Thursday, December 04, 2008

Friedman's Constant Call for Muslim Protests


It's one of those days when Thomas Friedman phones in his column. Yes, again (and again, and again) it's "if only the Muslim world would take to the streets to protest Muslim terrorism" columns. It's not that in a larger sense he doesn't have a point - it would be nice if there were a greater outcry against terrorism within the Muslim world. But it's just plain silly for Friedman - a man whom I doubt has ever participated in the public protest of anything - to keep returning to this notion that the only meaningful Muslim reaction to terrorism would be their taking to the streets with torches and pitchforks.

Friedman complains that if Muslims take to the streets to protest offenses against other Muslims and their religion, they should take to the streets with the same vigor over crimes committed by other Muslims. We'll leave aside for the moment that nobody seems to actually do that - people sometimes take to the streets to protest the actions of their own government, but I can't recall a single instance, anywhere, of people of any religion taking to the streets to protest the actions of terrorists merely because they happen to share their faith or ethnicity. But let's pretend for the moment that Muslims are unique in that respect. Perhaps we should look at how somebody described protests in the Muslim world:
Where Islam is imbedded in authoritarian societies it tends to become the vehicle of angry protest, because religion and the mosque are the only places people can organize against autocratic leaders. And when those leaders are seen as being propped up by America, America also becomes the target of Muslim rage.
It's also worthy of note that those authoritarian regimes take advantage of what one might deem "fake issues" - things they don't really care about, but which stir up the people - as an opportunity to let the people take to the streets and vent rage that might otherwise be directed at the government.
But where Islam is imbedded in a pluralistic, democratic society, it thrives like any other religion.
That, apparently, is why Friedman doesn't call upon the Muslims of India to protest acts of terror by other Muslims. Although it would be easier for them to do so.

What would be the goals of the protests Friedman wants to see? Somebody once suggested,
Throughout history, successful social protest movements have had one thing in common - a clear, simple message and objective. Whether it was the women's rights movement or the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the mere uttering of the name immediately conjured up who the protesters were and what their objective was.
Friedman takes note of Pakistani expressions of concern, anguish and solidarity, but that's not enough for him:
But while the Pakistani government’s sober response is important, and the sincere expressions of outrage by individual Pakistanis are critical, I am still hoping for more. I am still hoping — just once — for that mass demonstration of “ordinary people” against the Mumbai bombers, not for my sake, not for India’s sake, but for Pakistan’s sake.

Why? Because it takes a village. The best defense against this kind of murderous violence is to limit the pool of recruits, and the only way to do that is for the home society to isolate, condemn and denounce publicly and repeatedly the murderers - and not amplify, ignore, glorify, justify or “explain” their activities.
What's the simple message that Friedman expects the protest to convey? "Hey, hey, ho ho, Lashkar-e-Toiba has got to go"? How many Lashkar-e-Toiba members does Friedman believe hang out in Islamabad? How many members of that group do you think care about the opinion of anybody in Pakistan who is not on board with their cause? A protest is going to change that?

The recurrent theme to Friedman's columns is his professed belief that, "Muslim protests against terrorism by Muslims would dry up the pool of recruits." The first problem is, Lashkar-e-Toiba isn't focused on the "three rivers of rage" that somebody sees as the basis of al-Qaeda-type terrorism. Its primary goals are territorial - ejecting India from Jammu and Kashmir. So in this context it's much less like the analogy Friedman makes, to protests against cartoons about Mohammed, and is more akin to the IRA - a conflict that was nominally "Catholic versus Protestant", but was in fact grounded in a territorial dispute. (Need it be said that Friedman never called for the world's Catholics to rise up in mass protest of IRA bombings in London, let alone argued that such protests would dry up the IRA's ability to recruit members?)

The second problem is that Friedman's calls for mass protest within the Muslim world is an assignment of collective guilt. He apparently sees all Muslims, whatever their sect or nationality - and perhaps especially those who live under autocratic regimes - as having essentially the same values, beliefs, and sympathies toward terrorism. Despite arguing that the roots of Muslim terror emerge predominantly from living under autocratic governments that keep their people "voiceless and powerless and prevent them from achieving their full aspirations in a world where they know how everyone else is living" and that Islam will peacefully thrive as part of a "Multi-ethnic, pluralistic, free-market democracy", his taking to the streets "solution" does nothing to address what he, himself, has declared to be the cause of the problem.

This leaves the question, does Friedman truly believe that the Islamic world is monolithic, such that a terrorist act by a Muslim is attributable to all Muslims unless it is denounced by a "mass demonstration of 'ordinary'" Muslims? That we should assume in relation to Islam (and only Islam) that if there is not a mass protest then there must be mass acceptance?
But at the end of the day, terrorists often are just acting on what they sense the majority really wants but doesn’t dare do or say.
Is this a dodge, "I don't believe that to be true of Islam, but the terrorists do?" If so, it's a distinction that gets past the biggest fans of this type of column. Oh, I know, it's not Friedman's fault if people misunderstand his columns and use them to advance anti-Islamic bigotry - but it's not something he's going to, you know, protest.

In short, Friedman is correct to call on the Muslim world, and perhaps particularly Muslim communities in the free world, to be much more vocal in deploring terrorism that is committed in the name of Islam. If you oppose terrorism that is being committed in your name, quietude is not the answer. If the Muslim communities of the world can take to the streets over blasphemy against Islam from outside of their faith, there's room for demonstration (in not in the form of protests, then at least in the form of public vigils) protesting blasphemy from within - the acts and attitudes of certain Muslims that suggest that terrorism and violence against civilians and "infidels" is legitimate under Islam. When it comes to condemning terrorism, the words of the Islamic community should be loud and sincere. And Friedman is correct that actions often speak louder than words.

At the same time, I disagree with Friedman's implication all terrorist acts committed by Muslims are rooted in religion and are attributable to the collective attitudes of all Muslims. He's also far too simplistic in his suggestion that the type of mass protest movement he demands would have any appreciable impact on terrorist groups, or that even if some protests occurred there would emerge a coherent, sustainable movement.

The type of attitude shift Friedman wants will have to start with the opinion leaders and religious leaders, particularly those within the Islamic communities that are most inclined to spawn terrorists. And it must be facilitated by the political leaders of Arab states - the same autocratic, non-democratic leaders who facilitate and benefit from the status quo that Friedman deplores and describes as the principal cause of Islamic terrorism. It really wouldn't hurt if the U.S. and the regimes of the Arab world started working to dry up the "three rivers of rage" that Friedman sees as the principal causes of Islamic terrorism.

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