not right that terrorists kill 3,000 Americans -- in the name of Islam -- and then we go out and make the Quran a best seller to try to figure out who they are. But that doesn't bother me as an American. It would bother me, though, if I were Muslim. It would bother me that people have been awakened to my faith by an outrageously destructive act perpetrated in its name -- rather than by some compelling attractiveness...

I hardly know where to begin here. "It would bother me that people have been awakened to my faith by an outrageously destructive act perpetrated in its name...." No doubt it would bother Friedman. But it doesn't bother the people who perpetrated the act. It doesn't bother Bin Laden. It doesn't bother millions of Muslims. I'm assuming---I'm hoping---that many (that most) Muslims feel exactly as Friedman does. It's hard to tell though, because the American Muslims you see in the media are too busy being outraged that non-Muslims see them as terrorists, and many of the foreign ones are too busy baying for more blood.

But one of the---shall we call them---"problematic" aspects of Islam is that it doesn't matter how you come to the faith---through rational reflection, or a spiritual calling, or at the point of a sword. Muslims are explicitly exhorted to convert people by force, if they cannot win them by other means. And while there are some troubling sections of the Bible which most modern Christians tend to politely ignore, great swaths of the Muslim world still believe literally in the call to jihad.

Back to Friedman:

The freedom of thought and the cultural and political perspectives we offer in our public schools are what nurture a critical mind. And it is a critical mind that is the root of innovation, scientific inquiry and entrepreneurship.

You could try a little critical thinking yourself here, Tom.

Right after 9/11, the majority of books on's top 100 best-seller list were about the Middle East and Islam. But there has been no parallel upsurge in interest in American studies, no new intellectual ferment in the blinkered, monochromatic universities and madrasas of the Arab and Muslim worlds...

I suspect not. But what is really conspicuous by its absence is an upsurge in American studies in American universities. Instead we get more attempts to "understand them" like the one I noted yesterday.

Friedman then tries to make a link between the Borgias, cuckoo clocks, and the Arab world which really doesn't work (must not be a Swiss clock). By his reasoning, the constant turmoil and ferment in the Arab world should be producing some great art, and the US should be turning out cuckoo (whippoorwill?) clocks.

Friedman adds, before winding up:

I would bet that Islam is taught in virtually every state university in America -- and was before 9/11. I first studied Islam and Arabic at the University of Minnesota in 1971.

I wonder if he really is this blinkered. I'm sure Islam is taught in most American public (and private) universities. I hope it continues to be taught, as part of a course in comparative religions, or as philosophy, literature, whatever. But it shouldn't be compulsory, and neither should any other religion.

But what really gets my goat about the North Carolina business is not that they are asking students to study Islam, or even requiring students to read Approaching the Qu'ran. It's the timing that makes me angry, and the implications of that timing. UNC is engaging in a preening, posturing, posing little act of New Age self-righteousness. By assigning this book they are in effect saying, "See how enlightened and holy we are. People espousing this faith have attacked our country in its name, and our response is not to lash out but to reach out, to try to understand them and why they felt the need to attack us. We are better than the unwashed mass of our countrymen. We have haloes. Our feet do not touch the ground."

If this were not the case, if instead the idea were the laudable one of examining the historical antecedents of Bin Laden and his cause, why not assign David Fromkin's A Peace to End All Peace or Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong? or any number of other books?

It's this tang of smug self-satisfaction which turns the UNC assignment from a genuine search for enlightenment into an exercise in cultural self-flagellation.