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