Words matter: Why Tom Friedman’s animal analogies for Middle East failed

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL February 9, 2024
Types of carer behaviour according to The New Maudsley Approach

The New Arab, a London-based outlet owned by a Qatari company, recently ran a piece that said Arabs were “enraged” by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s “controversial” post likening the Middle East to an “animal kingdom”.

Before that, there was lots of anguished social media commentary. Someone wrote on LinkedIn: “One really must ask was there no better analogy that Mr Friedman could use than to compare the Middle East to animals — given the highly racist and xenophobic language that has been spewed by Israelis advocating the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians these past four months?”

Now LinkedIn is a lot less emotional and easily swayed than, say X (formerly Twitter), so it’s worth paying attention to what the fuss is about.

So, what had Mr Friedman done?

Turns out he’d written a blog post, that appeared in The New York Times on February 2 with the title Understanding the Middle East Through the Animal Kingdom (paywall, but the piece is at the bottom as well).

The piece, 514 words from start to finish, was rich in animal metaphors, along the lines of some of the more common ones: brave as a lion; playful as monkeys, stubborn as a mule, strong as an ox.

The US was compared to an “old lion”; Iran to a “parasitoid wasp”; “the Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas and Kataib Hezbollah are the [wasp’s] eggs that hatch inside the host — Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — and eat it from the inside out”. Hamas is “the trap-door spider”. Finally, in this run through the animal kingdom, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is compared to “the sifaka lemur”.

It was a clever piece, portraying the actions of different players in the geopolitical jungle using animal analogies.

In fact, the use of a so-called “species response” to help us understand our own behaviours is often considered rather a good thing. Consider The New Maudsley Method, which helps carers engaged with loved ones suffering an eating disorder. It suggests that “kangaroo care” is about being over-protective, a “rhinoceros response” tries to stampede through their loved one’s objections to eating. And so on. And so forth.

The point of the New Maudsley Method is not to insult (human being or animal!) but to help understand our own behaviours through those observed or generally thought to be normal with certain animal species.

So to Tom Friedman’s piece and the lament it provoked.

All columnists will attest to searching incessantly for new ways to depict old (sometimes, ancient) stories that don’t change in the essentials over decades – same old hatreds, pains of war and suffering, rhetorical outbursts, cruelties, kindnesses, breakthroughs, setbacks…same old, same old.

To use animal analogies for the geopolitical jungle is rather clever, especially if they’re apt.

But that LinkedIn comment offered insight into how raw emotions are at the moment. The de-humanisation of the people of Gaza, of Palestinians leaves so many so sickened, there just isn’t the appetite for clever animal metaphors in the continuing horror of Israel’s operations in Gaza.

It sparked accusations of racism and Orientalism and didn’t do much to shed light on the subject being discussed.

Perhaps this is an example of a good columnist choosing a bad time to find a new way to tell an old story. Words matter.

If you’d like to read the piece in question, it’s below:

Understanding the Middle East Through the Animal Kingdom

My guess is that the next week or so is likely to be the most important in the Gaza war since Hamas launched it on Oct. 7.

The U.S. will probably retaliate against pro-Iranian forces and Iranian agents in the Middle East that Washington believes are responsible for the attack on a U.S. base in Jordan that killed three soldiers on Jan. 28. At the same time, we could get a Gaza cease-fire deal, with an exchange of Israeli hostages held by Hamas for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. And Secretary of State Antony Blinken is going to try to bring to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel an option: normalization with Saudi Arabia in return for a commitment to engage with the Palestinian Authority on a long-term plan for a Palestinian state.

How all of these are going to interact, I do not know. Personally, I sometimes prefer to think about the complex relations between these parties with analogies from the natural world.

The U.S. is like an old lion. We are still the king of the Middle East jungle — more powerful than any single actor, but we have so many scars from so many fights that we just can’t just show up, roar loudly and expect that everyone will do what we want or scamper away. We are one tired lion, and that’s why other predators are no longer afraid to test us.

Iran is to geopolitics what a recently discovered species of parasitoid wasp is to nature. What does this parasitoid wasp do? According to Science Daily, the wasp “injects its eggs into live caterpillars, and the baby wasp larvae slowly eat the caterpillar from the inside out, bursting out once they have eaten their fill.”

Is there a better description of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq today? They are the caterpillars. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is the wasp. The Houthis, Hezbollah, Hamas and Kataib Hezbollah are the eggs that hatch inside the host — Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq — and eat it from the inside out.

We have no counterstrategy that safely and efficiently kills the wasp without setting fire to the whole jungle.

Hamas is like the trap-door spider. The way trap-door spiders operate, according to a nature site, is that “the spider leaps out at great speed, seizes its prey and hauls it back into the burrow to be devoured, all in a fraction of a second.” Trap-door spiders are adept at camouflaging the doors of their underground nests, so they are hard to see until they’re opened.

Finally, Netanyahu is like the sifaka lemur, which I got to observe in Madagascar. Sifakas are primates that use bipedal sideways hopping as a primary means of walking. They advance by moving sideways, waving their arms up and down, which makes them appear to be moving even more than they are. That’s Bibi, always shifting side to side to stay in power and avoiding going decisively backward or forward. This week he may have to.

Sometimes I contemplate the Middle East by watching CNN. Other times, I prefer Animal Planet.

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