USA: Twittersphere Debates Kristof Column on Islam

A column by long-time New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has riled the Twittersphere today. The column, entitled, “Is Islam the Problem?“, mulls over various factors which may have led to what Kristof refers to as “backwardness” in the Arab world.

The column has sparked outrage on Twitter, where individuals from around the world are expressing anger at Kristof and the New York Times generally. @avinunu sums up the problem:

Columnist @NickKristof uses words like “backward” to describe Arabs that he would not dare use for others.

He continues:

Health, education, wealth statistics for blacks are well behind whites in America, @NickKristof. Is that because blacks are “backward”?

Then, alluding to Kristof's extensive experience reporting on Africa, he adds:

Let me ask you a question, @NickKristof, have you ever specifically used the word “backward” to describe Africa?

After Kristof himself tweeted, “Sorry to those I've offended with my Islam column title–but it's what is on people's minds & we have new evidence,” @sickjew asks:

Do you think @NickKristof would write a column titled, “Is Judaism the Problem?” It's “on people's minds.”

Other Symptoms

Others on Twitter raise concerns about the column's title (which asks if Islam is the problem), suggesting that there are other factors at hand. @cellabiao points to US support for dictatorial regimes in the Middle East:

@NickKristof the world knows only too well that US funded these murderous dictators & everyone cheers these revolutions. Take a hint already

In response to another Kristof tweet (“@Soraal Of course the Middle East is backward. Look at literacy rates, female labor force participation, political systems. Question is why”), @DianaValerie argues:

@NickKristof @soraal this is a very ignorant comment that discounts our support of dictators who impede citizens’ progress.

Is the New York Times the problem?

Some have noted that the Times itself is often exclusionary toward other voices. @techsoc remarks:

@jilliancyork Don't mind it Kristof joins sincere discussion on ME as long as *we* can also join a discussion about what is wrong w/ West.

@humanprovince seems fed up with the paper's writers:

America really deserves better than the sophomoric barstool faux intellectualism of Brooks, Friedman & @NickKristof:

@krmaher sees the problem as being in the hands of the editors:

To be fair, rest of the new @NickKristof column isn't terrible, but title is neon example of unequal standards. Editors should know better.

But @emjacobi points out:

@krmaher editors should know better, and it's compounded by the fact that NYT columnists write their own headlines!

Agreeing with Kristof

Although much of the conversation on Twitter was in disagreement with Kristof, there are a few who believe his column hit the mark. @walidbey states:

@NickKristof your article about Islam is courageous. I see Islamic legal system doesn't fit modern age. #Islam should reinvent itself

@franyafranya takes a balanced approach:

@NickKristof the arguments r fairly substantiated up til “psychological problem” -no support given; also, “backwardness” is a relative term

@JeSuisBelEsprit thinks Kristof's column has a point:

@NickKristof Critical analysis is good for the soul. Islam itself is an human endeavor and like all human endeavors “things do fall apart.”


  • jew4palestine

    @NickKristof i dont recall you calling settlers who claimed the land of palestinians to be that of the jews “backwards” Judaism started all this “backwardness “let us not forget

  • Anne

    Some might say this article was downright racist and ignorant.

  • LOion

    Wonderful discussion re Nick’s column… But don’t any of you realize it is just a BOOK REVIEW. Read the book first then criticize.

    Anyway he concludes that no it is not the problem… nor is it the solution. Neither are excuses about ‘colonialism’ either. …He sees the Arab world now awakening to the idea of freedom, perpetuated, of course by just this tweeting we are dicussing.

    My hope is that the Arab world will see the benefit of our system, which at heart explicitly separates Church (any) and State… it is hard to keep, we are still fighting this out. But basically a FREE state. No one person should tell another how to behave, that is an individual choice…as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone elses rights.

  • isa

    NickKristof must see this video – “Is Islam the Problem“ n

  • No Muslim slave

    It’s absurd that anyone would disagree with Kristof, especially not after seeing this article:

    Scientist Imam threatened over Darwinist views

  • Timur Kuran video lecture, where he sets out the ideas contained in his book:

    Why the Middle East Became Economically Underdeveloped PART 1:

    For a quick preview, watch part 5 first:

  • Jon Garfunkel

    I wish more of these could reflect better critical thinking.

    Searching through Kristof’s columns, he has used “backwards” to describe parts of countries, such as China and Japan, as well as Afghanistan. He’s also used the word “basket case” to describe Zimbabwe and Rwanda, and quoted Kissinger’s description of Bangladesh as such. More importantly, in the case of the latter two he had referred to the country’s “basket case” status as being in the past, thanks to investments in education and transparent governance.

  • I am a Muslim and I am Proud of It.

  • As someone who’s studied this very question at an academic level, I don’t have a problem with Kristof bringing up this topic.

    I also don’t have a problem with him citing an academic’s contribution to it. I’m all for critical thinking.

    But, having said that, there are many excellent books out there written by academics on “Arab/Islamic exceptionalism” (a more appropriate term to use than “backwardness”), why simply choose to highlight a book that pinpointed Islam as the culprit?

    Any true researcher into Arab and Islamic affairs would know that it’s a culmination of a number of issues that have contributed to the decay in the region.

    Kristof’s piece is but another attempt by a Western columnist with a chip on his shoulder to dismiss the devastating and longlasting affects Western colonialism has had on the developing world.

    Most of the conflicts and failure of Western-engineered nation-states in the Arab world, as well as Africa, can all find their roots in colonialism.

    As for the Arab world, all the powerful dynasties and elite families were handpicked by the West. All the boundaries that have been a major source of tension were drawn by the West.

    The people of the region have had absolutely no say in determining their destiny since, approximately, the year 1200 Kristof claims life in the Middle East came to a halt. What a coincidence!

    Whilst I concede that colonialism cannot take 100% of the blame, it certainly takes a significant portion. To blame it on a few Islamic legal and business practices is a pretty poor analysis.

    If NY Times wants to be a respected outlet for informed analysis on conflict regions, it must do better than Kristof and Friedman. For what it’s worth, I prefer the Guardian and the Financial Times, among others.

  • jay kactuzski

    I don’t like the words ‘backward’ or ‘backwardness’. That concept has an almost evolutionary implication to it, like ‘primitive’ and ‘undeveloped’.

    I think a better term would be ‘resistant to change’. Yes, certainly Islam is resistant to change, this by the mere fact that Muslims believe that Islam is perfect and eternal. There is also the fact that all a tyrant has do is say “X” is against islam and immediately 99.9% of Muslims will turn away, because no Muslim wants to be accused of being against Islam. They may have no idea what that means or they may even support ‘X’ – but they don’t want to take chances so they will stop in their tracks.

    This is one reason why most Muslims are ruled by a bunch of crappy, vile, geriatric dictators and juntas.

    There is another reason: Muslims don’t respect non-Muslims and don’t believe in equality and freedom of speech. If people cannot speak freely or criticize islamic dogma, why should Muslims think they deserve anything but repression and stagnation? It seems that the relationship between free speech and democracy is lost on Muslims.

    What goes around, comes around. Anyway, that is my take on the ‘backwards’ theory. Or, on the other hand, Muslims can blame everybody else (colonialism, jews, media, crusades, USA, Bush, Hollywood, imperialism, Yosemite Sam, Bug Bunny, Israel, poverty, etc.) for 99% of their problems.

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