In his recent New York Times article, “Crazy Poor Middle Easterners,” three-time Pulitzer prize–winning journalist Thomas Friedman argues that “the Middle East could prosper if it would put its past behind it.” This assertion flows from a long-standing spring of reductive discourse; Yale should not drink from it unquestioningly.
A few weeks ago, Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs gave Friedman a platform to speak with former Secretary of State John Kerry ’66 as part of the Kerry Conversations, which are “intended to develop new approaches” to solving “questions of global importance.” The Jackson Institute, per its website, claims to continue Yale’s “rich history of educating leaders for positions of responsibility around the world.” Friedman, who is the Times’ Foreign Affairs columnist, holds a graduate degree from Oxford in Middle East Studies and received a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship to write his best-selling book on the Middle East, “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” Two of his Pulitzers, for international reporting, are for his work writing on Lebanon and Israel.
These qualifications make it all the more disturbing — yet, unsurprising — that Friedman would put forward the views that he does in “Crazy Poor Middle Easterners” and that Yale would choose to shine its institutional spotlight upon him.
In his article, Friedman casts the entirety of the Middle East as a jungle of violent conflict and poverty, vastly oversimplifying millions of lives. In broad strokes, he declares that “this region has never been a bigger mess, had more people fighting over who owns which olive tree, had more cities turned to rubble by rival sects and missed its potential so vastly.”
Friedman then claims that this “region of the world that should be naturally rich has made itself poor by repeatedly letting the past bury the future.” In other words, he suggests that the conflicts in the Middle East are entirely self-created and easily resolvable.
Yet he ignores several realities. He abdicates any responsibility on the part of outside actors, like the United States, in creating these problems. Such examples of direct intervention and subversive activity abound — America’s 1953 coup d’etat in Iran, the recent interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and the current involvement in Yemen, to name just a few. He misses this basic premise: History has long-reaching consequences into the present. It is impossible to move on from the past when it continues to bear effects on your current day to day. It is even more difficult to do so when the problems grow in part from external actors who refuse to acknowledge their ongoing role.
And it’s not as though intervention in the Middle East is a thing of the past: Bombs are being dropped as we speak.
Finally, this depiction disregards the efforts that the citizens — and governments — of Middle Eastern countries have been making for decades to improve their societies and their quality of life. In the service of his broad-brush thesis, Friedman portrays the region as stuck in the status quo and discounts the various dynamic forces active throughout the Middle East. Yes, war may have existed there decades ago and still does today, but those wars were different, and the landscapes of many of these conflicts have changed.
But according to the oversimplifications of this false logic, the entirety of the Middle East is not only backwards but also willfully backwards. As if Middle Easterners collectively choose war and poverty over making “progress.”
Perhaps Friedman feels that the uniform, crazy poor, backwards Middle East is simply waiting for an American journalist to write an op-ed telling it to get over itself. Then the region, as a unit, will have a lightbulb moment, and its constituent countries will all decide to start getting along tomorrow. Such a thing would only occur in the simplistic Middle East of Friedman’s imagining.
What is important, though, is that Friedman’s portrayal extends the way in which the “Orient” has been historically presented: child-like, irrational, willfully belligerent, devoid of agency. When scrutinized, this is the thought process: “The Middle East is the way it is because it is comprised of Middle Easterners. We all know that the region is messed up because those people refuse to help themselves!”
Friedman dehumanizes Middle Easterners twice over. First, he falsely paints the region only in the one-dimensional terms of war, erasing the rich, complex lives of millions of Middle Easterners. Second, he says this supposed state of total war is pointless and self-imposed — Middle Easterners are actively choosing to destroy themselves. This diagnosis rests on believing that Middle Easterners must be inherently flawed or violent. Both his blanket characterization and its explanation are false and dehumanizing.
Conveniently, this depiction of the Middle East is also the one that U.S. foreign policy strategists have been propagating for decades. At best, Friedman’s picture of the Middle East is reductive and dehumanizing. At worst, these portrayals have material consequences that manifest in the everyday lives of millions of people in the region.
Why does it matter that someone with these views happened to be invited to Yale for a talk?
The problem is not specifically that Yale chose to invite Friedman. The problem is what this choice reveals about how Yale routinely and systematically engages with conceptions of the Middle East. Friedman’s article is not merely an isolated example of problematic journalism. It follows decades of prestigious institutions, including Yale, putting forward degrading views as scholarship. More importantly, when views like Friedman’s are celebrated and given a high-profile seat at the table, others are not. Every choice to spotlight a particular kind of position means privileging it over other kinds of positions. Yale, the Jackson Institute, and other academic institutions like it, all fail to equally laud historians and scholars of the Middle East who, in fact, present more critical, rigorous and nuanced analyses of the region’s challenges.
What does it mean when Yale’s Institute of Global Affairs, which wants to shape the next generation of world leaders, favors experts who comfortably paint a whole area of the world as primitive?
Friedman did not invent reductive, Orientalist modes of explaining the Middle East but was taught them by the same institutions that now continue to inculcate these ways of thinking. This reproduces and propagates the self-confirming discourse of Middle Easterners as subhuman as we train current students to believe the same. And this is why neither his presence nor his positions are surprising.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for views like Friedman’s to be silenced. What I am calling for is more thoughtful, balanced and accountable discourse surrounding the Middle East and the people who call it home. We need critical discourse that is also fair and humanizing.
I am arguing for Yale to more actively propagate this kind of discourse over caricature-like ones. And I am arguing for Yale to be more discerning in its selection of voices, rather than put forward those that merely portray the Middle East in ways that prop up U.S.-centered foreign policy objectives.
Yale is complicit in an irresponsible, self-affirming cycle of knowledge production that demeans vast swaths of the world. We must break that cycle.
Yasamin Sharifi is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .