Thomas Friedman Wields his Trusty 2×4

By Eli Clifton

Thomas Friedman’s column today in the New York Times manages to surpass his usual indifference to detail or nuance by arguing that the “Virtual Afghanistan” is as dangerous to U.S. national security as any threat posed by the real Afghanistan and that Muslims are in desperate need of serious civil war.

Friedman’s main source for this diatribe is a Washington Post article from earlier in the week which quotes “terrorism expert” Evan Kohlmann, whose actual expertise is never explained. Undeterred, Friedman plows ahead, arguing that Muslims need to undergo a civil war every bit as bloody and traumatic as the War Between the States in this country in order to beat the extremists into submission.

It’s worth reviewing Glenn Greenwald’s excellent article for on November 29th which details Friedman’s views on Muslims and highlights what seems to be Friedman’s idée fixe regarding the appropriateness and necessity of using violence against the Muslim world to bring it to its senses. Remember, Friedman was rated by a bipartisan group of nearly 250 Washington “insiders” as the most influential media figure in shaping their own opinions and worldviews in a recent National Journal survey.

At the heart of Friedman’s argument today is that the, “…network of hundreds of jihadist Websites that inspire, train, educate and recruit young Muslims to engage in jihad,” is a fundamental threat to U.S. national security and rivals that posed by Al Qaeda enjoying safe haven in Afghanistan and/or Pakistan.

Friedman’s evidence for such a threat comes from a report in the Washington Post that detailed the process by which five men from suburban Washington—who are accused of traveling to Pakistan to fight against U.S. forces in Afghanistan—were radicalized.

Friedman writes:

Last week, five men from northern Virginia were arrested in Pakistan, where they went, they told Pakistani police, to join the jihad against U.S. troops in Afghanistan. They first made contact with two extremist organizations in Pakistan by e-mail in August. As The Washington Post reported on Sunday: “ ‘Online recruiting has exponentially increased, with Facebook, YouTube and the increasing sophistication of people online,’ a high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official said. … ‘Increasingly, recruiters are taking less prominent roles in mosques and community centers because places like that are under scrutiny. So what these guys are doing is turning to the Internet,’ said Evan Kohlmann, a senior analyst with the U.S.-based NEFA Foundation, a private group that monitors extremist Web sites.”

Friedman’s fear-mongering doesn’t get slowed down by a careful examination of what was actually said by the Homeland Security official and Kohlmann in the Post article.

Indeed, the fact that recruitment has moved online and away from more-traditional settings like mosques or community centers might suggest that extremist ideologies are less accepted in Muslim communities than in the past.

And how does the fact that recruiters for extremist groups are online mean that they have legitimacy? There seems to be more extremist talk and behavior online than anywhere else. Could that be because the Internet offers a veil of anonymity? Could it be because the Internet gives a voice to even the most isolated, irrelevant or otherwise powerless and marginalized groups?

Undisturbed by such questions, Friedman predictably reiterates his regular exhortation for Muslims to purge their communities of extremists and denounce any and every act of terrorism committed by Muslim terrorists.

“Only Arabs and Muslims can fight the war of ideas within Islam. We had a civil war in America in the mid-19th century because we had a lot of people who believed bad things — namely that you could enslave people because of the color of their skin. We defeated those ideas and the individuals, leaders and institutions that propagated them, and we did it with such ferocity that five generations later some of their offspring still have not forgiven the North. Islam needs the same civil war. It has a violent minority that believes bad things: that it is O.K. to not only murder non-Muslims — “infidels,” who do not submit to Muslim authority — but to murder Muslims as well who will not accept the most rigid Muslim lifestyle and submit to rule by a Muslim caliphate.”

Loyal readers of Thomas Friedman may find his passing endorsement of civil war—that in the case of the U.S. Civil War killed 620,000 soldiers and countless civilians—par for the course, but as justified as any war might be it seems particularly blood-thirsty to measure the success of a conflict by the grudge held by the defeated party’s descendants.

This glorification of violence is nothing new for Friedman. On September 23, 2003, on NPR’s Talk of the Nation, Friedman offered this cogent analysis of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq:

“People there got the message, OK, in the neighborhood. This is a rough neighborhood, and sometimes it takes a 2-by-4 across the side of the head to get that message. But they got the message and the message was, ‘You will now be held accountable,’ and one can see that in Syria. One can see it in Saudi Arabia. I think one can see it in Iran.”

Finally, Friedman and the Washington Post should think twice before using “terror expert” Evan Kohlmann as a reliable source.
Kohlmann gained his start as a terrorism expert by working for Steve Emerson—whose instant analysis of the the mass carnage caused by the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was that it showed a “Middle Eastern trait’’—and has made a career for himself as an expert witness in terrorism trials.

Unfortunately, his knowledge of terror networks appears limited to regularly visiting extremist websites and testifying at terrorism trials in the US and UK. There is no evidence that Kohlmann speaks Arabic or Urdu or has ever published a peer-reviewed article.

Spinwatch wrote of a recent case in which Kohlmann testified.

“The use of violent films as scare tactics seems to be a common feature of Kohlmann’s testimony. At the 2007 trial of a young Scottish Muslim, Mohammed Atif Siddique, Kohlmann showed the jury footage of an American man Paul Johnson being beheaded, as well as footage of the British hostage Ken Bigley before he was beheaded. Siddique was charged with downloading similar material from the internet, but the footage Kohlmann showed was from Kohlmann’s own website not on Siddique’s computer. Kohlmann said he showed the footage to show the brutality of al-Qaeda. In his closing remarks in the trial, Defence Barrister Donald Findlay QC said the material was the “most horrific ever shown to a jury”. Findlay commented that “Instead of being brought from the US to be put in the witness box, [Kohlmann] should have been put in the dock.” Although a spokesman for Central Scotland Police was quoted as saying that there was “no evidence that Siddique was involved in an actual terrorist plot”, he was nevertheless sentenced to eight years imprisonment.”

But these holes in logic and reliance on questionable expertise don’t keep Friedman from spreading fear about the “Virtual Afghanistan” that spans the globe, presumably from Alexandria, Egypt, to right next door in Alexandria, Virginia, and from calling for Muslims to wage bloody civil wars that will tear apart their nations for generations.

Instead of Walter Lippmann or even James Reston, we’re stuck with Tom Friedman as our country’s most influential columnist. And his 2×4.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.



  1. I love your last paragraph. We’ve come a long way in fifty years, and in most respects the path has been downward. A few days ago I mentioned the complete lack of intellectual seriousness in American culture. The fact that Friedman is rated most influential columnist by insiders and power-wielders epitomizes this.

    On the other hand, is Friedman’s point about a “virtual Afghanistan” totally off-base? I’m not so sure. All we need is a major act of domestic terrorism committed by young Muslims to blow a big hole in your argument. There have been plots uncovered, some of them apparently serious. Mind you, I don’t think the Islamic world needs to have a civil war for our benefit. Friedman, as America’s most influential opinionator, might try stretching his mind a bit and writing about America’s share of responsibility for the growth of radical Islamism and its terrorist component. I’m not holding my breath on that, of course.

    I once read Friedman regularly. And to be as fair, I thought he sometimes published good, sound stuff. But most of his stuff is drivel, and he’s gotten worse in the last, oh, ten years. He ought to spend more time reading and thinking, and less time promoting himself on TV. Like so many big time commentators, he’s come to believe that he’s profound. Sorry, Tom, it just ain’t so.

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