Thomas L. Friedman on what’s wrong with Islam

The following is excerpted from remarks New York Times columnist Tom Friedman gave Feb. 8 at Stanford University at the annual Daniel Pearl Memorial Lecture. We’re reprinting here because it is one of the most succinct and cogent approaches to the heated debate over whether Islam is inherently violent. A student journalist asked Friedman to address the Muslim nature of the Muslim extremist problem. This was Friedman’s response. Below is video of the full presentation:

I do not believe we should be in the business of telling Muslims what their religion is or isn’t. So I kind of recoil from anyone who says it’s all this, or anyone who says it’s not any of that.

I think we should be in the business of asking them, “Why is this happening?” We don’t know. We have an overwhelming number of Muslims who are American citizens living in this country and who are wonderful citizens. So we don’t have this problem. So maybe you could explain it to me, but I sort of recoil at anyone sitting back who’s not a Muslim, saying, “That is not Islam.” What the hell do you know what Islam is? “Oh, I read the Quran in college” … you don’t know anything, OK? And that’s not our job, it seems to me.

So, the way I’ve written about it is that obviously this is emerging from their faith community. First of all, it’s not emerging from across their faith community. It’s not a problem in Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim country. It’s not a problem in India, the world’s second-biggest Muslim country. We’re talking about a problem that has clearly been emerging from the Arab world and Pakistan, primarily. Now what is that about?

I think it’s a really complicated mix of a product of years of authoritarian government, mixing with the export of Wahhabi puritanical Islam from Saudi Arabia, all over that world, that has really leached out the more open, joyous, synchronistic Islam that you had in Egypt. You look at pictures of graduates from Cairo University in 1950, you’ll see none of the women were wearing veils. Today you look at the picture and probably most of the women will be wearing veils. Thank you, Saudi Arabia. That is the product of the export of a particular brand of Islam from Saudi Arabia with the wealth of that country. And that’s mixed in also with the youth bulge and unemployment.

And so where Islam starts in that story and where authoritarian begins, how much people hate their own government, bleeding into Wahhabism, bleeding into massive amounts of young men who have never held power because they’re not allowed to in their country, never held a job, never held a girl’s hand. And when you have lots of young males who have never held power, a job, or a girl’s hand, that is real dynamite.

And so I like to talk about it in its full complexity. But I also don’t want to excuse it. We need to have a serious conversation. But we should be in the business of asking them, not excusing them, not accusing everyone. 

We need to understand there is a pattern here. You can talk about the Crusades in the 13th century — we’re not living in the 13th century anymore, OK? It’s very hard, I think, for us to get into someone else’s narrative. Only they can get into that narrative. And we need to leave it to them. But I think it is important to ask, to probe, and to challenge in a serious way and stop telling them who they are. 


Netanyahu denies saying Israel’s biggest enemies are N.Y. Times, Haaretz

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office denied that Benjamin Netanyahu told the editor of The Jerusalem Post that Israel’s two greatest enemies are The New York Times and Haaretz.

On Wednesday, the editor, Steve Linde, addressing a conference in Tel Aviv of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, said that Netanyahu made the remark to him about the newspapers at a private meeting “a couple of weeks ago” at the prime minister’s office in Tel Aviv.

But on Thursday, the Prime Minister’s Office told JTA that Netanyahu “did not make the remarks attributed to him,” and Linde backtracked, saying the remarks he had attributed to the prime minister had been Linde’s own interpretation.

“He said, ‘You know, Steve, we have two main enemies,’ ” Linde had said on Wednesday of Netanyahu, according to a recording of the WIZO speech provided to JTA. “And I thought he was going to talk about, you know, Iran, maybe Hamas. He said, ‘It’s The New York Times and Haaretz.’ He said, ‘They set the agenda for an anti-Israel campaign all over the world. Journalists read them every morning and base their news stories … on what they read in The New York Times and Haaretz.’ ”

Linde said he and other participants at the meeting asked Netanyahu whether he really thought that the media had that strong a role in shaping world opinion on Israel, and the prime minister replied, “Absolutely.”

On Thursday, Linde was quoted in Haaretz as saying, “That was my interpretation; the prime minister never used that language.”

This Year in Kigali: A Rwandan Seder

From the

Josh Ruxin is the director of Rwanda Works and a Columbia University expert on public health who has spent the last few years living in Rwanda. The following is an account of a Seder he recently celebrated in Kigali.
Seder in Kigali, Rwanda. Josh Ruxin Seder in Kigali, Rwanda.

Passover preparations are underway here in Kigali, where it seems a disproportionate number of the social entrepreneurs and development workers are Jewish. For the fifth year in a row, we’ll be sharing this holiday with our friends in Rwanda. We’ve mastered the art of home-baked matzo, printed up internet-available Haggadahs, and gotten over our longing for sweet kosher wine on the table. Unlike Ethiopia, and many other countries in Africa, there is no synagogue here and the community is fragmented. But the spirit of Passover is particularly strong. The holiday takes place just a few days from the start of the national commemoration of the 16th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide.

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The struggle of global placelessness


On a deck in Boston, seven friends recently gathered for dinner. At the table was a white American man; his wife, an Italian woman he met in Switzerland; a Swiss citizen raised in Kenya; a German of Korean origin; a woman with Haitian, Chinese and European ancestry; the son of a black American and a German Jew; and an American with Indian blood.

It took a while to get through the where-are-you-fromming, as it often can these days.

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The CNN-NPR-NY Times Middle East Conspiracy

Have you noticed that when people complain about bias in the media, it’s always bias against their own point of view and never bias in favor of their side?

When press accounts confirm your interpretation of events, they’re fair, accurate and objective. When the upshot of a news story is that your team is the bad guys and the other team is the good guys, it’s obvious that the reporter or paper or network or corporation is in the tank for the other side. And when articles and broadcasts balance ammo for your side with ammo for the other side, they’re guilty of the fallacy of false equivalence, which turns righteous battles between right and wrong into vapid he-said/she-said standoffs.

Nowhere is this more true than in coverage of the Middle East.

Supporters of Israel are furious that when pictures of Palestinian casualties are shown, the causes and context of the war are left out—Hamas’ rocket attacks on southern Israel, which precipitated the attack on Gaza; its cynical use of civilians as human shields, which is a war crime; its intention to destroy Israel and Jewry, which amounts to genocide—all get scandalously short shrift from the press.

Supporters of Hamas are just as enraged about the inhumane living conditions in Gaza, which Israel has blockaded; the Israeli refusal to allow the international press into the battle zone; what they believe is the original sin of Zionism, the displacement of Arabs, and that when Israel is portrayed as a victim, the suffering of the Palestinian people is conveniently omitted.

And what if you’re not a partisan of either side, but think of yourself instead as an independent advocate for human rights and peace? Then not only will you bring down on yourself the opprobrium of both sides for failing to take a stand at a moment that demands a choice, you will also find in the prevailing media narrative no hook to hang your conciliatory analysis on, no peg for your empyrean perspective, no patience for your it’s-all-so-complicated heartsickness.

Any news story can be successfully picked apart from any vantage point. Why does the Los Angeles Times disparage the Israeli point of view as ““>anonymous mitigating hearsay about a Hamas sniper? Why aren’t the networks airing the “>Israeli scholar’s assertion that Palestinian casualties aren’t excessive because “so far well over three-quarters have been armed gunmen, and that is a percentage which is very rarely attained in urban warfare”?

In fact, two reasons make it really hard to conclude (but not to claim) that a mainstream media outlet is biased—on the Middle East or on anything else. And a third reason makes the whole enterprise of watchdogging the press somewhat quixotic.

One is the sheer quantity of content. The stories and pictures you saw may be plenty to convince you, say, that the Associated Press is unfair to Israel, but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data.” The only way to determine anything defensible about bias in reporting is to analyze a scientific sample—to examine a slice of stories that’s large enough to be representative of all stories and to choose that slice randomly, without knowing what’s going to be in it.

Some people may feel that they watch CNN so much or read The New York Times so regularly that they have plenty of data to base conclusions on. Not so. That’s why pollsters are paid big bucks: The methods they use to construct the universe of people they survey are even more important than the questions they ask them.

Second is the difficulty of coming up with an objective measure of bias. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. If you can show me a journalistic scoring system that Alan Dershowitz and Noam Chomsky can agree on, then I’d like to show you how to earn 12 percent a year in a very special investment fund.

But even if you had a scientific sample; even if you devised a neutral litmus test for bias, the strange truth is that media spin probably matters a lot less than we assume.

Yes, public opinion is an important element of public policy. Nations care what people think about them. But the audience for cable news is astonishingly small, maybe 2 million people on a good day; the daily readership of a prestige newspaper is hardly more than that, and the only way that public radio can claim north of 20 million listeners is to count all the people who listened to any of its programs during a week.

Sure, the Internet has surged as a source of news, but its audience is fragmented into niches. If you want to get really depressed, chew on this: For decades, Americans have said that their number one source for news is local television news. Not only is that audience scattered among a thousand stations in a couple of hundred media markets, the amount of attention those stations give to international news is a tiny fraction of the airtime they give to celebrities, freak accidents and crime.

There’s no question that some elite media set the agenda for much of the rest of the press. And some nonnews programming, like talk radio hotheads, get demonstrably big listenerships. But it’s next to impossible to prove a cause-and-effect relation between these bloviators and public opinion, and the same is true of the impact of the mainstream press on public attitudes and beliefs. In the end, why Americans think what they do about Israel and Hamas is as much a mystery as how they decide who to vote for or what toothpaste to buy.

I get just as steamed as anyone else when I see a Middle East news story that I think is wildly unfair. I’m just unwilling to ascribe it to a conspiracy or to think it matters as much as the frustration and fury I feel.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at