Islam Invented Democracy

This time, Thomas Friedman was against American intervention–in Syria.  Since nearly ten years ago he was enthusiastically and dangerously using his potent platform to encourage us to go to war with Iraq, you might think this a substantive change of heart.

But you’d be wrong.  Friedman opposed the proposed American intervention on Syria—which seems to be a nonstarter—for the very reason he wanted us to bomb the hell out of Iraq.  Bluntly, Friedman hates Islam.  Which means he hates Muslims enough to want to bomb them.

Thomas Friedman Photo courtesy of the Center for American Progress
Thomas Friedman
Photo courtesy of the Center for American Progress

Or let them die, victims of their own apparent inferiority.

There’s so much evidence in my favor that I had to work to restrict myself to just one quote from the previous Sunday’s New York Times column.  Here’s the best (worst) one:

Sunnis and Shiites have been fighting since the 7th century over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad’s spiritual and political leadership, andour credibility is on the line? Really? Their civilization has missed every big modern global trend — the religious Reformation, democratization, feminism and entrepreneurial and innovative capitalism — and our credibility is on the line? I don’t think so.

The Times is America’s paper of record.  It is fitting then that it records the profound ignorance of an alleged prophet of globalization so parochial he will be entirely forgotten within a few years’ time.  Resistance to American intervention in Syria is, as Immanuel Wallerstein argues, part of a broader trend of American decline.

There are certainly downsides to this decline.

But the microphone which amplifies Friedman’s voice will also decrease in volume, and that is a drop-off we can look forward to.  Until then?  Imagine if Friedman had so dismissed Native Americans, African-Americans, Jews, Latinos—hell, practically anyone (else).  This is the same form of argument, by the way, that Richard Dawkins makes.

Surely the stuff great argument is made of.

So turn him around.  Flip him over.  Inspect him.  Imagine if, ten years ago, a Muslim pundit called for war on America because of its alleged inferiority and, some ten years on, called for us to ignore and abandon America for the same reason.  Innama’l ‘amalu bi-niyyat.  ‘Actions are by intentions,’ the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said.

Friedman alleges that Islam “missed every big modern global trend.”  Including, for example, the Reformation.  I hate to break this to Friedman, but the “religious Reformation” was not a global trend.  It was restricted to a sliver of northeastern Eurasia.  Isn’t it unfortunate, then, that Muslims didn’t join some Catholics in rebelling against the Catholic Church?

Side note: Friedman is, like me, spiritually Semitic. So his ancestors kind of missed out, too. Kind of hard not to, when you’re just struggling to survive.  But I digress.  Somehow Friedman can speak on behalf of Islam’s alleged failures, and cheer Christian civilization’s great ones, though he himself belongs, in this civilizational schema, somewhere off to the side of both.

Ironically, when the Reformation was happening—indeed, during the centuries when much of these trends were happening, Friedman would have been far better off in Muslim lands.  Even Islam in supposed civilizational freefall was a more tolerant and accepting place than Europe was up until very recently, at least so far as we speak of Judaism.

Anyway, even with all that said, I sure wish my ancestors in India, on the eve of the Mughal Empire—arguably the wealthiest Muslim dynasty in history, potentially controlling up to one-third of the world’s trade in the mid-17th century—had paid less attention to dominating the planet’s commerce and more to marginal Martin Luther in backwards Germany.

What was that about globalization?

The Hijab in His Head

It’s amazing to me that someone can be so crass, dismissive, and outright ignorant of world history—and yet claim himself to be a sage and given a platform commensurate.  One does not deride the achievements, accomplishments, hopes and dreams of fully one quarter of humanity except that one has either tremendous disdain for the other, or a ludicrous and embarrassing exaltation of the self.

Thomas Friedman could do with some tazkiyyat an-nafs.  (Purification of the soul.)  Because there are a lot of ugly things in there, and they’re not waiting to come out.  They get published and paid.  Frankly I don’t see the difference between him and the radical Muslim, because both of them are prone to seeing only black and white.  They cannot appreciate knowledge unless it comes from a person with the right skin color, right name, or right background.

That’s what allows pundits like Friedman to switch from wanting America to go to war with the Arab world—only we can save them!—to wanting America to stay away from the Arab world—they don’t deserve saving.  (Apparently because Iraq didn’t turn out the right way.)  There’s no moral progress, no evidence of enlightenment or illumination, because what’s wrong with him is moral, not intellectual.  It is the complex of a man who believes only he can save.

When Thomas Friedman talks about globalization, he just means the expansion of our corner of the planet into the rest of it.  Not very much unlike how, when you let kids play in one part of the living room, they rapidly conquer the rest of it.  Ironically, though, the very flatness of the planet he cheers means he will walk off in one direction and we can in another, and geometrically, never shall the twain again meet.  God willing.


The lesson, in other words?  Don’t trust children or Thomas Friedman with weapons.  Keep them away from the pulpit.  Neither of them have good records when it comes to advocating for the use of force.  And then there’s just one other thing I want to point out.  And that’s about 1517, the year when the Ottoman Empire expanded across North Africa—and the Reformation began, so critical to Friedman’s derision of the Muslim world.

In that era, the Spanish and Portuguese Empires, great Catholic dynasties, sought sea-routes around the Ottomans—the Spanish went west, and the Portuguese across Africa.  Because they wanted in on what Muslims had mastered: global trade.  Don’t think the Ottomans didn’t know what they were doing, either.  They pushed into Yemen and Algeria to counter these moves.  Giancarlo Casale tells the story brilliantly in The Ottoman Age of Exploration.

Map of Ottoman Expansion. Photo courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.
Map of Ottoman Expansion.
Photo courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library.

The Ottomans then made common cause with Protestants, many of whom fled the European wars of religion to settle across North Africa—they had the same enemy: Imperial Spain (and its sidekick, Portugal)—among others, Nabil Matar excitingly describes this era of interaction and exchange.  But for our purposes, four city-states in particular stand out: Sale (Rabat), Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli.  These were naval powerhouses on the south Mediterreanean.

But governed democratically.  Read that.  Again.

Fully two hundred fifty years before the American and French Revolutions, their navies elected captains—‘Reises,’ using the Ottoman Turkish then in vogue—to defined terms in office, during which they would manage the state’s affairs and after which they would step down.  They were Muslims, often of European origin—from Albania to the Netherlands, recent converts usually—and democratic in inclination.

Way before John Locke or Thomas Jefferson or Voltaire.  That democracy you’re so proud of, Thomas Friedman?  Well, you’re welcome.

Next time, at least, give credit where credit is due.

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    Haroon Moghul

    Haroon Moghul is a co-producer at Avenue M, a widely published writer and a popular public speaker.

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    • Well said! How people can trust a fool like Friedman is beyond me.

      It’s a bit of a secret that Friedman has a masters degree in Islamic Studies from Oxford, but his ignorance is so bold I wonder if the school wants to revoke his degree.

    • Husain

      Wonderfully written. Good points. I would have to disagree on the last point regarding the founding of democracy. The American founders traced their thought from the European thinkers who as you know were from the Western philosophical tradition (Plato, Aristotle). This tradition also was carried forward and studied by the Muslims, mind you, where it was judiciously picked apart and analyzed. Now at the same time the Ottomans had their millet system, with local representative government, but still a sort of centralized kingdom sort of leadership at top. Honestly it seems they developed independently. Dont get dragged down Friedmans “us vs them” road. Give credit where its due. The political philosophical tradition really was allowed to develop and flower in the West. In the Muslim world it seems we had a parallel development of governance which included democratic concepts but certainly not with the philosophical depth and development the Europeans had. And…thats okay. Its okay to acknowledge shortcomings or differences. The way forward requires some humility. Either way, good little smackdown here on Friedman!