Thomas Friedman: Poor and Angry

Something “excessive” about the way Moslems reacted to the Danish cartoons? Oh, really?

Look carefully for analogies to Chinese rage against Japan. The parallels jump out at you.

Empty Pockets, Angry Minds
Published: February 22, 2006

I have no doubt that the Danish cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad have caused real offense to many Muslims. I’m glad my newspaper didn’t publish them. But there is something in the worldwide Muslim reaction to these cartoons that is excessive, and suggests that something else is at work in this story. It’s time we talked about it.

To understand this Danish affair, you can’t just read Samuel Huntington’s classic, “The Clash of Civilizations.” You also need to read Karl Marx, because this explosion of Muslim rage is not just about some Western insult. It’s also about an Eastern failure. It is about the failure of many Muslim countries to build economies that prepare young people for modernity — and all the insult, humiliation and frustration that has produced.

Today’s world has become so wired together, so flattened, that you can’t avoid seeing just where you stand on the planet — just where the caravan is and just how far ahead or behind you are. In this flat world you get your humiliation fiber-optically, at 56K or via broadband, whether you’re in the Muslim suburbs of Paris or Kabul. Today, Muslim youth are enraged by cartoons in Denmark. Earlier, it was a Newsweek story about a desecrated Koran. Why? When you’re already feeling left behind, even the tiniest insult from afar goes to the very core of your being — because your skin is so thin.

India is the second-largest Muslim country in the world, but the cartoon protests here, unlike those in Pakistan, have been largely peaceful. One reason for the difference is surely that Indian Muslims are empowered and live in a flourishing democracy. India’s richest man is a Muslim software entrepreneur. But so many young Arabs and Muslims live in nations that have deprived them of any chance to realize their full potential.

The Middle East Media Research Institute, called Memri, just published an analysis of the latest employment figures issued by the U.N.’s International Labor Office. The I.L.O. study, Memri reported, found that “the Middle East and North Africa stand out as the region with the highest rate of unemployment in the world”: 13.2 percent. That is worse than in sub-Saharan Africa.

While G.D.P. in the Middle East-North Africa region registered an annual increase of 5.5 percent from 1993 to 2003, productivity, the measure of how efficiently these resources were used, increased by only about 0.1 percent annually — better than only one region, sub-Saharan Africa.

The Arab world is the only area in the world where productivity did not increase with G.D.P. growth. That’s because so much of the G.D.P. growth in this region was driven by oil revenues, not by educating workers to do new things with new technologies.

Nearly 60 percent of the Arab world is under the age of 25. With limited job growth to absorb them, the I.L.O. estimates, the region is spinning out about 500,000 more unemployed people each year. At a time when India and China are focused on getting their children to be more scientific, innovative thinkers, educational standards in much of the Muslim world — particularly when it comes to science and critical inquiry — are not keeping pace.

Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of nuclear physics at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, bluntly wrote the following in Global Agenda 2006, the journal of the recent Davos World Economic Forum:

“Pakistan’s public (and all but a handful of private) universities are intellectual rubble, their degrees of little consequence. … According to the Pakistan Council for Science and Technology, Pakistanis have succeeded in registering only eight patents internationally in 57 years. …

“[Today] you seldom encounter a Muslim name in scientific journals. Muslim contributions to pure and applied science — measured in terms of discoveries, publications, patents and processes — are marginal. … The harsh truth is that science and Islam parted ways many centuries ago. In a nutshell, the Muslim experience consists of a golden age of science from the ninth to the 14th centuries, subsequent collapse, modest rebirth in the 19th century, and a profound reversal from science and modernity, beginning in the last decades of the 20th century. This reversal appears, if anything, to be gaining speed.”

No wonder so many young people in this part of the world are unprepared, and therefore easily enraged, as they encounter modernity. And no wonder backward religious leaders and dictators in places like Syria and Iran — who have miserably failed their youth — are so quick to turn their young people’s anger against an insulting cartoon and away from themselves and the rot they have wrought.

The Discussion: 7 Comments

Couple years ago, a UN report by Arab scholars listed three main problems in the Arab world. First was corrupt, unrepresentative governments. Second was the lack of information from the outside world – the number of translated works available in Arab contries pales next to China (the example they cited). And third is the oppressed status of women – as the report put it, when you deprive half of your population from meaningful participation in civic and economic life, you are wasting a tremendous amount of talent.

February 22, 2006 @ 12:20 am | Comment

True Other Lisa but: Tools alone can not build a house.

February 22, 2006 @ 9:54 am | Comment

Those protestors aren’t fools. They know they are getting the short end of the stick when it comes to the goodies of the world.

The cultural restrictions including all out oppression of the female gender pretty much means Muslim countries are trying to compete in the world with one arm and one leg tied behind their back.

February 22, 2006 @ 10:28 am | Comment

Simple analogy does not help explain the China case, where not-so-desperate university students express their angers in calm and at times extreme forms

February 22, 2006 @ 2:57 pm | Comment

True Other Lisa but: Tools alone can not build a house.

John, it’s possible that I’m just very tired, but…what does this mean, exactly?

February 22, 2006 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

OK, first alarm bell: he’s quoting MEMRI. Go over to Professor Lynch’s blog at

He’s got a whole category on MEMRI, and how they tend to skew. This time they look ok, but watch ’em, they got quick fingers.

Second: Friedman goes from discussing the GDP, unemployment and productivity from the report to a quote from Pakistan. Actually, in the real ILO report, Pakistan had massive productivity growth, though GDP was stagnant. Also, Pakistan, like Sub-Saharan Africa, has lots of $1-2 a day poverty. The Middle East and North Africa have far less poverty. This is clear from the report because Pakistan is not part of the MENA statistics – it’s in the South Asia stats. Different place, different problems. Pakistan, for example, has no oil. Actually, several MENA countries don’t have oil, and their GDPs are roughly a third of the oil producers – so the MENA numbers average out the lopsidedness, meaning Somalia is hell. Otherwise, its true: worst unemployment rate ever.

Anyway, throwing Pakistan in there confuses the issue. Pakistan has millions of people living at impoverished levels (like China), whereas the oil producing nations of MENA (not Yemen or Somalia) have almost none, and, with some wealth redistribution, could diversify, build universities, and invest in R&D very quickly.

In theory.

Also, the ILO report points out that in 2001, brain drain resulted in 450,000 Arab university graduates settling in Europe and the US. Now if there were some way to put the brains back that didn’t involve invasion…

February 23, 2006 @ 12:24 am | Comment

The most painful irony is how advanced the Islamic world used to be…

February 23, 2006 @ 8:59 pm | Comment

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