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Playboy Interview: Fareed Zakaria
  • March 07, 2009 : 00:03
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PLAYBOY: Were your politics formed when you were a child in India?

FAREED ZAKARIA: The India I grew up in was almost a different country from the India of today. It was very much an overwhelmingly poor country. My father was a politician and his constituency was outside Bombay, so we spent a fair amount of time in rural India. I saw the poverty up close. The other informative aspect of the India I grew up in was the fact that it was only a generation away from independence. My father had been involved in that struggle, and it was very much a part of his life. As a result it was part of the family's life. His cause his whole life in politics was amicable relations between Hindus and Muslims. He was one of the best-known proponents of a kind of liberal interpretation of Islam -- a tolerant attitude on both sides. Meanwhile, my mother was a journalist and became editor of the Sunday Times of India.

PLAYBOY: Was your family religious?

FAREED ZAKARIA: My parents were observant Muslims but secular. They believed strongly in a multicultural and multireligious society. I grew up fasting during the month of Ramadan, but we also celebrated Hindu holidays and Christmas. My uncle would play Santa Claus, put on a beard and ho ho ho. India was trying to be this pluralistic model, so you had to embrace every religion, every culture.

PLAYBOY: How are you and your wife raising your children?

FAREED ZAKARIA: They're aware of their heritage, and we talk about it. They ask questions. I'm Muslim and my wife is Episcopalian, but neither of us is particularly religious or observant. I can't fake it. I can't make my children do things I'm not doing. I'm trying to give them enough of a sense of it, an awareness, so when they're old enough they can make their own decisions.

PLAYBOY: Were politics discussed at the dinner table when you were growing up?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Our house was very much alive with politics and history. Also, my parents had lots of friends who were poets, architects, writers. That all influenced me, plus my father believed every common problem could be solved by the government. He spent a lot of his life founding and building educational establishments -- colleges, schools and training centers -- that are still in existence. Long before it was fashionable my father saw that India's great advantage was its human capital, and the key was getting poor kids into schools and colleges. There was always an emphasis on doing something about a problem. My father passed away, but my mother now runs the schools.

PLAYBOY: Your current jobs are a blend of your father's politics and your mother's journalism. Did you set out to follow their example?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I had no sense of that kind of purpose, but I was fascinated by history and politics from the start because I had this amazing front seat at Indian politics at its finest and sometimes its worst. I saw the idealism but also the duplicity, deception and corruption up close. My father had to deal with it all.

PLAYBOY: What did you think of America?

FAREED ZAKARIA: India was technically pro-Soviet during the ping-pong of the Cold War, but every Indian I knew was fascinated by America. I was. There was a government-engineered anti-Americanism, but it never worked. The government used to have these Indo-Soviet friendship festivals where it would show Soviet films, and nobody would go. Meanwhile, the American cultural center was flooded with people. American universities were flooded with applications. Indians wanted modernity, and they wanted the American dream. It's still true today.

PLAYBOY: Whereas in many parts of the world there is an anti-American prejudice, particularly since the invasion of Iraq. Is it different in India?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Yes. The polls show it. India is probably the most pro-American country in the world, with the exception of Israel. In a 2005 Pew survey 71 percent of Indians had a favorable impression of America; the only country with better numbers was the United States. Americans have a more favorable impression of America than Indians do, but not by much.

PLAYBOY: When you arrived at Yale, what was your initial impression of America?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I felt it was a strange kind of homecoming. I felt so comfortable. Partly it was Yale itself. At home I was an oddball. I'd read Dickens for pleasure. At Yale there were actually other people like me. Plus I just found America so inviting.

PLAYBOY: Did you plan to return to India after college?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Yes, but I fell in love with America. I got involved in its foreign policy and politics and American society. I made friends. Toward the end of Yale I thought, I wonder if I'll ever go back.

PLAYBOY: Did you meet your wife at Yale?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I met her on a blind double date. It was 14 years ago this past Valentine's Day.

PLAYBOY: Did you ever imagine you would have an arranged marriage?

FAREED ZAKARIA: My parents didn't have one, so it would have been very odd to suggest it to me.

PLAYBOY: You have two children.

FAREED ZAKARIA: And my wife is pregnant.

PLAYBOY: How has being a father influenced you?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Being a father has been the most pleasurable aspect of my life. Weirdly, I was psychologically prepared for it. I think being married is a bigger challenge. It's that ability to create an equal partnership and an honest partnership. It's rewarding work, but it's work. Parenthood, though, comes easily to me. I find it physically exhausting sometimes, but I'm thrilled.

PLAYBOY: What led to your job at Foreign Affairs?

FAREED ZAKARIA: After Yale I went to Harvard to get a Ph.D. in political science without a real sense of what I was going to do. [Former editor of Time and ex-CEO of CNN] Walter Isaacson, whom I'd met at Harvard, called me up one day and said there was a job -- the managing editorship -- at Foreign Affairs. I wasn't interested. I thought I might be in line for a job at Harvard. But then I went home and thought, Why am I doing this? I never really wanted to be a professor. The Foreign Affairs thing sounded much more interesting, so I tossed my hat in the ring.

PLAYBOY: Few journalists are discussed the way you are: handsome, with references to Cary Grant. Is it flattering, embarrassing or appalling?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I don't quite understand it. I've certainly never thought of myself in those terms. I grew up as a pretty dweeby-looking kid. But look, while I'm not trying to become a celebrity, I realize that sometimes some element of that comes with the territory, especially when you're on television. Sometimes there's an invasion of privacy -- I haven't signed up for this. I'm not trying to be a movie star, but I suppose that is the world we live in.

PLAYBOY: Did you make a conscious decision to become an analyst and commentator rather than a reporter?

FAREED ZAKARIA: That was a choice. I knew where my strengths lay. I was not a reporter. I came out of an academic background, and my strengths were more analytical, historical. I could place things in context.

PLAYBOY: At Newsweek, after 9/11, you wrote the famous "Politics of Rage: Why Do They Hate Us?" piece. Were you surprised by the intense reaction?

FAREED ZAKARIA: It was a highly volatile time, so not really. There was one reaction from the Pat Robertson wing of the debate, people who wanted to see the situation as black-and-white, Islam is evil. I got some nasty stuff. I also got some nasty stuff from fundamentalist Muslims because I put a lot of emphasis on the dysfunctions of the Muslim world and the use there of religion for political reasons -- that is, using religion to mask political failure. A preacher in one of the London mosques issued a fatwa against me.

PLAYBOY: Were you fearful?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Initially I was a little scared but also kind of proud until a friend of mine in the CIA said, "Don't be so happy. They issue these every day." Nonetheless it was taken seriously enough that we had to have some consultation with the FBI. For a while my mail was put in Tupperware containers so people wouldn't have to handle it -- things like that. In the Arab world I still think a certain segment of the intelligentsia feels I betrayed them.

PLAYBOY: How much of that reaction is related to your Indian heritage?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Whenever I write something an Indian or a Muslim doesn't like, on some blog somewhere I'll be described as an Uncle Tom. There's a weird standard by which your views have to be identical to what is perceived as the proper ethnic view on any given subject.

PLAYBOY: Isn't there pride among Indians for the international success of their native son?

FAREED ZAKARIA: That's probably the dominant view. In India, succeeding in America is celebrated in an unmitigated fashion. I think the fact that I have some prominence in the world of journalism is a source of pride for India. There's reciprocity because I am proud of my heritage, and I think it gives me a unique perspective on the changing world.

PLAYBOY: In this changing world, you have described two possible paths for America: increased nationalism and isolationism, or openness and an embrace of change. Obviously you are pushing for the latter, but which is more likely?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I'm not sure. None of the big issues, like global warming, international trade or terrorism, can be solved by one country. It's difficult to get everybody onboard because there are more and more players, and they're more and more powerful, but the need for cooperation is the need of our time. The United States could play a historic role as the coordinator of and catalyst for cooperative endeavors. The fundamental issue is whether the United States has the desire to create common ground and can place common interests above the desire to be in control. We can't say, "We want to make all these rules, and of course they won't apply to us because we're special." That no longer works in a world where everyone feels special. So it's an enormous challenge. In some ways it requires a dramatic reversal of our worldview, but I am optimistic. I'm an optimist by nature.

PLAYBOY: Given human nature and history, including the history of other superpowers like the British empire and the Soviet Union, how do you justify your optimism?

FAREED ZAKARIA: For the past 20 or 30 years, while everybody's been gloomy, pessimistic and expecting the world to end -- whether through nuclear Armageddon or terrorism or the collapse of the world trading system -- what has actually happened? The opposite. We're doing all right. There are enormous problems, of course, but we're doing all right. If we recognize that, everywhere, human beings are trying to raise their standard of living and live in peace and prosperity, there's a powerful wave to ride. If governments align themselves with that common human aspiration, there's a hopeful place to begin.

PLAYBOY: But are you optimistic that governments can align like that in an environment of competition, limited resources and extremists?

FAREED ZAKARIA: Governments have a capacity to make corrections and to change. We've seen governments like the Soviet Union collapse. We've seen governments like India's move 180 degrees. Can the United States engage in a similar kind of change? It's very difficult because it's the most successful country in the history of the world. In business successful companies often die because they can't change -- they have too much invested in the way things have been. But there are many other examples of companies that change. America can change.

PLAYBOY: Will it take a crisis?

FAREED ZAKARIA: That's the million-dollar question. Can the United States -- can the world -- make the adjustments that need to be made because we know what's coming, or will it take a crisis? If it takes a crisis, it may be too late. But a famous economist once said, "Unsustainable trends tend not to be sustained." If we run out of wheat, if we run out of potable water, if we run out of oil -- if these things happen, we'll have to adjust. The danger for the United States is that those shocks will probably take place outside the United States first. We're too powerful, too strong. We may keep pretending we don't have to adjust, that we're too powerful and too strong to be affected. So what's more likely is a much slower version of the British empire: a kind of slow and gradual shift in position that isn't as noticeable to us. I don't think that's where we're going to end up, though. I think America is different. I have to believe that. I have to believe this country has a kind of flexibility and adaptability. America wants to invent the future. It doesn't want to be trapped in the past. America wants to move forward. America does not want to occupy Iraq, where we're stuck. I've talked to many of the kids on the ground there. This is not the old British soldiers lording it over and loving it. This is a country that doesn't take pleasure in those satisfactions. It takes pleasure in the two-car garage and the iPod. These kids want to get back to their tract home in Kansas. I think there is a fundamental healthiness to that perspective, and it has the potential to keep the country sane and not let it fall into the kind of historical trap every other great power has fallen into.

PLAYBOY: How do you see your ongoing role?

FAREED ZAKARIA: I feel I'm the immigrant who grew up outside this country but tells Americans to be true to themselves. Be open, don't be scared. Remember what made you great: the fact that America is an open, big, generous place where the future could be invented. America needs only to continue to be willing to be bold and brave. When you hear candidates say they're going to double the size of Guantánamo, you think to yourself, They don't get it. This is not just about a prison; it's about who we are in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. Remember who we are: We are about openness, hope and the future.

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