Denver Bar Association
May 2003
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Longitudes and Attitudes: Why we all can't just get along


Reviewed by Marshall Snider

Are you confused about events in the Middle East? Do you wonder why so many people in the Muslim and Arab worlds hate the United States? Perhaps the causes of terrorism escape you. You aren’t alone. But Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, has a good handle on all of these questions. His latest book, "Longitudes and Attitudes," lays out his thesis and his explanations with clarity and an engaging writing style.

"Longitudes and Attitudes" is a compilation of Friedman’s columns preceding and following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, supplemented by his journal entries as he traveled the Muslim world after that tragic day. Friedman’s theories on the causes of Arab and Muslim discontent with America were formulated before 9/11. The events surrounding the attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and subsequent history, are consistent with Friedman’s analysis.

His basic theory runs like this: All of the Arab states, and most Muslim countries, are ruled by non-democratic regimes. These regimes resist modernization, globalization, democratization and the information revolution for fear that these world-wide movements will threaten their autocratic control. As Friedman summarizes (in a fictional letter to the Arab peoples):

"Where other countries are focused on developing world-class competitive industries, you are still focused on protecting your uncompetitive ones. Where others are aggressively trading with the world, you barely trade with each other. Where others are freeing their presses, you are still controlling yours. Where other world leaders are building their legitimacy by pushing education, most of yours are still building their legitimacy by pushing a religious conflict. Where others are seeking foreign investors in order to create jobs for their young people, you are driving off foreign investors with unfriendly bureaucracies and pursuit of a conflict that scares everyone away from your region. In an age when others are making microchips, you are making potato chips."

State-sponsored education in these countries consists of religious education that teaches a fundamental form of Islam, one that does not recognize tolerance for other beliefs. This is not true Islam, but it is what is taught in the region. Arab and Muslim states allow radical preachers to dominate because the regimes are afraid of losing control if they liberalize. Their children receive little if any education in science, mathematics, literature or technical skills.

As a result, these governments fail to build a real future for their people. This absence of hope triggers anger. Those who can’t leave go to the mosque, where radical preachers teach hate for America, Israel and Jews and tell young people that the United States wants to destroy Islam. The regimes are happy to have people blame America, Israel and Jews for their problems, because that hatred focuses attention away from the failure of these governments to provide a better life for their people. It is not surprising, in this context, that 15 of the September 11 hijackers were educated in Saudi Arabia.

To illustrate his thesis, Friedman points out that anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorists come only from the non-democratic Arab and Muslim countries. You don’t see Turkish terrorists, or terrorists from India (with the world’s second largest Islamic population).

Friedman applies his thesis as a springboard to explain our problems with Iraq and why Saudi Arabia sits on the cusp: it can continue as a supporter of terrorism or can be an engine for change in the region. "Longitudes and Attitudes" also provides insight into the rebuilding of Afghanistan and the potential for a movement in Iran to form a secular democracy with a respected place for Islam.

Also of interest is Friedman’s description of how Osama bin Laden could exist in our world. He is a stateless person with an agenda similar to nation-states. World-wide technological progress has allowed the development of what Friedman calls "super-empowered individuals," who can live in a cave with the technology to wreak unimaginable havoc on civilization. Friedman notes the little-reported scenario in June 2001 when bin Laden used a few cell-phone threats to cause the Bush administration to withdraw the FBI from Yemen, U.S. Marines from Jordan, and the Fifth Fleet from the Persian Gulf.

Of course, no book on this subject would be complete without paying substantial attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Friedman’s view of this problem is quite balanced; blame and opportunity for peaceful solutions are spread equally across both sides of the equation, and the United States as well. He offers a formula for peace based upon the Oslo land-for-peace agreement brokered by President Clinton. This proposal actually has support in moderate Arab circles, but everyone is afraid to back it publicly for fear of looking weak or angering the hard-liners. In the meantime, Yassir Arafat has no plan— he merely wants to destroy Israel— and his rejection of the Oslo proposal led the moderate Israeli political center to back Ariel Sharon with his insane program of West Bank settlements. And on it goes.

It is not possible in this short review to discuss in a meaningful way the numerous issues Friedman analyzes in depth in "Longitudes and Attitudes." This is a fascinating book written in an enjoyable, entertaining and engaging style; it is not your Poli Sci 101 textbook. After reading this book you will watch the world news with a much better understanding of events. I only hope that George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Ariel Sharon and Muslim and Arab leaders around the world have also read "Longitudes and Attitudes."


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