By Belen Fernandez
In a June 16 Op-Ed column in the New York Times entitled ‘The Virtual Mosque,’ Thomas Friedman declares that events in Iran have raised ‘three intriguing questions’ for him:
"Is Facebook to Iran’s Moderate Revolution what the mosque was to Iran’s Islamic Revolution? Is Twitter to Iranian moderates what muezzins were to Iranian mullahs? And, finally, is any of this good for the Jews — particularly Israel’s Prime Minister, Bibi Netanyahu?"
Friedman goes on to explain that, over the past 8 years in certain parts of the Middle East, “spaces were opened for more democratic elections,” but that “[u]nfortunately, the groups that had the most grass-roots support and mobilization capabilities — and the most energized supporters — to take advantage of this new space were the Islamists.”
Leaving aside the issue of why Friedman thinks it is up to him to decide which manifestations of democracy are fortunate and which are not, we are informed that the reason the Islamists have been able to exploit the opening of democratic spaces is that they have mosques, places where they “were able to covertly organize and mobilize… outside the total control of the state.” Over the next few paragraphs Friedman appears to arrive at the conclusion that people who attend mosques are less entitled to rights as citizens than, for example, the more than 50,000 fans that Mir Hossein Mousavi is reported to have on Facebook. Friedman points out that 50,000 exceeds the capacity of a mosque, although he does not speculate as to whether all of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejads listed on Facebook are real.
As for covert organization, mobilization, and evasion of state control, Friedman asserts: “In Lebanon, Hezbollah took the country into a disastrous and unpopular war. Ditto Hamas in Gaza.” He does not explain why George W. Bush is not also dittoed, or why it is necessary to contradict Israeli admissions as to the lack of spontaneity of their wars.
Moderate Middle Eastern revolutions are meanwhile eulogized as follows:
“What is fascinating to me is the degree to which in Iran today — and in Lebanon — the more secular forces of moderation have used technologies like Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, blogging and text-messaging as their virtual mosque, as the place they can now gather, mobilize, plan, inform and energize their supporters, outside the grip of the state.”
It thus appears that in certain cases it is admissible to function as a state within a state, depending on the nature of the state. Additional benefits of mobile phone technology in the Middle East are outlined in Friedman’s June 13 Op-Ed “Winds of Change?” and include the possibility of “monitor[ing] vote-rigging by posting observers with cellphone cameras”—a process unequivocally embraced by other bastions of democracy such as the state of Florida.
Friedman tempers his euphoria over technological breakthroughs by moderates by cautioning in the June 16 article that “we should not get carried away,” based on the fact that “‘moderates’ is a relative term”—especially in the case of Iraqi prime ministers who are less attached to mosques but power-hungry nonetheless—and that “even if defeated electorally, the Islamists and their regimes have a trump card: guns. Guns trump cellphones. Bang-bang beats tweet-tweet.” Further research reveals that the latter stipulation is not a reference to the 2004 Israeli attack on the aviary at the Rafah zoo.
Friedman’s response to the last of the “three intriguing questions” posed in “The Virtual Mosque” (“Is any of this good for the Jews?”) is less intriguing than his responses to the first two, and he limits himself to discussing such things as how “Israeli officials have been saying they would much prefer that Ahmadinejad still wins in Iran — not because Israelis really prefer him but because they believe his thuggish, anti-Semitic behavior reflects the true and immutable character of the Iranian regime.” The commitment of Israeli officials to maintaining enemies does not, however, earn Israel the title of virtual reality.
Backtracking several days from Iran’s virtual election, we find in Friedman’s June 9 Op-Ed column on the Lebanese elections that “in Lebanon it was the real deal, and the results were fascinating: President Barack Obama defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.” President Barack Obama’s provenance is not specified, although he is presumably not of Lebanon—thus adding a twist to Friedman’s subsequent claim that the victorious Lebanese coalition was that which “wants Lebanon to be run by and for the Lebanese.” The expansion of democratic spaces in the Middle East is nonetheless confirmed by the fact that “[t]he Lebanese mainstream, armed only with ballots, not bullets, won.” (It would later dawn on Friedman that the mainstream was armed not only with ballots but with Facebook, as well.)
Friedman, who claims in the article that he is a “sucker for free and fair elections” and that it “warms [his] heart to watch people drop ballots in a box to express their will,” chose to experience Lebanese heart-warming in the overwhelmingly Christian summer resort town of Brummana in Mount Lebanon, where there was no danger of coming into contact with any non-virtual mosques. The Quaker cemetery in Brummana also happened to host the gravesite of Palestinian scholar Edward Said, who in a 2002 article entitled “What Price Oslo?” had noted that Friedman “still has the gall to say that ‘Arab TV’ shows one-sided pictures,” in addition to being “insufferably conceited.”
Further evidence of one-sidedness found in Said’s article is that “there aren’t two sides involved here, but only one state turning all its great power against a stateless, repeatedly refugeed, and dispossessed people, bereft of arms and real leadership.” Said ignores the fact that the stateless contingent is in possession of mosques and guns; Friedman meanwhile confirms the role of power in George Bush’s democratic contributions to Syrian expulsion from Lebanon: “Power matters.”
We come up against a slight problem if we employ the Mir Hossein Mousavi model in order to calculate the exact extent of President Bush’s power, in that a Facebook search of “George W. Bush” produces as its first result a group with 58,531 members entitled “One Million Shoes for George W. Bush.” The second result is a group with 35,646 members entitled “Thankful for President George W. Bush”; other noteworthy presences on Facebook include “I Love Thomas Friedman” and “I Hate Thomas Friedman.” Friedman is not, however, included on the list of important visitors to Brummana found on this website, although Lawrence of Arabia is.
T.E. Lawrence had once asserted that Arabs were as unstable as water; Friedman, for his part, had merely asserted in a 2004 Op-Ed in the New York Times that Palestinians were “gripped by a collective madness, committing suicide,” and that the Muslim world was undergoing an “unstable and at times humiliating catch-up” following its long-term “vacation from globalization, modernization and liberalization.” Friedman mentions in this article that one of the threats to Israel posed by instability consists of “an explosion of Arab multimedia — from Al Jazeera to the Internet,” thus highlighting the dangers of combining mosques and technology. As for other important visitors to Brummana, these include Coca-Cola and petroleum conferences hosted at the Printania Palace hotel in 1967 and 1968, respectively; the 1950s were meanwhile dominated by visits from Lebanese president Camille Chamoun, who is described on the Brummana site as having tried out most of the hotels in the area, and whose dependence on US invasions provided evidence for Friedman’s hypothesis that “power matters.”
I had visited Brummana twice, once with a Maronite friend who claimed that the town’s only important visitors were Saudi princes pursuing sexual relations with Lebanese pop stars, and once with a Palestinian friend who claimed that I should have figured out how to say “Quaker cemetery” in Arabic prior to departing for Brummana from Beirut. We thus spent several hours searching first for the cemetery and then for the key to the cemetery, which it turned out was kept at the house of an elderly woman who invited us in for tea, cake, and duels between her cats. Friedman described his own interactions with elderly Lebanese women in Brummana on election day:
“People came by car, by wheelchair, by foot — young, old and sick. One very elderly lady walked in hooked up to a small oxygen tank. The tube was in her nose helping her to breathe. A young man was carrying the silver oxygen canister on one side of her and a young woman was holding her steady on the other side. But, by God, she was going to vote.”
Edward Said had proved less smitten with democratic commitment by the young and old, and in 2002 had tacked the question “Will the new generation do any better?” onto the end of his allegation that Arab rulers “haven’t learned the power of systematically disseminated information as a way of protecting their people from the onslaughts of those who consider all Arabs militant, extremist, terrorist fanatics.” Whether Said is suggesting that Arab rulers acquire their own New York Times columnists or their own Facebook accounts is not clarified; he does, however, offer some fine-tuning of Friedman’s onomatopoeic model, in which tweet-tweeting technology can be interpreted as merely complicit in the bang-bang of guns:
“What is at stake [when it comes to exorbitant national defense budgets] are material interests that keep rulers in power, corporations making profits, people in a state of manufactured consent, just so long as they don’t get up one morning and start to think about where, in this mad technologised rush to bomb and kill, we are going.”
– Belen Fernandez is completing a book entitled Coffee with Hezbollah. She is a regular contributor to pulsemedia.org. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.