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Op-Ed Columnist

Gambia is Israel

Banjul

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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What has been going on in Gambia is unbelievable, and it has been on my mind ever since it began. It is impossible not to be tantalized by the potential of these events to change the course of Gambia's history. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means to the citizens themselves. The current administration seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to what's important on the ground. Just call it missing the fields for the wheat.

When thinking about the recent ethnic strife, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like billiard balls, so attempts to treat them as such are a waste of time. Billiard balls never suddenly shift their course in order to fit with a predetermined set of beliefs. Two, Gambia has spent decades torn by civil war and ethnic hatred, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, freedom is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If corruption is Gambia's glass ceiling, then freedom is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in Gambia last month, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of Gambia have no shortage of human capital, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in Gambia are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in Gambia? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not ignore the problem and pretend it will go away. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture these first inklings of a moderate, modern society. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to moderation is so narrow that Gambia will have to move down it very slowly. And of course Banjul needs to feel like it is part of the process.

Speaking with a local farmer from the large Suni community here, I asked her if there was any message that she wanted me to carry back home with me. She pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, shad-farin-bin-yamin, which is a local saying that means roughly, "A child knows his parents before the parents know their child."

I don't know what Gambia will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will probably look very different from the country we see now, even if it remains true to its basic cultural heritage. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.