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A beautiful mind made for our complicated times

May 11, 2003|DAVID SHAW

He's the new glamour boy of the national media. Bestselling author. Columnist for Newsweek magazine. Editor of Newsweek International. Regular guest on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos."

New York magazine last month described him as "silky and unflappable," "dimple-chinned, with expressive eyebrows" and said he could be both "the Indian incarnation of Cary Grant" and "the first Muslim secretary of State."

There's only one problem with this panting adulation.

"I'm not really all that interesting," says Fareed Zakaria. "I'm not rich. I'm not that famous. I'm not that glamorous. I have two kids under the age of 4, and when I'm not working, I'm hanging out with my family. When I read about myself, I say, 'Sounds like a fascinating guy. I'd love to know him.' But it isn't quite me."

Zakaria's seeming modesty is part of his charm. But it isn't his charm, his good looks or his journalistic ubiquity that have made him a media star, still eight months shy of his 40th birthday.

It's his mind.

At a time when political discourse seems increasingly polarized, superficial and confrontational, Zakaria's thoughtful analyses are original, carefully modulated, difficult to pigeonhole on the traditional ideological spectrum -- and accessible to open minds of all ages.

Zakaria was in Los Angeles recently to address students at Harvard-Westlake School in North Hollywood as part of the school's Brown Family Speaker Series. Through several sessions, in a variety of settings, the high school students' response was universally enthusiastic -- indeed rapt.Older, less impressionable minds have found themselves equally riveted.

Zakaria doesn't speak in sound bites or epithets, and it's difficult, in the space allotted to a newspaper column, to capture either his thought processes or his ability to articulate his positions. But as Mark Whitaker, the editor of Newsweek, says, "Fareed has a clear sense of the issues and he can talk about them and write about them in a nonfussy, nonpedantic way."

Making it clear

Zakaria first came to national prominence three weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when he wrote a 7,000-word cover story for Newsweek titled "The Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?"

His answer:

Islamic countries had imported elements of our culture -- "Cadillacs, Gulfstreams and McDonald's" -- but they had found it far more "difficult and dangerous" to import what he called "the inner stuffings of modern society -- a free market, political parties, accountability and the rule of law."

"The Arab world is a political desert with no real political parties, no free press, few pathways for dissent," he wrote. "As a result, the mosque turned into the place to discuss politics.

"If there is one great cause of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism," he wrote, "it is the total failure of political institutions in the Arab world."

That's why, Zakaria says, "Islam became the language of political opposition. At first, most of the people who became terrorists tried to overturn their own regimes -- in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan.... But it's tough to do that under a dictatorship. The U.S., as a free, democratic society, is a much softer target.

"Bin Laden's genius," Zakaria says, "was that he said, 'Stop worrying about your own countries, and let's attack the head of the snake -- the United States -- because it supports all those regimes you dislike.' "

Zakaria arguments have been widely quoted -- in part, no doubt, because he is a Muslim, "someone able to take readers inside these cultures and make what they did seem more understandable, without saying it was OK," as he puts it.

Whitaker says Zakaria's Newsweek story "had more impact than any analytical piece I can remember" -- and that's just what he was looking for when he hired Zakaria after reading a book review he'd written in the New Republic.

Zakaria was 18 when he came to the United States from India. He studied at Yale and went to graduate school at Harvard, but even though he'd had summer internships at various magazines, he never really thought of himself as a journalist.

"I probably aspired to the role of public intellectual ... an academic and a writer of sorts," he says, "but I hadn't thought about where that would be."

Then, in his final semester at Harvard, he had lunch with a friend who suggested he apply for the job of editor of Foreign Affairs magazine. He got the job and he was off and writing -- insightfully and provocatively.

When Zakaria and I had breakfast recently, I asked how he felt about some journalists' characterization of him as a Reaganite conservative. He said that had been true when he was in college, "but the spectrum has shifted so much that I'm really a centrist. I'm generally in favor of low taxes, for example, but I don't think a big tax cut now is a good idea."

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