Friedman deconstructs 9/11 causes

Three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman lectured on “Education and Global Politics” for an over-capacity audience in Chapin Hall last Thursday. Friedman is best known for his analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for The Lexus and the Olive Tree, his bestselling book on globalization.

Upon taking the podium, Friedman began the lecture by identifying the most significant question motivating his reporting since Sept. 11, 2001: “who were those 19 young men who hijacked four commercial planes… and what produced them?” He divided the hijackers into two categories: the “Saudis” and the “Europeans.”

The Saudis, according to Friedman, were the pawns in the hijacking plot. They came from a growing population of young, unemployed men in Arab countries and were influenced by the “anti-modernist educators and religious leaders” who prop up authoritarian Islamic regimes. In contrast, the Europeans, whom Friedman identified as the “key plotters,” did not become radicals until they moved to Europe and encountered western culture.

“Some cognitive dissonance, some rage was struck in that encounter,” Friedman said. Using a computer analogy, Friedman argued that the “European” hijackers had been taught in their home countries to see Islam as “God 3.0,” the perfection of monotheism following Judaism and Christianity (God 1.0 and God 2.0, respectively).

“Those young men come to Europe with the God 3.0 operating system in their heads, and what they discover is that the people of God 2.0 and God 1.0 are living so much more prosperously and more democratically than God 3.0,” Friedman said. “The person who explained the gap was Osama bin Laden and people like him — God 1.0 and God 2.0 got together and took something away from God 3.0.” Thus, according to Friedman, the hijackers’ rage had its roots in a “poverty of dignity,” a sense of humiliation.

Friedman went on to say that the societies encountered by the European hijackers were actually “God 2.0.1 and God 1.0.1 — Christianity and Judaism that have gone through the laundromat of the Enlightenment and the separation of church and state and embraced modernity.” With that in mind, Friedman said, the problem of terrorism will exist “until there’s a God 3.0.1,” a similarly modernized Islam.

In order to promote this modernized Islam, Friedman said, two steps are necessary. First, the U.S. must kill Osama bin Laden and the other “world-class terrorists” surrounding him. While expressing personal discomfort at the thought of killing, Friedman advocated “directed violence against people who want to kill us for who we are.”

After killing the most militant and powerful terrorists, Friedman said, the U.S. and Arab leaders together must “kill bin Laden’s ideas.” In order for the U.S. to contribute to this effort, Friedman said, “we have to be the best global citizens we can be.” He criticized the failure of the U.S. to take a leadership role in global environmental issues and the “oozing contempt” many Americans and American officials harbor toward Muslim people.

Turning to the role of Arab leaders in killing bin Laden’s ideas, Friedman said that the expulsion of militants like bin Laden leaves “an ideological vacuum that will tend to be filled by people just slightly less radical” because there are “no progressives to be found.”

Friedman proposed a solution that called for the promotion of free and fair elections according to international standards, even if the authoritarian regimes were sure to be re-elected, because democracy would force them to confront the consequences of their militancy.

“I want radical Muslims to win because I want them to pay retail, not wholesale, for their radicalism,” Friedman said. “Then and only then will we get what we actually need: not a war with Islam but a war within Islam.”

He noted the examples of India, where Muslim people are “empowered and protected,” and of Iran, where a recent poll showed “a massive vote of no confidence in the clerical leadership.”

The greatest obstacle to democratization in the Arab world, Friedman said, is the ability of regimes to sustain themselves by simply drilling for oil, “rather than drilling the energy, intelligence and creativity of their people.”

He criticized the Bush administration for failing to promote conservation and told the audience that “bringing down the price of oil is the greatest strategic act you can make.” By decreasing their demand for oil, Friedman said, western countries can “defuel”oppressive regimes in the Middle East. Friedman concluded his lecture by identifying “the one aspect of the globalization story” he failed to recognize while writing The Lexus and the Olive Tree, which was “the complete mismatch between the degree to which we’re wired together technologically and the degree to which we’ve developed frameworks to understand each other.” Friedman suggested travel, education, cultural exchange and language study as ways to improve cross-cultural understanding.

Following his hour-long presentation, Friedman entertained questions from the audience. When asked about the potential war with Iraq, Friedman said that he is not concerned about Saddam Hussein using weapons of mass destruction against the U.S., but expressed approval for a regime change “because we could start with one [Middle Eastern] country on the right track.” However, Friedman expressed little confidence in the Bush administration’s nation-building abilities.

“The Bush guys are really good at smashing things, but I’m not sure how good they are at building things,” Friedman said. “You need naïve optimism. . . to engage in nation-building.”

“Friedman’s presentation was well organized and an easy listen,” said Mike Powers ’77. “His final point on the high price of oil providing the wealth that empowers the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East is fodder for continued discussion and impetus for personal action on the part of the audience.”

While many students found the speech to be refreshing and factually accurate, some expressed criticism of Friedman’s analysis.

“Friedman had intelligent insights when he spoke about the structure of understandings, but his facts were wrong and out of context, and his analysis was naive at best,” said Shehru Qureshi ’04. “His analysis on the rise of extremist Islam in the [Indian] sub-continent was about as off as humanly possible.”

Friedman’s lecture was sponsored by the Williams Program in Teaching, the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences, the political science department, the program in leadership studies and the office of the president.