Thursday, November 29, 2007

Longitudes and Attitudes - Thomas Friedman

Name of the book: Longitudes and Attitudes (Penguin Books)
Author: Thomas Friedman

First of all, let me say that my knowledge about 9/11 and America’s response to it does not go beyond the news headlines of some Indian newspapers. Also, it is very easy to believe in conspiracy theories. So I have stayed away from them. All in all, my understanding of 9/11 is like this: America encouraged bin Laden to fight in Afghanistan against the Soviets in cold war era. Later on, Laden identified America as Islam’s enemy number 1 and his men with great technical skills and a will to die on the name of the religion hijacked planes and hit them against WTC towers. This caused deaths of many Americans.

Thomas Friedman is a famous newspaper journalist but I had not read any of his columns or books before. I did not know that he had written a couple of books on the middle-east crisis.

This book is a collection of Friedman’s columns which appeared New York Times. Some of them appeared before 9/11 and others after it happened. The book also consists of a section called diary wherein he has written non-column articles as he traveled across countries.

It seems Friedman traveled quite a lot during that time. From his home country to Arab nations, Israel, Pakistan and India. He talks about those countries mainly in the 9/11 context. And the columns are mainly for American people. Whatever he says about NYT being read on the internet across the world, the columns appeared to me that they were for American people. He talks about Clinton’s effort for peace in the middle-east. He talks about Pakistan’s madarassas, youths of Saudi and other countries, Europe, Russia and Putin, Afghanistan, Iraq, Indian democracy and India’s strength in IT, India’s tolerant version of Islam. But it all seems written with American reader in mind.

The author is a Jew and he talks a lot about middle-east crisis. And its relation to the 9/11. I have even lesser knowledge about middle-east crisis than that about 9/11. So cannot comment on that. The impression I got is that Friedman blames Arab a lot for that crisis. But some of the insights are good and we see the similar opinions in Indian media, too. Like the religious preachers controlling the politics there. He says that Saudi rulers gave a free hand to the religious leaders so as to become the representative state of Islam. And these leaders later on became too powerful. They corrupted the minds of the young. Also he observes the growth of Saudi financed madarassas in Pak and how the science books available in one madarassa he visited were from the 1930s and not later than that. He says that kids learning there hate America and Bush and the non-Muslims.

He says that the root cause of this is that there hasn’t been a good democracy in Arab countries. The oil wealth in Arab countries created the impression that anything is ok. And so long as other countries were getting the oil, they ignored the internal affairs of Arab countries.

He says that Afghan battle will be a longish one and same in case of Iraq. He supports Bush for his tough stand on the issue. He says that there is a moderate version of Islam which needs to be conveyed to the people. He says that joblessness in those countries is one of the major reasons the youths turn to wrong paths. He blames those governments for shirking from responsibility. He says they are not doing enough for their people and they are not doing enough for US’s war against terrorism. He is very straightforward in expressing his opinions.

Here are a couple of passages from the book-
Here he is talking about people in the Arab streets. These people, he says, consider Osama a hero. One such passage:
‘I don’t think it was that they approved of his mass killings of Americans. I don’t think they really even understood that. But they did approve of bin Laden as the thumb that every young Arab wanted to stick in his ruler’s eye, and in America’s eye for supporting Israel. Bin Laden was the closest thing they had to an Arab Robin Hood – an authentic figure who challenges the power structure. And it is always worth remembering that bin Laden, much as we detest him, was an authentic person in his own way. That is, he gave up the life of a millionaire to go off to Afghanistan to live in a cave and fight the Soviets and then the Americans. He was more authentic in that sense than any Arab leader of his generation.’

Here is another passage:
‘So who were the Saudi hijackers? As I said earlier, the hijackers, in my view, fell into two broad groups - the key plotters (“the Europeans”) and the muscle men, most of who were from Saudi Arabia. I could not interview any of the musclemen, but I think I know who they were: They were like a million young Saudi men today who finish high school or college and have no jobs waiting for them- not with the government and not in the private sector, since unemployment in Saudi Arabia is roughly 30 % of the available workforce (largely because most Saudis still refuse to do menial labour, so they have a huge imported labour force and Saudi unemployment.) Many of them are the first in their families to get a higher education, and their parents are naturally proud of them. But when they can’t find jobs and end up sitting around the coffeehouses, their parents no longer hold them in such high esteem. Go out any evening in Jidda and you can see these young men all over, in malls or cruising in cars, ogling veiled women or surfing the internet in search of some cyber-contact with females. Some 40% of the population of Saudi Arabia are under fourteen, and they are all marching toward a workplace where there are not enough jobs to go around.
Some of these young men naturally drift into a mosque or a prayer group. Many of these prayer groups are now led by unofficial preachers outside the Saudi state religious system. They preach hatred toward the infidels and intolerance toward the non-Muslim world…’

It is a nice book and worth reading. But a couple of points: I got the impression that Arabs are blamed a lot. He talks about America’s mistakes but does not underline them. Secondly, he uses the phrase ‘American way of life’. I understand that this is mainly considering political system, freedom of expression and transparency and other such qualities, but I with Indian way of life in mind still would not say that American is the (-of you insist on the word- only) best way of life. I would like if we appreciates others’ value systems as much our own. At least the intellectuals. Except for some very good understanding of world politics, the book would have become aggressively patriotic. I remember a joke about a survey asking people to give their honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world? In Africa most didn't know what "food" meant…In the Middle East most didn't know what "solution" meant. And in the USA most didn't know what "the rest of the world" meant.

So I would suggest reading the book. It is a good book. But I don’t think we have to agree with every word written there.