Why is Friedman So Mystified?

by Steven R. Corman

Last Friday, Thomas Friedman published and op-ed in the New York Times entitled America vs. The Narrative in which he expressed bewilderment/exasperation that the anti-U.S narrative is getting so much traction in the Muslim world:

Yes, after two decades in which U.S. foreign policy has been largely dedicated to rescuing Muslims or trying to help free them from tyranny — in Bosnia, Darfur, Kuwait, Somalia, Lebanon, Kurdistan, post-earthquake Pakistan, post-tsunami Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan — a narrative that says America is dedicated to keeping Muslims down is thriving.

But in fact this is easy to explain. The Narrative (as he calls it) works because it taps into deep, cultural Master Narratives in the Muslim world–namely those about the Crusaders and Tatars. These are skillfully used by the Bad Guys as analogies for what the U.S. is doing today.

Put simply, it’s a story that makes sense to their audience. And even though, as Friedman says, “our soldiers and diplomats perpetrated a million acts of kindness,” these are not enough to disrupt the basic analogy. Probably individual Tatars and Crusaders did a few kind things too, but that didn’t redeem their overall enterprises.

Against this we have the American narrative about what we are doing. First, it is vague, changing and incoherent. We don’t even have a good narrative for our own consumption, much less for foreign Muslims.

Second, our narrative suffers from a well-known say-do gap. We say, as Friedman points out, that we’re trying to “trying to help free them from tyranny.” But then we ally with governments Muslims consider to be tyrannical. We also discount the results of elections (for example, of Hamas) that don’t suit us, which to them looks like something tyrants do.

Third, and most important, our narrative lacks what David Betz calls “vertical integration.” It doesn’t tie into Master Narratives about ultimate ends as do those used by our opponents. All these things considered, it’s really no mystery that we’re not having much success against the narrative that is deployed against us.

I’m also not too sure Friedman’s proposed course of action would be helpful. He suggests that President Obama spark debate among Muslims by issuing the following challenge:

“Whenever something like Fort Hood happens you say, ‘This is not Islam.’ I believe that. But you keep telling us what Islam isn’t. You need to tell us what it is and show us how its positive interpretations are being promoted in your schools and mosques. If this is not Islam, then why is it that a million Muslims will pour into the streets to protest Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, but not one will take to the streets to protest Muslim suicide bombers who blow up other Muslims, real people, created in the image of God? You need to explain that to us — and to yourselves.”

I suppose those are good questions, but they don’t really do anything to address the narrative that’s in circulation about us, or to improve the narrative we offer about ourselves.

UPDATE 12/2/09

In an e-mail discussion, my colleague Jonathan Githens-Mazer, Co-Director of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter, made an important point about the diversity of interpretations of what Friedman and others call “The Narrative.”   His comments make me think  I was being too narrow in my conception of the audience.  As he says, some people believe “The Narrative” for reasons other than its resonance with Master Narratives about Crusaders and Tatars (though I’d say there’s still a large and important segment that interprets it through that lens).

Here are his remarks (reprinted with permission):

It is important not to reify the consumption of these narratives. I’ve just come from a fantastic workshop on radicalisation in London yesterday with ten others doing empirical and conceptual work. All these studies were coming to similar conclusions – the relevant one here being that ultimately all politics are local.

The effect is that “the narrative” – referred to as “the single narrative” in British policy making circles – is consumed differently at meta, meso and micro levels. Grievance, as constructed by elites must be resonant to be taken up – and popular resonance here is a function of the fact that for a young Algerian with little opportunity and experiencing political repression, the support of the West for what is understood from this perspective as a corrupt, undemocratic and politically repressive regime seems the narrative seems to explain not only why she finds herself in this situation, but also it gives them a template of how to react. In Saudi Arabia – it is interpreted differently again – for a young Afghan, the single narrative is about expelling foreign occupying forces. For a young person in Northeast London, the single narrative explains why the council has decided to reduce rubbish collection from once a week to once a fortnight. I wonder whether Mark is finding that the single narrative has resonance amongst Indonesians who reject outside (as he might describe them – Wahabbi) influences, yet the narrative resonance in a specific context. That there is template is important to understand – in these conditions it is accompanied by a sense that it provides an explanation of current conditions, and a template for action where no other forms of political action seem (to date) to have worked. “Worked” here can also mean a variety of outcomes – from bringing about a global Caliphate, to establishing norms for a pluralistic and/or representative form of political governance.

To this extent, there is, on observation, nothing single about the single narrative. It does not reflect ideology, and in the vast number of cases we have observed has little to do with intellectual consideration (or even knowledge) of deep theological or ideological orientation. As I’ve just published in a chapter on “Radicalisation and the Street”, the kids on South London street corners don’t read Qutb, have no idea of his intellectual trajectory, and have no concept of hirjah etc. For these kids, the single narrative makes sense – i.e. has popular resonance – because in application to the local level, it makes sense within the prisms of social conditions and individual psychological orientations. The mistake here is to reify and assume forms of resonance – we cannot assume that a unified point of construction and/or dissemination equates to a single form of consumption. If only it were that easy …

UPDATE 12/3/09

For another, different critique of Friedman’s piece, see this post at Foreign Polcy, along with some…um…spirited discussion.

5 Responses to “Why is Friedman So Mystified?”

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  1. Mark Laity says:

    I agree with a lot of the above, but I think you are ducking a central issue, which is that it is indeed very difficult for non-Muslims to be ALLOWED to address the Islamic master narrative. Even non-Muslims who have a real understanding of the issues – whether religious or cultural – will find that if they challenge the Tb narrative they are told,”What do you know, you’re not a Muslim, you can’t really understand.”

    In effect non-believers are excluded from then becomes a closed debate. However such exclusivity does not apply the other way round, so we are left in a situation where OUR narratives can be debated and challenged by anyone, but theirs cannot.

    In that sense the problem is it that it doesn’t matter how good the story is if it’s the wrong storyteller. That means Friedman does have a fundamental point – if non-believers are going to be excluded then those within Islam must take up the challenge of confronting the distortions of their narratives.

    He is right to ask the question, and it deserves an answer. We certainly do need to work on our narrative, but we spend too long allowing others to evade dealing with their problems and responsibilities through the rhetorical device of pointing out ours.

  2. editor says:

    Mark, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I didn’t mean to suggest that Friedman’s questions aren’t worth asking. But in the context of the rest of his piece the strike me as a proposal to win the argument by changing the subject.

    Your point about asymmetry it well taken, and I like it better as the basis for a response. Some of us do understand their narrative. We should make that clear and insist on questioning it, rather than being cowed by these claims that we “don’t understand.”

    There are lots of historical reasons the Crusader and Tatar comparisons are wrong. For example, unlike the Crusades our actions were not ordered by the Pope and are not aimed at liberating Jerusalem from the Muslims. We are actually allied with Muslim governments in Iraq and SW Asia. How exactly is this a Crusade?

    Did Hugalu Khan help rebuild Baghdad and then withdraw from Iraq after his invasion? We are doing just that.

  3. Mark Laity says:

    Steve, thanks, and take your point – we can also challenge their challenge to our narrative much better than we do. I still feel though that we must find Muslim ‘storytellers’ with which to link up. In Afghanistan a central failing has been to get Afghans to even contest the narrative battlefield. When GIRoA refers to ISAF as ‘foreigners’ as well, then we concede unnecessary ground.

  4. Mark Laity says:

    Steve, apropos narrative, I have sent you an email which I think will be of interest to you and your colleagues


  1. [...] Steve Corman pointed out, what is needed is what Friedman overlooks.  We do not simply need Muslims to speak out against [...]