Sunday, November 29, 2009

Competing Narratives?

Recently, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman lamented how the shooting tragedy at Fort Hood was actually a product of Arab buy-in to what Friedman calls, "The Narrative". Though he addresses the other side by stating that Major Hasan (the alleged shooter) may have been mentally ill, Friedman claims instead that this 39 year-old American-born and educated killer was just another Arab who came to believe in the Big Lie:
Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books...this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.

Friedman argues that despite twenty years of US foreign policy, "largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny", most Arabs and Arab-Americans still cling to The Narrative. Read Friedman's short editorial piece, then skim the 600+ reader comments that follow, particularly those of "Phil in the mountains of Kyushu, Japan" and "Bill Nahay from Austin TX". Ask yourself to assess this writing in a critical manner, as we did in class both with the history textbook reading and the Fox News WMD article. You might respond to the following question: does Friedman propagate a myth in order to obscure his own storytelling?


Sam H said...

This was a really great, insightful editorial. I especially liked the finishing question, as to why Muslims (en masse) will protest a cartoon, but not murders.

I do have a problem with the article. My small quibble is that, to an extent, I believe the narrative is true. America may have helped Muslim groups, but many times we helped Muslims at the cost of other Muslims or Asians or Africans. I don't believe we have ever helped Muslims at the cost of White Christians (correct me if I am wrong).

It may seem like a stretch, but think about how our country was started. The money to discover the Americas came from the Spanish Empire. The Spanish Empire had just freed itself from the grasps of the Islamic Empire.

I will definitely agree that education and dialogue will always be the most effective way of resolving this (or any) issue. I think that as Americans, we need to change the narrative by admitting that actions like the bombings of Iraqi civilians, largely supported by White Christian Americans who felt that outsiders had attacked their Christian Utopia, were unacceptable.

I also think that Muslim figureheads need to take responsibility and strongly urge their followers to accept America and the west as a friend. There is a clear double standard in speaking with Muslims. The Iranian President (I will not try to spell his name) can say he wants to make Israel disappear off the face of the earth and he gets a strongly worded letter from the UN, a Swedish parliament member claims that Islam has spawned a violent society, and he gets death threats.

Claire m said...

What I found most interesting about Friedman's article was a sentence in the second to last paragraph, which states, "The Narrative is just an escape from looking honestly at themselves [Muslims]". This is an instance where Friedman uses the narrative to put the Muslims to blame. Like Phil in the mountains of Kyushu points out, Friedman never addresses the US's involvement with The Narrative. So in effect he is using only one side of an argument to express his opinion, which is that the problems lie with Muslims and not the US.

In addition, by claiming that "The Narrative was concocted by jihadists", he implies that the US is only helping rather than hurting the Muslim cause.
This seemed like a very large concern in many of the other reader comments (like ORS from the U.K.), because the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan can be seen as hurting Muslims.

Katie O. said...

I thought the article was very interesting, however i found some of his logic to be a bit confusing and a bit off. In the beginning of the article, he states "propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes" This makes it seem as though it is a bunch of writings put togeather with a mix of different vantage points. But he later states that," The Narrative was concocted by jihadists to obscure that." This statement makes it seem as though The Narrative was written only by the jihadists. I may be prying his work apart a bit too much but while i was reading, it seemed odd that he would only mention them writing it when it was clear they were a small part of a large group who had written this "Narrative"

S. Bolos said...

Katie -- I don't believe at all that you're "prying his work apart a bit too much" -- in fact, this is exactly the sort of analysis I hoped we all would do.

When someone like Friedman, a best-selling author and world-renowned columnist makes these types of arguments, he must realize he is under intense and immense scrutiny: his readership must be in the millions.

Thanks for your close reading. I hope to see more! :)

Anonymous said...

While I was reading the article, I thought about a quote similar to the one Katie mentioned, "The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11." I think that Friedman targets the Muslims and blames them for parts of the War on Terror because they believe in "The Narrative". But I think that Friedman fails to notice that America creates its own narrative. I think that the reason there are racial tensions between some "westerners" and some Muslims is because the US creates propaganda targeting the Muslims. The US needed someone to blame for going to war, so they chose the Muslims; surprisingly, the nation bought into it, thus creating our Narrative.

I think that there may be a "Narrative" in the Muslim community. However, one cannot analyze a culture, without reflecting on one's own.

Maeli G. said...

This was an extremely interesting article. I actually agree, Sam, with a great deal of what you had to say about it. I don't believe the narrative just appeared out of the blue -- a completely fabricated representation of the West and its supposed hatred of the Muslim community. I think it has strong roots in reality. The West has always been somewhat distrustful of Islam. We have occasionally characterized its leaders as barbaric or uncivilized. We have set the entire community apart as a culture too foreign to understand, and we have allied ourselves with God. It's an "us vs. them" sort of situation that's making a mess of our foreign policy. They don't understand us, we don't understand them, and the result is a confusion of stereotypes and "Narratives" like the one mentioned in this article.

Education is definitely the way to go, at least in my opinion. We can never hope to clear up misunderstandings between our cultures until we make an effort to understand each other more completely.

Maeli G. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin S. said...

I agree with Maeli and Sam that education is a possible solution to the problem, but we should really think about what that education would entail. We have a notion that children all over the world can go to school and learn the facts about US involvement in the Muslim world. On NPR’s “All Things Considered”, there was a story about the schools in Afghanistan ( Around half of Afghan children do not attend school and those who do risk their lives. Proponents of “The Narrative” will do anything to stop kids from hearing a different message. To keep parents from sending their kids to school, these people sprayed acid on girls who were walking to school. Imagine what would happen if the fundamentalists found out that the pro-American message was being taught in schools.

It is important to realize that education is not always immediately possible. It is not always the peaceful solution. In places like Afghanistan, it is possible that a new education program would do more harm than good.

Shirley said...

Friedman writes at one point: "Although most of the Muslims being killed today are being killed by jihadist suicide bombers in Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and Indonesia, you’d never know it from listening to their world."

I wonder whether or not HE actually listened to "their world" or at least got that information from a reputable source. I am inclined to believe (since the article's voice seems to be slightly accusatory against muslims) that Friedman is making a broad statement based off his opinoin, not research.

StoneA said...

At first I thought Friedman wa using this article to portray Muslims as misguided children who are stubbornly refusing to embrace the helping hand of the US. He explains that despite, "two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny" Muslims still cling to the idea that the U.S. is dedicated to suppressing Muslims. I thought that this article was pathetic. I was shocked that an accomplished journalist like Friedman would write such an opinionated article and then support his claims by quoting a token Muslim counter terrorist who asked to remain anonymous. However, after considering Friedman's impressive history working in both the U.S. and Israeli government, I decided that there might be more to this article than can be appreciated with a single read. Our situation in the Middle East has consistently been regarded with negativity. Because of this I think it is the initial reaction of the majority to construe statements like, "propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes" and "The Narrative was concocted by jihadists to obscure that." as contradicting. However, and it may seem a stretch, isn't it impossible that the, "mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books" he mentions are jihadist? I can't think of a reason why not. Maybe freedman decided that,"propagated by jihadist Web sites, jihadist mosque preachers, jihadist Arab intellectuals, jihadist satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some jihadist Arab regimes" wouldn't really flow. I only pose the question because I don't think and accomplished journalist like Friedman would need to propagate a myth in order to obscure his own storytelling.

Doc OC said...

"For every Abu Ghraib there are a million acts of kindness"? "U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims"? Talk about a competing narrative! Why settle for this sort of hyperbole, especially on a topic as volatile as this one. Friedman's unnamed Jordanian source is also troubling. Isn't such anonymity exactly what Friedman rails against (the lack of outspoken Arab opposition)? Content to settle for a shady source, TF's not left with much of a pin on which to hang his fez. Is TF's narrative the same as the U.S. narrative?