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How Thomas Friedman Distorts Realities in Egypt, Pakistan, and India

[India-Pakistan borderland by night from space. Image from NASA via Flickr[ [India-Pakistan borderland by night from space. Image from NASA via Flickr[

In a recent New York Times op-ed, liberal icon Thomas Friedman asks if Egypt— currently in the midst of  street demonstrations, violent repression, and a referendum all surrounding a controversial constitution—will develop into a secular, democratic, modern state—in his words, "the next India"—or an intolerant, Islamist military regime—also in his words, "the next Pakistan.” Both the question and the article are riddled with faulty assumptions and factual omissions.

Pointing to the token appointment of an Indian Muslim to head one of India's domestic intelligence agencies, Friedman claims that India is thus a state that respects diversity, wherein violence is limited to "Muslim extremists.” This, however, is false. Since at least as far back as partition with Pakistan in 1947, Indian Muslims have consistently been viewed and treated as an "other," expected to prove their loyalty to a mostly-Hindu nation-state. They have been depicted as Pakistan sympathizers, a fifth-column, potential terrorists, and a generally unwelcome ethnic minority. This has often reduced Indian Muslims to single, uniform, and self-enclosed community while constructing them as a domestic security threat. Most notably in Kashmir, the Indian state has been responsible for massacres, mass rapes, and draconian legislation to brutalize and contain Muslim areas suspected of seeking to secede. The Indian state has also been complicit in various race riots and mass killings of Indian Muslims, such as the 2002 Gujarat massacre.

Writers such as Gyanendra Pandey have noted that despite the systematic nature of Indian state's violence against its Muslim minority, such violence is always deceptively depicted as an aberration"aberration in the sense that violence is seen as something removed 
from the general run of Indian history: a distorted form, an exceptional moment, 
not the "real" history of India at all." This is a fitting commentary on Friedman's own whitewash of the history of India. This is, of course, not to mention India's short stint as a dictatorship, from 1975-1977, when Indian leader Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency, jailed political opponents, dramatically limited freedom of the press, and began a campaign of forced sterilization against the poor—following a court ruling that she had broken the law during her election.
Furthermore, there is India's declaration of war against jungle tribes within India itself: peoples that have been dispossessed and robbed of their lands, only to be massacred by helicopter gunships as they try desperately to resist.
Nevertheless, Friedman somehow manages to ignore these glaring problems in favor of highlighting a token Muslim appointee as proof of Indian cosmopolitanism.

Such omissions are only the beginning of Friedman's absurd musings. He asks if Egypt, under the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood, might become like Pakistan, opting for strict military rule and intolerance against minorities. In the process of posing and exploring the question, he makes another glaring omission: the role of the United States. 
In both Pakistan and Egypt, US policy has been a major determinant in the outcome of internal power struggles, especially those which concern military-civilian relations. Pakistan did not become a militarized (near-failed) state without the active intervention of the United States. A major Cold War ally against the non-aligned India, the United States backed Pakistan with billions of dollars in military aid since its founding in order to contain the alleged threat of communism. This carried over and was intensified during the Soviet invasion of neighboring Afghanistan.

The massive and unbalanced aid flow to Pakistan's military establishment has resulted in the weakening of Pakistan's civilian institutions, creating a nuclear military power that can and does ignore the rule of law with the blessing of heavy US support. In the process, the United States has enriched a core of Pakistani military officers who have used the billions of dollars to fund various pet projects, while preventing any serious oversight from the Pakistani civilian government. This continues even as Pakistan's military and intelligence services back al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. There should be no doubt that the United States has underwritten the Pakistani military's domineering, lawless hand in Pakistan's domestic affairs so as to quell any real or alleged threats from other regional powers.

Such a storied history has its parallel in Egypt. Since the 1980's, the United States has provided Egypt's authoritarian regime with billions in military and "development" aid in return for entering into and maintaining its peace agreement with Israel, as well as its unraveling of state-centered economic development strategy which is the root cause of the impoverishment of millions of Egyptians. In this equation, the Egyptian military establishment was required to purchase equipment from US corporations with much of the "development aid" they received. This was on top of its complicity in various Israeli governments’ brutal policies towards the Palestinian population of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Meanwhile, Egypt's popular classes were dramatically affected by skyrocketing food prices and other effects on their ability to meet their basic needs, for which there were no social safety nets under the new “development” measures. Neither the United States nor the Egyptian regime took seriously the grievances of Egypt's public in the face of such economic hardships. In this fashion, the United States has ensured that Egypt, like Pakistan, would be a military regime that enriches military officers and promotes US regional goals, while undermining the rule of law and democracy.

Friedman suggests that the Muslim Brotherhood must learn to create a “culture of inclusion . . . with compromises rather than dictates.” But in the face of US policy, the lesson to be drawn is actually the opposite: subservience to US strategic interests can enrich specific elites, who can in turn help maintain the Brotherhood’s political primacy. The Brotherhood has left intact the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement. It has also promised to continue down the path of neoliberalism, forgoing many of the central demands of the Egyptian uprising to shift Egypt's economic development strategy away from the failed dictates of the Washington Consensus and international financial institutions. Furthermore, Morsi’s controversial constitution allows for significant power to remain in the hands of the military, while shielding the presidency itself from any oversight.

When the Brotherhood and its supporters attack opposition demonstrators with bottles and guns, while Morsi consolidates his dictatorial powers, and as both seek to implement an anti-liberal constitution, they are drawing on the lessons of US-Egyptian and US-Pakistani relations: serve US interests (i.e., regional goals), and the United States will serve yours (by political, economic, and military support). Friedman writes as if this was not a lesson forged and taught in the centers of US power and in the messaging of pundits such as himself. The question to pose in the columns of US newspapers with respect to Egypt is not whether the outcome will be more like India or Pakistan. Rather, the question to pose is whether Friedman will ever give up the imperial mantle he so diligently carries as he renders invisible the role of the United States in subverting democracy. Pakistan did not become the Pakistan it is today without the role of the United States. Similarly, US policy is an important factor in the ongoing struggle in Egypt. While there are important lessons for many to learn, so far neither the US empire nor its pundit Thomas Friedman have learned any of them.

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