Trump In Arabia
My colleague Daniel Larison hated Trump’s speech in Riyadh. He faulted the president for fawning over the Saudis, and for condemning Iran when the Saudis are guilty of worse. Larison is right. When Trump said that the Iranian people are the victims of the Iranian government, and when he looked forward to the day when “the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve,” he overlooked the fact that he was in a country ruled by an absolute monarchy, and that Iran, whatever its faults, has elections.
Larison is also right to condemn Trump for participation in this charade. From Trump’s speech:
Later today, we will make history again with the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology – located right here, in this central part of the Islamic World. This groundbreaking new center represents a clear declaration that Muslim-majority countries must take the lead in combatting radicalization, and I want to express our gratitude to King Salman for this strong demonstration of leadership.
This is like celebrating the Philip Morris Center for Lung Health, or the Miley Cyrus Finishing School for Young Ladies. Saudi Arabia is the world center of extremist ideology — and behind oil, that is the country’s leading export. Last summer, The New York Times reported:
The reach of the Saudis has been stunning, touching nearly every country with a Muslim population, from the Gothenburg Mosque in Sweden to the King Faisal Mosque in Chad, from the King Fahad Mosque in Los Angeles to the Seoul Central Mosque in South Korea. Support has come from the Saudi government; the royal family; Saudi charities; and Saudi-sponsored organizations including the World Muslim League, the World Assembly of Muslim Youth and the International Islamic Relief Organization, providing the hardware of impressive edifices and the software of preaching and teaching.
There is a broad consensus that the Saudi ideological juggernaut has disrupted local Islamic traditions in dozens of countries — the result of lavish spending on religious outreach for half a century, estimated in the tens of billions of dollars. The result has been amplified by guest workers, many from South Asia, who spend years in Saudi Arabia and bring Saudi ways home with them. In many countries, Wahhabist preaching has encouraged a harshly judgmental religion, contributing to majority support in some polls in Egypt, Pakistan and other countries for stoning for adultery and execution for anyone trying to leave Islam.
And for a small minority in many countries, the exclusionary Saudi version of Sunni Islam, with its denigration of Jews and Christians, as well as of Muslims of Shiite, Sufi and other traditions, may have made some people vulnerable to the lure of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and other violent jihadist groups. “There’s only so much dehumanizing of the other that you can be exposed to — and exposed to as the word of God — without becoming susceptible to recruitment,” said David Andrew Weinberg, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington who tracks Saudi influence.
Exhibit A may be Saudi Arabia itself, which produced not only Osama bin Laden, but also 15 of the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11, 2001; sent more suicide bombers than any other country to Iraq after the 2003 invasion; and has supplied more foreign fighters to the Islamic State, 2,500, than any country other than Tunisia.
Mehmet Gormez, the senior Islamic cleric in Turkey, said that while he was meeting with Saudi clerics in Riyadh in January, the Saudi authorities had executed 47 people in a single day on terrorism charges, 45 of them Saudi citizens. “I said: ‘These people studied Islam for 10 or 15 years in your country. Is there a problem with the educational system?’ ” Mr. Gormez said in an interview. He argued that Wahhabi teaching was undermining the pluralism, tolerance and openness to science and learning that had long characterized Islam. “Sadly,” he said, the changes have taken place “in almost all of the Islamic world.”
In a huge embarrassment to the Saudi authorities, the Islamic State adopted official Saudi textbooks for its schools until the extremist group could publish its own books in 2015. Out of 12 works by Muslim scholars republished by the Islamic State, seven are by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the 18th-century founder of the Saudi school of Islam, said Jacob Olidort, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A former imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, Sheikh Adil al-Kalbani declared with regret in a television interview in January that the Islamic State leaders “draw their ideas from what is written in our own books, our own principles.”
In 2002, I went to a Muslim bookstore on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn. It was next door to a mosque that had been used by al Qaeda for recruitment. I bought some English language literature that came from Saudi publishing houses. It was radical stuff. I’ll never forget this one thin book giving instruction to new converts to Islam. In one section it warned them against spending time with Christians and other non-Muslims, because “you might come to love them.”
As the Times story points out, the story about the Saudis is complicated. They are not the only reason some Muslims turn to terrorism. And they do help the United States by providing intelligence on terrorists, and they execute people within the Kingdom whom they catch involved in terrorism. Still:
An American scholar with long experience in Saudi Arabia — who spoke on condition of anonymity to preserve his ability to travel to the kingdom for research — said he believed that Saudi influence had often been exaggerated in American political discourse. But he compared it to climate change. Just as a one-degree increase in temperature can ultimately result in drastic effects around the globe, with glaciers melting and species dying off, so Saudi teaching is playing out in many countries in ways that are hard to predict and difficult to trace but often profound, the scholar said.
Saudi proselytizing can result in a “recalibrating of the religious center of gravity” for young people, the scholar said, which makes it “easier for them to swallow or make sense of the ISIS religious narrative when it does arrive. It doesn’t seem quite as foreign as it might have, had that Saudi religious influence not been there.”
Here’s another part of Trump’s speech:
Every time a terrorist murders an innocent person, and falsely invokes the name of God, it should be an insult to every person of faith.
Terrorists do not worship God, they worship death.
If we do not act against this organized terror, then we know what will happen. Terrorism’s devastation of life will continue to spread. Peaceful societies will become engulfed by violence. And the futures of many generations will be sadly squandered.
If we do not stand in uniform condemnation of this killing—then not only will we be judged by our people, not only will we be judged by history, but we will be judged by God.
This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations.
This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it.
One expects presidents and diplomats to lie as part of the job, for the sake of the greater good. I don’t know that it would have done the United States much good if Trump had told the truth about Islamic terrorism: that it is hard to disentangle it from the religion’s teachings. We have to hope that Muslims can do this, for the good of the whole world, but this is only something they can do. Though she is an apostate from Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is right to say that most Muslims around the world do not seek violence, but for those who do, the Quran provides clear religious sanction for it:
Anyone seeking support for armed jihad in the name of Allah will find ample support in the passages in the Quran and Hadith that relate to Mohammed’s Medina period. For example, Q4:95 states, “Allah hath granted a grade higher to those who strive and fight with their goods and persons than to those who sit (at home).” Q8:60 advises Muslims “to strike terror into (the hearts of) the enemies, of Allah and your enemies, and others besides, whom ye may not know, but whom Allah doth know.” Finally, Q9:29 instructs Muslims: “Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”
Mainstream Islamic jurisprudence continues to maintain that the so-called “sword verses” (9:5 and 9:29) have “abrogated, canceled, and replaced” those verses in the Quran that call for “tolerance, compassion, and peace.”
As for the example of Mohammed, Sahih Muslim, one of the six major authoritative Hadith collections, claims the Prophet Mohammed undertook no fewer than 19 military expeditions, personally fighting in eight of them. In the aftermath of the 627 Battle of the Trench, “Mohammed felt free to deal harshly with the Banu Qurayza, executing their men and selling their women and children into slavery,” according to Yale Professor of Religious Studies Gerhard Bowering in his book Islamic Political Thought. As the Princeton scholar Michael Cook observed in his book Ancient Religions, Modern Politics, “the historical salience of warfare against unbelievers … was thus written into the foundational texts” of Islam.
There lies the duality within Islam. It’s possible to claim, following Mohammed’s example in Mecca, that Islam is a religion of peace. But it’s also possible to claim, as the Islamic State does, that a revelation was sent to Mohammed commanding Muslims to wage jihad until every human being on the planet accepts Islam or a state of subservience, on the basis of his legacy in Medina. The key question is not whether Islam is a religion of peace, but rather, whether Muslims follow the Mohammed of Medina, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shiite.The key question is not whether Islam is a religion of peace, but rather, whether Muslims follow the Mohammed of Medina, regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shiite.
Ali goes on to say that it does no good to engage with Muslims who maintain that Islam has nothing whatsoever to do with violence, because this is a polite fiction. Trump was right to say this in his speech:
But the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.
It is a choice between two futures – and it is a choice America CANNOT make for you.
A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out. DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship. DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities. DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH.
Again: the Saudi theocracy is a global manufacturer of a fundamentalist form of Islam that it spreads around the world, thanks to its vast wealth. If the Saudis drove “extremists” out of their country, how many people would be left? Compounding the problem, a decade or so ago, I talked with a senior US Middle Eastern diplomat, then retired, who told me that the Saudi royal family are the most liberal force in the entire country. As bad as they are on this stuff, he said, any potential alternative is worse.
Still, it is striking to note the difference between Candidate Trump and President Trump. In his 2011 book, Trump wrote of Saudi Arabia:
It’s the world’s biggest funder of terrorism. Saudi Arabia funnels our petro dollars, our very own money, to fund the terrorists that seek to destroy our people while the Saudis rely on us to protect them.
Now, President Trump has just given a fulsome speech lauding the Saudis and reaffirming US commitment to the Kingdom. His speech was a repeat of longstanding bipartisan US policy towards the Saudis: give them whatever they want. Anybody expecting a shake-up in US Middle East policy will have been sorely disappointed. It’s hard to find anything in Trump’s speech that could not have been said by George W. Bush or Barack Obama, or any other American president.
Maybe, just maybe, it was the best of all possible alternative things Trump could have said. Or maybe this is only the latest example of Trump becoming like the Establishment he supposedly abhors. Ross Douthat wrote yesterday:
Trump is not actually governing as a populist or revolutionary, and the rolling crises of his first four months are not really about resistance to an “America First” or “drain the swamp” agenda, no matter what his fund-raising emails insist.
In Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump, the great iconoclast, symbolically drank a toast to Manor Farm. If you read Orwell’s Animal Farm, you know what happened next:
Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.
I wonder what Steve Bannon thought of the speech.
UPDATE: This letter comes from reader and commenter Mohammad, who writes from Iran:
We had almost one month of breathtaking political advertising, campaigning and fighting in Iran. If you want to get a sense, add up all the tension and excitement the Americans had during your last presidential election campaign, and insert it into a two month period. I actually wrote a comment on one of the article in TAC about this election while I was in the line waiting (for two hours) to cast my vote.
Everybody was on her/his mobile sending and receiving messages about the election. The environment was as tense as you can imagine. The young people, the students, the artists, the intellectuals, even many Iranians in exile…. were spontaneously campaigning for the moderate side, that is Rouhani and his brand of politics. On the other hand, there were the hardliners pushing hard and using all their influence, money and power to try to re-take the presidency. They were successful mostly in rural areas, where the poverty is very high and the promises of economical help always works.
The cities, especially the big ones, went almost entirely to Rouhani. It was a landslide victory, and showed clearly that the real number of people who want isolation and radicalization of Iran is very small. As I mentioned, most voters who went for the other side were from the poor areas, and their main concern was economical, not ideological. The people who voted for Rouhani, on the other hand, had a very clear vision of what he stood for.
As a response to this election, Mr. Trump, as wise as he is, chose to use all the anti-Iran rhetoric he could use, and sided unequivocally with the Iran’s rivals, the Saudis. Now I am the last person to assume that, in the problems between Iranians and Saudis, the blames go only, or even mostly, to Saudis. Iranians have their own share (actually a big share and maybe the bigger share) of the blame. Also, I have zero sympathy, zero, for the values of Iran’s revolution of 1978. But how Trump’s behavior can help anything in this regard, I am at loss. It only makes any rapprochement and understanding between the two sides all the more unlikely, it rewards anti-American side in Iran (who always claim that the enmity of the USA towards Iran will not assume any lessening no matter how Iranians try to conform to what the USA wants), it punishes Iranian moderates, it rewards all the bad behavior of Saudis (recently increasing every day)……But of course, it is a good policy for selling weapons! Who can doubt that!
Keep all this in mind when you assert, as sometimes you do, that even though the Iraq war was a mistake and a disaster, the intentions of its proprietors were mostly good, and only if the Iraqis could accept what good the Americans had dreamed for them! I would register to the myth of the good intentions of the interventionists 10 years ago, but not now. Now I see only evil and hypocrisy, in act and in intention.