A Grand Narrative
March 8, 2002 8:24 AM   Subscribe

A Grand Narrative "When Hindus kill Muslims it's not a story, because there are a billion Hindus and they aren't part of the Muslim narrative. When Saddam murders his own people it's not a story, because it's in the Arab-Muslim family. But when a small band of Israeli Jews kills Muslims it sparks rage — a rage that must come from Muslims having to confront the gap between their self-perception as Muslims and the reality of the Muslim world." Thomas Friedman looks for an angle and finds a story! What role, if any, does narrative consciousness and social psychology play in the Middle East? (via blogdex :)
posted by kliuless (26 comments total)
Another in a series of truly informed and insightful analyises from Friedman.

Quite a few months back, another mefi-er recommended Friedman's book "From Beirut to Jerusalem" for those who wanted the real low down skinny on how & why the middle east is as it is today.

They weren't wrong. It should be required reading for anyone who wants to spew on the topic.
posted by BentPenguin at 9:35 AM on March 8, 2002

Before I wade through all the linked material, I recommend a fascinating demonstration of qualifying differences in descriptive narrative appear side by side in today's NYT, about the war in Afganisthan and in Israel.
posted by semmi at 9:38 AM on March 8, 2002

Slate says (today) that Friedman is the most important journalist writing today...here, an excerpt:
"One of Friedman's most appealing qualities is his essential pragmatism. Friedman is sometimes linked with Robert Kaplan, the other famous pop analyst of the Middle East and globalization. Kaplan is pessimistic and hopeless, believing that religious divisions, ethnic rage, and ancient hatreds inevitably doom most of the world to chaos. Kaplan's idea of foreign policy sometimes seems to be a shrug and an M-16.

But Friedman has not an ideological bone in his body. He is willing to try anyanthing...."
posted by Postroad at 9:42 AM on March 8, 2002

Israel owes its entire existence to a grand narrative, with many streams, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, through the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust. Israel is a kind of fantasy state, concocted out of the historicized imaginations of emancipated European Jews, and planted in Palestine (or whatever it was called then) the way Disney World was planted in Orlando. The Muslim's grand narrative is disjoined and barely coherent, compared to the richness and power of Israel's founding fantasy. Interestingly enough, the Arabs barely have any role in Israel's grand narrative, unless you identify them with the Canaanites or other indigeonous peoples who were massacred or driven out during the Hebrews' first (now historically questioned) occupation of that territory. In Israel's grand narrative, it defines itself against Europe. Not the Moslem world. The fact that these idealistic European Jews piled onto Palestine hoping to create this rational, socialistic society, and instead found themselves enmeshed in a multi-generational blood feud with an insane, pre-industrial people not fit to lick their cultural, moral or intellectual boots, is deeply ironic.
posted by Faze at 9:47 AM on March 8, 2002

The fact that these idealistic European Jews piled onto Palestine hoping to create this rational, socialistic society, and instead found themselves enmeshed in a multi-generational blood feud with an insane, pre-industrial people not fit to lick their cultural, moral or intellectual boots, is deeply ironic.

there's a narrative for you.
posted by cell divide at 9:50 AM on March 8, 2002

Friedman is a very acute journalist, which is why I tend to read his stuff carefully. It's just depressing that so much of what he writes shows what a terrible predicament much of the Islamic world is in. He has written of his visits to Saudi Arabia, where most still believe the canard that Jews were behind 9/11.

I am sure that there are many Muslims -- even Islamists -- recognize that there is a dire need for a more open inquiry into the history and politics of Islam. I share Friedman's distress that this dialog doesn't seem to be forthcoming anytime soon: most Muslims would apparently rather blame the US and Israel for all their troubles.
posted by mrmanley at 9:51 AM on March 8, 2002

Faze, a little harsh there, no? There is truth in your statement, though, that Israel defines itself against Europe, especially because so do the Arabs. You could say that it's a rivalry that dates back to the Greeks vs. Asia Minor, or the Phoenician Carthaginians (culturally Syrians, essentially) vs. the Romans. In fact the state of scholarship about the Arab and Islamic worlds is between Said's Orientalism (which charges that Europeans treat Muslims as an inscrutable 'Other') and Ajami's Dream Palace of the Arabs (which charges the Arabs with creating their own false narratives, which fly in the face of their dismal realities) -- a war of narratives. Myself, I wish for an Occidentalism book to examine the ways in which Muslims have defined the Christian world as their own inscrutable 'Other' -- at the very least, it is mutual.

But that NY Review of Books article will do, for now. Highly relevant. Don't miss it.
posted by dhartung at 10:00 AM on March 8, 2002

I recommend a fascinating demonstration of qualifying differences

semmi, fascinating indeed. do you think that nyt is pandering to the local revenge (justice) seeking crowd?

On another point: Friedman may be the most important journalist ever in the history of the world but I am very suspect of any reductionist theory about "what went wrong" in the muslim world. It's a complicated mess and I'm not sure what help it is to boil the thing down to "they are just threatened by Jews."
posted by victors at 10:02 AM on March 8, 2002

The NYT pandering? It's hardly the NY Post. Or the Jewish Press. Or even The Forward. The NYT has been mostly accused of being pro-Arab.

And regarding the "insane" comment, supra, if suicide as a tactic is not insane, I'm not sure what is.
posted by ParisParamus at 10:22 AM on March 8, 2002

yeah, i had reservations about "the Muslim world," as if it implies a monolithic entity. i think it plays into the prejudices he's trying to expose. i prefer pan-islam :)

btw, i find lev manovich's "Database and Narrative" an interesting alternative to the dialectical opposition of narrative wars or whatever.
As a cultural form, database represents the world as a list of items and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events). Therefore, database and narrative are natural enemies. Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.
so pomo!
posted by kliuless at 10:28 AM on March 8, 2002

Pandering may be a strong word but the idea that nyt is incapable of slanting a story should be examined. Count the number times the words 'the enemy' comes up in that piece. (Of course, I could have completely missed the poinst of semi's post in the first place.)

And OK, OK, the Occidental book review is the other extreme -- "there's got to be something in between the bumber sticker and the blowhard" said Goldiocks.
posted by victors at 10:43 AM on March 8, 2002

To say that Muslims in general and Arabian Muslims in specific dont care about Hindus killing Muslims is wrong. During a Babari Masjid/Ram Janambhoomi controvery ( An ugly temple/Masjid destruction/construction controversy in India), thousands of expatriate Hindu workers had to leave their jobs in the middle east and run back to India. Most had to leave their life's savings behind. The backlash was vicious.

The pan-Arabian anger at Israel is not just derived from a civilizational collision or envy. Those two are of course major factors. I think that they would naturally relate a lot more to an Arabian Muslim compared to an Indian Muslim. Look at it this way - if a Christian missionary of South Asian ancestry gets kidnapped or abused in any way by fundamentalist group in South Asia, it would get some press in USA. But if it is an American missionary who gets abused, the media in USA will give that a lot more coverage. The people too would be able to relate a lot more to the story of a kid from Texas who went to Asia to do good and now have gotten into trouble for no fault of his own. Friedman makes some very points. I like his column. But it is probably simplistic to say that the anger is simply derived from envy and frustration.

The poverty of leadership in the Muslim/Arabian world is another factor. If you leave out Kamal Ataturk and Nasser I would be hard pressed to find another 20th Muslim leader from those parts who didnt place his self interest way before his country's interest. (I am not trying to enrage anyone who holds a different opinion. This is just what I think. I would be willing to hear of other good leaders).

NYT is more sympathetic to the Arab viewpoint than many other mainstream publications. But I think Friedman has enough brand equity for NYT to leave him alone and let him write his own thing. Overall, I find NYT and WP a lot less biased on any top than most other publications. (except when it comes to journalistic privilages. Consider how NYT went bonkers when it came to Nightline. 3 stories in what 2 days?)
posted by justlooking at 1:08 PM on March 8, 2002

OT: (except when it comes to journalistic privilages. Consider how NYT went bonkers when it came to Nightline. 3 stories in what 2 days?)

hehe, a story in every section it seems. and count the number of the times the word "brilliant" was used in reference to Letterman, including the business section.

just to clarify: I agree that Friedman has his own slant/bent/opinion/agenda/pov that is independent from nyt who, at this point, would probably publish anything he writes, not matter where it falls. I was asking about semmi's wonderful compare and contrast exercise with two other nyt pieces.
posted by victors at 1:26 PM on March 8, 2002

Our sense of community to our fellow man (and women) stems from our interactions with others - we meet people, we associate with them. Our sphere of interest is based around how we live our lives - something going wrong with your sister will affect you more than something going wrong with an ok friend, and that in turn more than someone you know at work etc. It generally peters out around the nationalistic interest mark - we feel we are part of a country - British, American - patriotism.

Thus, the news media will concentrate first on those things at home - the tax increases, the sports headlines in the country, the outrageous murders etc. Then they will focus on those things that can harm our little sphere. The situation in India/Iraq is viewed as an internal matter, as those are two separate entities - its Iraqis killing Iraqis, Indians killing Indians - there is nothing, no symbol (or leader of either group) to separate these in our minds. In the current intifada, it is similar to a war - two countries against each other, Israel and Palestine. Sharon vs Arafat.. Thus, we can identify more with it and its thrust into the spotlight more - the fact that the media has been building up the story for a relatively long period of time, with all the intrigue of failed peace attempts makes it more 'interesting' and therefore more newsworthy - especially as America has tried to get involved (something that hasn't occured in Iraq/India), bringing it closer to 'home' to American news companies.

So why the comparitive lack of interest in the Arab world? Arab media goes two ways: 1) US associated - based on the CNNs of the world, and 2) reactionary - attacking popular hate figures (evil Zionist Jews), sells papers - Hindus haven't got the appropriate background/stereotypes I suppose.

Doh, I'm trying to simplify all the work of the above in a post - I should stop now before I ramble all night.. My 1.5 cents I suppose..

Oh, btw, the reason that people go off and fight in Afghanistan and Kashmir etc is because their idea of community is that of the muslim one - they believe that their fellow muslims are their brothers and sisters. What would you do if someone attacked your brother/sister?
posted by Mossy at 2:34 PM on March 8, 2002

Well, the conditions of Muslims in India are, on the whole, a lot better than life under Israeli occupation. By focussing on the flashpoint situation in India, you lose the big picture. Compare the two populations, and ask which lives with more dignity and security.

Whether you think it's their own fault or not, the Palestinians don't have these things. Neither does the local population of Kashmir, as is made painfully clear in a piece in the current New Yorker (unfortunately, apparently not linkable—describes the actions on the ground vs. local population of India's brutal and repressive occupying army).

Saddam Hussein is a contemptible dictator who has committed criminal acts. But the standard of life and quality of national community before the Gulf War was not as bad as you might imagine from our current images of Iraq. (A secular Baathist state firmly in the second world; high educational standards; most of the real ugliness and atrocity growing out of external crises, esp. the Iran/Iraq war.)

So, I think the idea that the occupations of Palestinian and Kashmiri land, as issues, are culturally and religiously inflated is a bit specious. The thesis can really be tested this way: are we saying that feelings of ethnic/national/religious persecution would better apply to those other situations—would better justify insurgency in those domains other than Palestine and Kashmir? A somewhat ludicrous suggestion.
posted by Zurishaddai at 5:02 PM on March 8, 2002

Not trying to derail the thread. But to address the point about Kashmir in the previous post:

As I said in my previous posts on the subject here - Army as an entity almost always ends up abusing human rights. Wherever there is an army handling law enforcement functions, there are bound to be human rights issues - simply because of the way the military is trained to handle conflict. Just consider Northern Ireland, Palestine, J&K, All those Central European hotspots et al.

The law enforcement machinery in Jammu and Kashmir collapsed under the onslaught of terrorism almost 14 years back. The reason Kashmir still has the army doing law enforcement is because there is active support and assistance to terrorism from across the border. And until that stops, all India can do is containment. I could obviously be biased. But I genuinely believe that Indian army has been a lot more disciplined in its responses, a lot more careful about not hurting civilians than the defence forces elsewhere. It really is one of the most secular institutions left in that part of the world. However, no matter how disciplined the upper echelons are, there are bound to be problems. How do you flush out armed terrorists from a narrow alleyway where you dont know who is friend and who is enemy? Which family will have the courage to say no to a terrorist who takes shelter in their house? What do you think a kid whose father was killed by a stray bullet going to do?

One of the reasons the Indian on the street has so much empathy for Isrealis is that most Indians hate to have to live with the newspaper headlines about J&K day in and day out. However, the status quo isnt gonna change until the Pakistan government decides to crack down on ISI and their home grown fanatics.
posted by justlooking at 5:58 PM on March 8, 2002

So why the comparitive lack of interest in the Arab world?

Last time I checked there are more Jews in the greater NYC area (i.e. nyt readership) than all of Israel -- numbers could have flipped since the huge influx of Russians. A huge percentage of those (majority?) have relatives in Israel. Talk about news that hits close to home.
posted by victors at 7:03 PM on March 8, 2002

There is much to think about here--the post is great & the commentary had been rather splendid, so far... kudos to all.
posted by y2karl at 9:44 PM on March 8, 2002

The Indian army may be secular, but the upper echelons of the government are not - and these are the people who govern the army - every army will have its bad eggs, and if this section does go too far, those who control the media can regulate how much of this gets out. Whether the army is brutal and repressive, or remarkably restrained, I do not know - my kashmiri friends (muslims) seem to think that the army has a problem in that although it may be secular, there are sections who go to the extremes and beyond.. I think the only solution would be to have a full plebiscite in the region, backed by the UN, and fully inspected by them. This will obviously make one section or the other very unhappy, but there is a slim, very slim hope that they will recognise the legitamacy of the peoples wishes and not start blowing things up again/launching reprisal attacks on the other side.

Its all a tangle - to quote Mars Attacks: '..why can't we all just learn to.. get along?'

Just out of curiousity, aren't there more 'russian jews' in Israel than other jews? Also, if there are any Jews reading, I'm also curious as to how strongly you view yourselves as part of a worldwide community of Jews - do you think of others like family for example? How much more inclined would you be to help a fellow Jew in need? Thnx
posted by Mossy at 6:02 AM on March 9, 2002

The blog Kolkata Libertarian (by Suman Palit, a Chicagoan I have to meet!) posted on the burgeoning "special relationship" between India and Israel, which is really a renewal of old cultural ties between Hindus and Jews, largely unnoted in the West.
posted by dhartung at 1:02 PM on March 9, 2002

The Indian army may be secular, but the upper echelons of the government are not

The last I checked the Chief Minister of J&K was still Farooque Abdullah, a Kashmirir Muslim. India has also had a Kashmiri Muslim (Mufti Md. Sayeed) as the home minister of the country.

If you are referring to the BJP, the majority partner of the coalition that is currently in power in the central government - yes that is indeed a a Hindu rightist party. While I dont particularly like the BJP, I dont think that it is the monolithic, homogeneous fanatical entity that it is made out to be by some. The Prime Minister of the country - Vajpayee - won an election some time back from Lucknow which is (so far as my memory goes) predominantly Muslim. No one can win an election there without a significant number of Muslims voting for him. The defence minister of India (beloging to a different party) is George Fernandes - a Christian. The army is - at the end of the day - answerable to him. The foreign minister - Jaswant Singh - is not questioned on his secular credentials either.

To paint the entire upper echelons of Indian government as 'not secular' in a broad brushstroke is uncalled for - to put it mildly. You would have been closer to the mark if you said that some among the state level leaders and many among the rank and file workers of BJP are not.

Having said that, India's stance in J&K is a strategic necessity and has nothing to do with religion. India took the same stance in Punjab in the eighties, when some people there were trying to create a Khalistan (again with active assistance of Pakistan).

Also, Hindus and Muslims lived peacefully in J&K for a very long time. The Kashmiri secessionist movement was not religious - It wasnt until Zia's islamization poisoned Pakistan and permeated across the border, that Islamic terrorism took off. Even now, many terrorists that are captured there are not of Indian origin, but are people smuggled across the border.

I have talked previously about 'Plebiscite' here in Metafilter and dont want to repeat myself. Suffice it to say - so far as India is concerned the plebiscite has already taken place.
posted by justlooking at 5:40 PM on March 9, 2002

BTW, Dhartung: The Suman Palit weblog link is nice. Thanks.
posted by justlooking at 5:41 PM on March 9, 2002

But Friedman has not an ideological bone in his body.

Oh really? How about this, from the May 8, 2000 National Journal:
Take the reactions of columnists Thomas L. Friedman in The New York Times and Charles Krauthammer in The Washington Post to two famous April 22 photographs. The first photo shows Elián screaming as a federal agent points an MP-5 submachine gun toward the man who had rescued the child from the sea. The second shows Elián beaming in his father's arms. Friedman wrote that he liked the first picture because it "illustrates what happens to those who defy the rule of law," including the hard-line Cuban-Americans who tried to "get away with kidnapping Elián," and the second because "you can't fake ... the very parent-child bond that our law was written to preserve." Krauthammer approvingly quoted a man associating the first photo with "pictures of German soldiers plucking Jews out of their houses," and said the second proved only that it's easy to get a 6-year-old to smile for a camera, "with or without pharmacology."
I think Friedman's a fine writer, and I hold no particularly strong opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian mess. But to allege that the man not only writes without ideology, but is also incapable of even having one, is just nuts.
posted by aaron at 6:45 PM on March 9, 2002

The law enforcement machinery in Jammu and Kashmir collapsed under the onslaught of terrorism almost 14 years back


14 years back = 1988 = "onslaught of terrorism"

15 years back = 1987 = Kashmiri elections fraudulently manipulated by Indian Government, vastly increasing frustration of Kashmiris and support for terrorism

Eighty per cent of the population of the valley turned out to vote. When the results were declared, Farooq Abdullah's pro-India Conference-Congress alliance had—to the dismay and disbelief of the voters—won a two-thirds majority.The fraud had been crude and blatant. In one constituency in Srinagar, witnesses told me, the result had been publicly declared, only to be reversed an hour later. After the election, opposition candidates and party members were arrested...
Isabel Hilton, "Between the Mountains," New Yorker March 11, 2002, p. 67

posted by Zurishaddai at 7:49 PM on March 9, 2002

My problem with Friedman's thesis is that he assumes that all of the violence in the middle east is religious. It is not. In Palestine alone there are many very violent secular organizations with George Habas' group (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- PFLP), being more prominent and Habas himself (a christian Palestinian by background) being idolized by many Palestinians. There is a strong vein of Arab nationalism involved in the conflict as is evident from the large number of christian Palestinians involved in the struggle.
Iraq is a huge villain as far as Iran (a non-arabic country) is concerned and it is of course an enemy of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. However it would be difficult for most Arab coutries to condemn Saddam's violence against his own people since most Arab countries have regimes as dictatorial- or anyway not that different- as Saddam's as far as democracy is concerned. And don't forget that Iraq's massacres against the Kurds are matched in ferocity by the Turkish army, which of course belongs to a secular and "westernized" state, and which haven't drawn much criticism by anyone (West + Arab world) anyway.
As for India and its moslems: despite frequent clashes between radical Hindus and Moslems, there is no systematic denial of Moslems' rights in India. Plus of course regional politics are far to complex to fit into a Moslem vs. Hindu mold: witness the creation (secession) of Bagladesh, a Moslem country, with India's backing.
posted by talos at 3:05 AM on March 11, 2002

saw this on yahoo today!
Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.
(via robot wisdom :)
posted by kliuless at 8:29 AM on March 11, 2002

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