[The Israel bombing of Qana yesterday was not the first such attack on this town. The horrendous picture above is from a similar bombing there in April, 1996, when as many as 300 villagers were killed.]

In a syndicated commentary on July 28, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman illustrated the journalistic malady that exemplifies biased reportage masquerading as informed analysis. While in Damascus he picked up a copy of the English-language Syria Times and noted an ad box that read “The Middle East on the Eve of Modernity.” He continues:

“I thought: What a perfect way to describe the Middle East today – going back to some pre-modern era? Alas, the Syria Times was not trying to be ironic. It turned out the headline was the title of a book about the 18th century. But had it been a news headline, it would have been apt.

Condoleezza Rice must have been severely jet-lagged when she said that what’s going on in Lebanon and Iraq today were the ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East.’ Oh, I wish it were so. What we are actually seeing are the rebirth pangs of the old Middle East, only fueled now by oil and more destructive weaponry.

Some of the most primordial tribal passions, which always lurk beneath the surface here – Sunnis versus Shiites, Jews versus Muslims, Lebanese versus Syrians – but are usually held in check by bonds of civilization, are exploding to the top.”

Friedman’s maddening commentary continues by bashing “Arab intellectuals” for refusing “to speak out clearly against those who encourage their youth to embrace martyrdom with religious zeal rather than meld modernity with Arab culture.” Mr. Friedman, are you deaf? Rational advice is overwhelmed by the din of bombs dropping from the sky and blowing children into pieces of flesh and leaving only blood stains where there might have been a future. The Qana bombing yesterday, the day your piece appeared, well illustrates this burden of frustration.

The malady I mentioned above is the hubris that allows a widely read writer with an extraordinary level of exposure to Arab leaders and intellectuals to proceed as though his own cultural biases do not show between the weekly newsprint. It is not that Friedman gets everything wrong, as Edward Said famously and wrongly said about historian Bernard Lewis, but the issue is one of balance. Friedman starts from the assumption that we secular and Western civilized intelligentsia stand for truth and “they” (largely groupings along religious sectarian labels) are out to get us. The false assumptions in Friedman’s article are so blatant that this opinion piece can serve as a reminder of the arrogance of the roving journalist as a secular, media-modern crusader.

Friedman has traveled so many times to the “Middle East” that he has fallen into the trap of mistaking map for territory. The difference he notes between the old and new Middle East is not unique at all to the region, where most of the present woes are a direct result of the modern West and most recently under the New-World-Law-and-Order banner of the necons. If the “old Middle East” is indeed being born again through the baptism of oil and speaking through tongues of mass destruction, then it would be prudent for Mr. Friedman to inform the reader that in fact the civilized West has a self-serving addiction to this oil and is the main manufacturer of the weapon technology blowing up the Middle East. If the rebirth metaphor has merit, it might better be seen as a calculated c-section in which the primary deliverers (Israel and the Bush administration, for example) would rather have had (forgive my French) an abortion.

The op-ed reader is reminded that this Middle East (excepting Israel it would seem) is plagued by “primordial tribal passions” lurking beneath the surface. The interesting thing is that such primordial passions (to the extent historians and ethnographers have studied them) are neither unique to the region nor at play in the litany cited by Friedman. There is nothing whatsoever “tribal” about the political sectarian split between sunni and shi’a (I will continue to knock the shiite out of Friedman’s rhetoric). Tribal loyalties cross-cut this broad category of cults, a process reinvigorated in Iraq precisely because we removed Saddam (a secularist dictator who did not brook such divisions while he ruled with an iron fist) and have given Iraq’s diverse mix few other viable choices for reestablishing security. The conflict between Jews and Muslims is a bit narrow here; the vast majority of Jews have died in pogroms instigated and conducted in Europe, most recently only seven decades ago in one of the most civilized and technologically advanced nation states of the time.

Then there is Lebanese versus Syrian. A little history might help the reader here. Lebanon as a modern nation state was created out of the Ottoman Empire by the Great Powers; France had control over both the newly divided and controlled territories of Lebanon and Syria. To speak of tribal passions for this politically inspired Euro-revision of the region is naive at best or wilfull ignorance at worst. To say that the “bonds of civilization” held the rival parties in check has the order reversed. It was the misfortune of dividing up the spoils after World War I that laid the mental land mines for today’s fighting. By not allowing indigenous national parties to develop and by allowing Israel to become established as a colony state surrounded by dictators and kings we have wooed royally, the “West” has demonstrated the “bondage” of their civilizing mission rather than the civil bonds now euphemistically touted as universal human rights.

Friedman laments that there is no Nelson Mandela in the Middle East. Well, once there was a Mosadegh in Iran, but “we” removed him to put in power a puppet shah who would let the oil flow west with minimal benefit to the people of Iran. Then there was Nasser, a leader we pushed into the Soviet orbit because he had a vision of a socialist Egypt as part of a broader king-less Arab nationalism. And we are told by the bleeding-print journalist that there is no “million-mom” march, but I am not sure where there ever was. A significant number of widows of Lebanese civil-war dead on all sides protested and marched to help shame the Lebanese warlords into a meaningful ceasefire. Thousands of Iranian women have taken to the streets protesting aggression against Muslims. If no million moms can take to the streets in Baghdad and Beirut, it is because the foreign policy and gunboat democracy of the Bush administration and Israeli air superiority have made the streets there (not to mention the bedrooms of Gaza and southern Lebanon) unsafe for anyone.

Friedman is right to say that the “radioactive” President Bush is trapped in “his own ideological bubble,” but that bubble has room enough for the journalist who thinks modernity has not reached the Middle East. It is not the eve of modernity obscuring the horizon of rationality in the Middle East, it is the ideological commercialized democracy-mongering of those who think themselves immune to the postmodern mega-truth that the battle is within us before it is between us and them.

Daniel Martin Varisco