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.