Nobody ‘Needs’ a Civil War

Friedman's unnerving model for the conflict in the Muslim world

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has a well-established record of believing that forceful action (read: violent conflict) is a powerful tool in foreign affairs, because of its utility in resolving ideological disputes and delivering bold, declarative messages. In one of the most memorable expressions of that perspective, Friedman appeared on Charlie Rose’s interview show in 2003, after signs were emerging that the Iraq War might be more troublesome than its supporters had anticipated, and said launching the war had still been the right thing to do. In the wake of 9/11, he said, it was important for the U.S. to invade some Muslim nation—it didn’t much matter which one—to deliver a message: “Suck on this.” (You can watch the video here.)

Something of that cavalier attitude toward the costs of violence was on display again today in Friedman’s column, where he returned to one of his favorite topics—the unnerving tolerance for radical views within the Muslim world—and drew an analogy to American history (emphasis added):

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.

This is not an offhand comparison. Friedman made the exact same point, using almost identical language, on “Meet the Press” two Sundays ago:

Unfortunately, David, they need to have their own civil war. We had a civil war in this country some 150 years ago. We had some people who believed some really bad stuff. They believed we could discriminate against people because of the color of their skin. We defeated those people so badly that three generations later their offspring haven’t forgotten it. If they don’t have that war within Islam, nothing changes.

Leave aside the general perils of argument by analogy across historical and cultural lines, and also the grossly oversimplified history of the Civil War, whose causes were complex and numerous, and are still being debated. (The war was quite controversial in the North, and even many northerners who supported it did not do so because they were upset about “people who believed bad things.”) Friedman displays a startling indifference to the costs of that conflict.

The Civil War is a godsend to historians, writers, and kibitzers of all stripes—a gold mine of material, full of real-life storylines about good and evil, righteous conflict, suffering and sacrifice, redemption from sin. Even, thanks to the actions of John Wilkes Booth, a Christ figure. But it was, for those who lived through it, a bloody mess. Estimates vary, but something on the order of 620,000 people out of a total population of 31 million died as a result of the war, and the number killed obviously captures only a fraction of the human toll.

Given the very real evil that slavery represented, we can see clearly today—as, indeed, some Americans could see at the time—that the war was “worth it.” But it would have been far, far preferable, if it were possible, to abolish slavery and preserve the union without a massive war that consumed the nation. And while Friedman is right that it would be a good thing for Muslim leaders to challenge more forthrightly the worldview that incites a small minority of Muslims to violence—and that the absence of such a move makes our own efforts, in Afghanistan and elsewhere, more challenging—it would be far, far preferable for that to happen without a “civil war.”

Friedman is obviously not literally calling for an armed conflict that would wipe out 2 percent of the Muslim world. Still, holding the American Civil War up as a model for what “Islam needs” suggests too much comfort with the clarifying potential of violent conflict (especially conflict that he wouldn’t be a part of). Nobody “needs” a civil war.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.