Dear Thomas Friedman, You're Wrong (Again)

I may not be what you had in mind when you made your call for all Pakistanis. My parents are from Kabul and Peshawar. I have never set foot in either city, in either rather incomplete nation-state. I grew up in Pennsylvania, where I didn't learn Urdu, Pashto, or Farsi. In short, my credentials as a Pakistani are somewhat shaky. Despite this, I identify with Pakistan and with whatever "Muslim world" you presume to imagine. However, your definitions and expectations make me decidedly uneasy. In an effort to mute the sassy, yet firm "Oh, no he didn't," that ran through my mind as I read your editorial I'll offer some productive points of concern.

To begin, your editorial smacks of lazy scholarship. Unfortunately, in these times, this is not just a benign critique. With politicians and the media attempting to draw comparisons between the attacks on Mumbai and in New York, there is far too much on the table to allow such sloppiness to pass. There is the fear of retaliation against Muslims in Pakistan and in India, there is the fear of war, of new and hideous occupations, and there is the fear of ineffective and repressive domestic security efforts. There is the specter of a decidedly failed occupation in Afghanistan and an exhausted Pakistan along the Northwest Frontier.

Your call, Mr. Friedman, isn't just for All Pakistanis, it is rather to All Muslims. You are explicit about this. Not only do you want to see Pakistanis in the streets protesting the attacks in Mumbai, you want every Muslim to follow suit. Quite simply, your expectations upon Pakistanis are patronizing and your willingness to extend this expectation to every follower of Islam is disturbing.Mr. Friedman, you are not a fucking community organizer. And well, even if you were, you'd have a decidedly difficult task at hand. Now, it seems important to discuss your assumptions about how the Muslim world operates. I'd venture to say that you could get all Muslims to agree on two pieces of information:

1) There is no God but God.

2) Muhammad is the messenger of God.

I do not intend to be flippant here, but it seems that asides from these two tenants of faith most other assumptions that could be made about the Muslim world would prove false. At this moment in time, the idea of Muslims as a powerful collective is indeed a stretch of the imagination, and in my opinion, a decidedly problematic one. The idea of Muslims as a cohesive political entity effectively ignores the realities of culture, history and politics that may intersect with Islam or operate without it. While the concept of the ummah as a political entity is exciting for many Muslims, those of us interested in an alternative solidarity, and perhaps the twilight of the nation-state system, it simply does not exist. If Muslim bodies were able to mobilize according to your fantasies, maybe things would look differently in Baghdad, Jerusalem, Kabul, Kashmir, and elsewhere.

I realize that somewhere within this rhetoric of Islam as a powerful collective is an attempt at a compliment; however, it amounts to gussied up sensationalism and romanticization. You are quick to recall the protests in Pakistan that took place in response to the cartoons published in Denmark. Here, your aim is to trivialize a moment when Muslim interconnectivity is activated. Furthermore, you mention the fact that three Pakistanis died in these protests. So, we are not only trivial and surprising but also barbaric. I won't however further engage your opinions on the Danish cartoon affair; that seems to require another letter.

You ask Muslims to articulate that these men will not be rewarded with virgins in heaven. There is an assumption on your part that all Muslims recognize the events in Mumbai as Muslim events, that these men are Muslim actors on behalf of Pakistan or some larger imaginary Muslim body, that this jihad is "true" not that there's any system for establishing that either. There is an assumption on your part that these men and their intentions are automatically legible to Muslims around the world. Also, the dancing with virgins in heaven bit is really quite tired.

You are quick to paint a hypothetical attack on Karachi similar to the events in Mumbai. You imagine a Muslim world taking to the streets. Again, I don't necessarily see Muslims in Tehran or the West Bank or Islamabad ablaze in response to this hypothetical. Certainly, there must be grief and anger, and maybe highly public anger and grief over these events, but nothing akin to the large-scale revolt that you envision. Even if these movements were happening, what would they show? What do they convince others, what do they convince the "bad" Muslims, the "bad" Pakistanis? I doubt much. Perhaps, we'd see further lines drawn within the community, perhaps those organized around class, race, and location. You ignore the possibility of "other"-ing within the Muslim community. I do not mean to suggest that that the men who committed these acts or similar acts are unable to change. It is rather America, and our tenuous history in the region that perhaps deserves further attention.

Certainly, Mr. Friedman, this is about you. What would this revolt convince you? That Pakistanis, that Muslims have done enough, that our opposition to violence and destruction is legitimate? You want some deranged liberal political pornography. You want it to be big and colorful.You want to see veils, beards, and banners. Certainly, Mr. Friedman, people know when to resist and how and they do in their own ways and on their own terms.

Why rest on hypotheticals and cartoons? Why not turn to the violence in Gujarat? What of state actors in India accused of sponsoring communal violence against Muslims? What of Kashmir? Kabul? Peshawar? I am uninterested in simply listing these as grievances, as forgotten atrocities or competitors in some oppression Olympics. It is rather a desire for further nuance, context, and history in which to understand these events.

You ignore the fact that there are almost as many Muslims in India as there are in Pakistan. You ignore the fluid relationships many Muslims, Hindus, and others have throughout South Asia. Pakistan cannot represent Islam, terrorism, backwardness; nor can India simply represent the Hindu right, modernity, and neo-liberalism. But, by now you must be upset with me, for I am "explain[ing]" too much.

This business of calling on Pakistan and Islam in response to the events in Mumbai is not a shocking transaction. Muslim bodies must once again be shamed, blamed, and asked to apologize. You are not the first to shame an entire religion for the acts of few men and certainly there is a larger narrative wherein politicians, journalists, and others before you that must be held accountable.

These narratives of the mass media are indeed productive of political realities we find in the places we rather imprecisely call the West and the Muslim world. Producing maligned knowledge about Muslim bodies is indeed necessary to better support American imperial interests in the region. As politicians blame the errors in Afghanistan as failures in Pakistan, there seems to be a clear interest in further intervention here. You must know this.

Further still, the dangers in your rhetorical failure lie in not only inviting American intervention, but also clearly prompting an Indian intervention. Your use of Islam as tantamount to Pakistan and Pakistan as tantamount to the actions of these men involves a framework that's well-worn. Writing about Mumbai in this manner further reifies American and Indian solidarity and cooperation vis-a-vis the war on terror. Furthermore, it creates a version of Islam that is not only against the West i.e. against Christian, Jewish and otherwise white bodies, Islam now also has the means of launching attacks on brown bodies right next door as you say.

Mr. Friedman, this is unfortunately a battle where language is increasingly powerful. And I do not mean for us to belabor our points in some spectacle of nuance, where the terms the West, Islam, India, and Pakistan are all complicated and incomplete. It is, however, necessary to understand that language and slippage like yours consents to further conflict, and further vilification, which is decidedly hideous considering the aforementioned crisis already in place.

I understand that you want to change Pakistan and Islamists, which you quite simply can't do without changing history, without changing America and our various foreign policy blunders, interventions, and occupations, without changing yourself.


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