By Saif Shahin, New Age Islam
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall…
For two decades, Fareed Zakaria was the man every American-Muslim and probably most Indian-Americans too, wanted to be. Educated at Yale and Harvard, he became one of the most respected and well known political pundits of his time, sought with equal zeal by editors, Presidents and award committees. But his time on top of the high wall of fame and fortune ended rather abruptly this month when both Time magazine and CNN suspended him for the worst crime a writer can commit―plagiarism.
Accusations had been gathering for some time. Three years ago, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic Monthly wrote that Zakaria had lifted quotes from his interviews with Israeli politicians and advisers without crediting him. And two months ago, the Boston Globe said Zakaria had been plagiarising―well, himself―in his addresses to the graduating classes of Harvard and Duke Universities. He had used the same speech, almost word for word, at both institutions, and done so by lifting passages from earlier addresses to students at Johns Hopkins, Brown and Yale.
The money quote in all these speeches: “You don’t need an ethics course to know what you shouldn’t do.”
Born in Mumbai in the mid-1960s to a top Congress politician and the editor of the Sunday Times of India, Zakaria had the world at his feet even in his childhood. “I grew up in this world where everything seemed possible,” a 2003 Newsweek feature quoted him as saying. “We saw the best architects, government officials, and poets all the time. Nothing seemed out of your reach.”
Zakaria joined Yale University as an undergraduate student of political science, and moved to Harvard for graduate studies in government. At 28 and while still a doctoral student, he became the managing editor of the highly respected Foreign Affairs journal in 1992 (he got his doctorate a year later).
With the Cold War just ended, this was a time of great churn in international politics, and scholars and commentators vied to make sense of the emerging world order. Even as Francis Fukuyama called it the end of history and Samuel Huntington (who was one of Zakaria’s PhD supervisors) anticipated a clash of civilisations, Zakaria stood out in predicting the rise of China, India and Brazil as economic powerhouses. He returned to the theme more recently in his book The Post-American World.
After eight years at Foreign Affairs, he moved deeper into mainstream journalism as the editor of Newsweek international. It was here that he wrote what is widely regarded as the definitive piece on Islamist terrorism post-9/11, pointing out that the Muslim world was not a monolith but a mosaic of cultures and opinions, and that the roots of Muslim anger towards the US lied not in the 1,400-year-old Quran but in the politics of the preceding 30 years. But while the essay reflected a rare cross-cultural sensibility, its title―‘Why They Hate Us’―betrayed Zakaria’s political positioning in a binary ‘Us v/s Them’ world.
He gradually ensconced himself in this position as one of the foremost champions of ‘With Us or Against Us’ President George W. Bush’s Middle East policies, in particular the invasion of Iraq. From there on, his writings started reading like an apology for American exceptionalism and neo-conservatism and a defence of whatever White House decided to do, while he himself became a self-confessed conservative. Column after column, he would offer justifications for Bush’s policies, only to correct himself as and when Bush would change his stance.
As the political tide began to turn, Zakaria too changed colour and endorsed Barack Obama’s presidential candidature in 2008. He was reportedly considered for the position of secretary of state when Obama took office, but was bypassed for Hillary Clinton. Nonetheless, he now became an apologist for the Obama administration’s wayward foreign policy positions, particularly on Iran. Not surprisingly, a reviewer of The Post-American World called Zakaria “the guru of conventional wisdom”. The New Republic last year named him on a list of ‘over-rated thinkers’, terming him “a creature of establishment consensus”.
Ironically, it was an article in Time magazine against the establishment consensus on gun control that finally shot him down. Zakaria was accused of plagiarising from a piece by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. He admitted his mistake and apologised, and Time has suspended his column for a month “pending further review”. The CNN, too, has indefinitely suspended his foreign policy show, GPS. Neither organisation is likely to take him back, nor is any other major publication expected to rehabilitate him. Whatever political ambitions he might have had also seem to be over.
The most famous alumnus of Mumbai’s Cathedral and John Connon School might perhaps now be thinking of the last two lines of that most famous nursery rhyme:
…All the king's horses and all the king's men
Couldn't put Humpty together again
Saif Shahin is a research scholar at the University of Texas at Austin. He writes regularly for New Age Islam.