Response to Friedman’s ‘narrative’ thesis

Response to Friedman’s ‘narrative’ thesis

Philip Borden worked as a contractor developing small businesses in post-Saddam Iraq; his book about this experience, Shaku Maku: On The Ground in Occupied Baghdad, was published in 2008. This is his response to Tom Friedman’s Muslim “narrative” conception:

On a Saturday forty years ago, a friend of mine, an observant Jew I will call Shalom (not his real name), accepted an aliyah at the bima of a large synagogue. He used the moment to deliver a short, impassioned, disjointed speech on Judaism’s loss of focus. Then he turned to the synagogue’s famous rabbi, shot him in the head, and turned the gun on himself. Police later uncovered rambling writings they took to be the cause of his act.

The writings were mostly a gloss on Nietzche, but they also contained critiques of Judaism and of religion in general as having abandoned its humane roots. I had known Shalom as a very talented student. He took his studies to heart. He was driven to help the disadvantaged in any way he could. I found his motives and dedication admirable but his intensity uncomfortable. So did his other friends. We talked with him about it a lot. But Shalom was functional, clever, and funny, and all of us found him quirky but not dangerous.

What caused Shalom to lose his way? What accounted for his horrible final murderous acts? Was it German philosophy? Judaism? Oversensitivity to poverty? A “radical” narrative that urged dramatic action to call attention to the abandonment of the underprivileged? Were his friends or parents to blame for being insensitive or neglectful? Of course not.

As we were to learn, Shalom had become increasingly divorced from reality for environmental, chemical, or social reasons. His unbalance had amplified his oversensitivity into exquisite pain. He had disappeared from contact with his friends for months. We did not notice the changes because as students at different universities we did not have day to day contact with him. It turned out that while out of our sight Shalom had been committed twice and released twice over a three or four month period. We later learned that Shalom’s parents feared the direction he was heading in but knew him also to have been a loving son and charming when in his head. They both committed and released him. In the end, Shalom was, in a word, crazy. In the end, the precise nature of the narrative in his head did not matter, because it was a crazy narrative. It was crazy because Shalom was crazy. To think any of us could have prevented his final act by correcting the narrative through education is a sick joke on Shalom, us, and perhaps the psychology profession.

Shalom’s story raises two issues related to Hasan’s case. One is that, like Shalom, the Hasan who committed the act was unbalanced, psychotic, and unable to perceive the world through the same lens of meaning that most of us apply. Hasan’s reasoning was not Islamic. It was not reasoning as we know it. It was a distorted narrative that was not tethered anywhere. It was crazy, because Hasan was crazy. The second issue is that Hasan was Muslim. The crime here is the abandonment of Hasan the broken human being by a system that did not want to deal with him and that has politicized everything Muslim so that no narrative makes sense. The crime here is blaming some narrative for the craziness, rather than vice-versa.

Tom Friedman’s sense of “the Radical Muslim Narrative” as a large conditioning element for policy that also frames response throughout the Muslim world raises far more serious issues than Hasan’s unhinging. All of us are influenced by multiple competing narratives, frames of reference, reference group pressures, memes, climates of opinion, or whatever we call the current environmental factor of the month. When those frames collapse into one frame we are dealing with a “grotesque.” A grotesque someone who, if functional has become non-communicative by making a truth with a small t into one with a large T (to use the words of Sherwood Anderson). When the person tips over into dysfunctionality, he/she becomes a Grotesque with a Capital G and is isolated beyond reason.

More important, the one-to-one causal connection Friedman suggests between a single narrative and a single action commits the same fallacy that labels all Jews as influenced by the “Shylock Narrative,” all Blacks as driven by a hypersexual narrative, etc. These are vague and emotion-laden capital T Truths. We know what such truths can do. The Shylock Narrative has made possible the conclusion that any Jew’s individual humanity is less important than the narrative itself.

The Radical Muslim Narrative does the same for Muslims today. Dressed up in quasi-psychological terms, nonetheless it is stereotyping, plain and simple. It makes solving any problems associated with the “Hasan situation” impossible, because it requires us to deal with the narrative instead of the man. In Hasan’s case, it has become a convenient out for the Army and all of us. Narrative as a framing device? Maybe. But it is far “scarier” (Friedman’s word) as a first step to a kind of desensitizing and demonizing that we as Americans, as Jews, as humans, cannot afford.

By | 2009-12-10T16:34:00-05:00 December 10th, 2009|Blog|2 Comments


  1. The Old Geezer December 11, 2009 at 5:55 pm - Reply

    interesting blog

  2. Anonymous December 17, 2009 at 10:02 pm - Reply

    Are you saying that there is not a “narrative” that is utilized in Muslim communities?
    I have often wondered why the Muslim communities have not come out in large number to protest the use of violence in the name of their religion. I am grateful that Friedman brought this question forward.

Leave A Comment