Tom Friedman, Will You Practice What You Preach?

Editor’s Note:  For those who have not heard of him, Thomas L. Friedman is a well-known opinionator at the New York Times.  A list of his articles can be found in his section on the NYT website.

Mr. Friedman, you have articulated your belief for months that Islamic Scholars & Governments should speak out openly against the hateful opinions prevalent in their Countries about Jewish Culture and Religion. You have written about the insularity of education systems in these countries and how people grow up knowing nothing but what they are taught in their madrassas. You termed it as believing in the Narrative that pervades the Islamic region.

You are right and you have been rightly applauded for speaking
candidly. We concur with you and applaud you as well.

With respect, we suggest that you also look inward towards your own profession in our country.
The insularity, the closed minds that result from uni-dogmatic religious education that you write about are equally present in American print journalists, your own colleagues. If you choose to survey the field of journalists, critics or opinionators in America’s Newspapers, you will find that virtually all of these people have undergone a uni-dogmatic, insular education in their colleges, high schools, middle schools and elementary schools. Through such an education curriculum, these people have graduated with unquestioning conviction in the absolute superiority of Christian-Jewish religious & theological thought and with little to zero knowledge about other ways to think about theology or religion.

Such total belief allows many of them to sit in complacent judgment about concepts they know nothing of. At least their counterparts in the rest of the world are aware of the Christian-Jewish way of thinking because they are being bombarded daily by western Newspapers and Television. But American journalists do not have the benefit of a global network spreading non-European thinking.

Mr. Friedman, work with us for a few minutes:

  • Consider the hypothetical case of a group of predominantly Islamic critics, several hundred strong, in the Islamic World.
  • Consider that this group has chosen to publicly give an award to a book about Jewish History by a Yemeni or Saudi religious scholar, a book that is filled with wild sexual  bservations about sacred scriptures, festivals and religious figures of deep emotive centrality to the Jewish Identity. 
  • Consider that this group of Islamic Critics knows very little about Jewish religion apart from what their own insular Islamic education system has taught them about Jewish culture. 
  • Consider that this broad group of critics has chosen to publicize this award event for weeks on their own website and to invite the community of critics in the Islamic world to attend the event.
How would you react in this case, Mr. Friedman?

We suspect that you would write a stern opinion column in the New York Times. You would condemn this event and call on all moderate thinkers as well as on the Mayors, Presidents in the Islamic world to condemn this travesty, if not to stop it outright. You would be right to do so.

Well, Mr. Friedman, here is your chance to do exactly that in New York City.

NBCC and their centerpiece award for 2009

An American group of critics called National Book Critics Circle (“NBCC”) has behaved exactly as the hypothetical group of Islamic Critics described above. Their website states that NBCC consists of more than 600 critics and reviewers based all over America. We suspect that the vast majority of the members of this group are either Christian or Jewish by faith and by education. The NBCC website lists all its Board Members  and they appear, by their last names, to be predominantly Christian or Jewish.

The motto of this group is Thirty five years of Quality Writing & Criticism and the “centerpiece of NBCC activities is the annual awards for the best book in six categories”. Among the finalists for the 2009 NBCC award for non-fiction, this group has chosen the book Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger.

This book has been described by Hindu Scholars, Practitioners and Devout Believers as defamatory to Indian Culture & Religion, as a book filled with wild sexual  bservations about sacred scriptures, festivals and religious figures of deep emotive centrality to the Indian Identity. We understand that this book has been condemned by several Hindu organizations in the world.

We wrote about the Doniger book and its New York Times review, a perverted anglo-servile & grossly erroneous review in our opinion, in our article last week titled Cultural & Religious Defamation Tacitly Accepted By New York Times Editors?- Our Perspectives. When we wrote this article, we were not aware of NBCC or its decision to consider the Doniger book for their centerpiece award. A reader brought it to our attention this week.

We contacted the NBCC Board Members to express our opinion. In that communication, we asked them the following questions:

  • How many of NBCC members are practicing Hindus?
  • How many of the Board Members or the Selection Committee Members are practicing Hindus?
  • How many of the Board Members or the Selection Committee Members have read the Doniger Book?
  • How many of the Board Members or the Selection Committee Members are willing to defend their award for this book with us?

The Board did not respond to our questions but one of the Board members wrote back to us. We welcomed the honest response and offered to meet with the Board member. We offered to take this Board Member through the Doniger book explain why comments in this book seems so vile and disgusting to so many Hindus. This Board member also asked us for some evidence that the Doniger book was considered offensive by Hindus. We sent the NBCC Board 12 different negative reviews of the Doniger book, some strongly and emotionally worded. We sent them excerpts from reader comments to show them the depth & passion of the Indian outrage. It is our understanding that the NBCC Board has heard from a number of Hindu scholars and organizations in America. Among these is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science in an American University.

This Board member did not write back and neither did the rest of the Board Members. Our offer to explain our objections to the Doniger book to NBCC stands. Other Hindu organizations have made similar offers to NBCC without any response or so we understand. 

So, Mr. Friedman here is your opportunity. You have the megaphone, you have the standing. You are a brother journalist to these NBCC people. You have gone through the same education system and you presumably belong to a religion that NBCC respects.

Are you willing to stand up for what you have written and speak to NBCC if not actually against them? We will be happy to spend the time you need to show you why this book is deeply insulting and defamatory to Indian Culture & Religion. As you well know, Mr. Friedman, that the notion of religion is a part of Dharma in Indian Culture and so it is nearly impossible to discuss Indian Culture in isolation from Indian religious thought, especially in the pre-Buddhist period. Ms. Doniger also makes this point, probably the only point on which we agree with Ms. Doniger.

Risks to America and to US-India Relations

You are a smart man, Mr. Friedman, a man of the world. You understand very well what this situation means for the  image of America. People around the world, the global Indian Diaspora in particular, can understand that a single university like the University of Chicago could be virulently biased; they might understand that the New York Times can give access & support to vile caricatures of religious content.

But they will not understand that a broad group of over 600 journalists from all across America can celebrate such a defamation of one of the greatest religions in the world, a Dharma & Culture that has been deeply admired by Einstein, Goethe, Mark Twain among many others Christian-Jewish thinkers. 

No, Mr. Friedman. This will taken worldwide as a reflection of America, of the “true” nature of America. People who distrust America will say to each other “See we told you, America says one thing and does another”. 

As you know, Indians are generally a patient, non-aggressive people. The majority of Americans who have met, worked with or lived near Indian-Americans will concur with this characterization. Indians have been told since childhood that they should concentrate on education and not engage in controversies. This is the lesson they have heard from their parents, teachers and Indian society. They have learned this lesson and they behave accordingly. This is why even companies in the Islamic Middle East choose to hire Indian managers, officers and accountants.

But Indians in India and in the Global Indian Diaspora are getting angry. Like 9/11 in America, the Mumbai attack on 26/11 had an effect on Indian psyche. They are still tolerant & patient. But increasingly they see themselves as under siege and under assault. They hear of Indian students being beaten and killed in Australia just for being students. They see America continuing to provide sophisticated weapons and financial aid to the same Pakistani Army that sends out para-military terrorists to attack Indian cities. While they understand America’s dilemma, they feel in their hearts that America only cares about terrorism against America and not against other countries like India.

The Doniger book is a strike against their core beliefs, against their very identity. This is an attack against Indians of a very different magnitude. We are deeply worried about the depth of their reaction to a award by an All-American Journalist group to the Doniger book. Middle Class Indians will not react with riots or violence as others in Islamic countries. But a well of deep quite anger will build within them and that would be injurious to USA-India relations over the intermediate term.

We are Indian-Americans and the overriding purpose of this Blog is to foster the budding partnership between America & India. We are deeply indebted to President George W. Bush for his vision and pioneering work in creating a USA-India Strategic Partnership. This is not President Obama’s vision as we understand it but President Obama and Secretary Hillary Clinton are publicly committed to greater USA-India cooperation. We stand to support them in every way we can.

Indeed, India remains the only stable partner to America in South Asia and the Af-Pak quagmire. The Pakistani public is deeply mistrustful of America as you well know, Mr. Friedman. Do you really want to this mistrust and anger to grow in India as well?

Do your own due diligence, Mr. Friedman. Take 10 statements of Doniger that we consider offensive and utter these statements to taxi-drivers, bus conductors, policemen, laborers or any real Hindus in the world. Their reaction will convince you in a way we can’t.  

Then after you are satisfied, act. That is if you are willing to practice what you have preached for months.

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