Joe Biden finished his “I’m Sorry I Accidentally Told the Truth About You Guys” tour with a mea culpa phone call yesterday to Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. He’s of course already apologized to Turkey and the U.A.E. for suggesting that either of them may have provided material aid and support to the group that eventually became the Islamic State during the early parts of the Syrian Civil War, which of course both countries indisputably did. The Saudis too, for that matter.
It’s about our close Saudi partners that I’d like to write a few words today, because they especially deserve it. See, nothing, and I mean nothing, undermines America’s supposed commitment to values like democratic governance, pluralism, tolerance, freedom to speak one’s mind, basically all the things we’ve lectured people in the Middle East and elsewhere about for decades, like our continued tight relationship with Saudi Arabia. In order to maintain that relationship we’ve overlooked pesky details like the fact that the Saudis routinely behead convicts over crimes like drug possession, adultery, apostasy, and even “sorcery.” We’ve had to look the other way while the Saudis sent troops into Bahrain to violently suppress a popular uprising against Bahrain’s ruling family, itself a corrupt autocratic institution that America never seems to muster the wherewithal to really criticize. We’ve ignored that the extremist version of Islam practiced by Daesh is greatly indebted to the Wahhabi brand of the religion that the Saudis spend considerable sums of money to export all over the Islamic World. And yes, we’ve pretended that Saudi money and weapons flowing to the Sunni opposition in Syria and Iraq somehow magically never found their way into the hands of Al Qaeda, Daesh, and related groups.
You know who gets that Saudi Arabia is problematic? Their own subjects (I won’t call them “citizens”):
With regard to the ideology of Isis, several people comment that this has long been present in Saudi Arabia. “Luma” says: “It’s normal: all our life we have lived with Isis and its thoughts, its schools and its curriculum.”
The Wahhabi clergy are not given to self-criticism, but Adil al-Kalbani, a Wahhabi shaikh, who has for many years led prayers as an Imam of the Holy Shrine in Mecca, says that “Isis is a Salafi [fundamentalist] offshoot … a reality we should confront with transparency”. Commenting on this admission, Abu Hamza al-Masa’ary says that IS is the fruit of “the tree of Wah[h]abi preaching”.
But it is the Saudi education system that critics return to again and again. Wael al-Qaim says “they did not teach me that one day what we are learning will be implanted by Daesh and its offshoots”. Somebody else suggests the Saudi state borrow a curriculum from neighbouring Oman which teaches “tolerance and religious pluralism” in order to eliminate Isis ideology. A more radical commentator, “Arabic Batman”, says changing the education curriculum is not enough and instead calls for “kicking the al-Saud out of the country”.
Now we’re once again working alongside the Saudis, autocrats who oppress their own people and export Islamic extremism to other parts of the region, to combat a group we don’t like because it oppresses the people under its control and practices that Islamic extremism. That’s not irony, it’s foolishness, and don’t think it does unnoticed by Middle Easterners of all stripes.