A Mere Brush With Our Reality
by Khaled Al-Maeena, Editor in Chief
Memo from: Editor in Chief, Arab News, Saudi Arabia
To: New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman
Dear Mr. Friedman: I have read your "memo" (The New York Times, Dec. 12) from President George W. Bush addressed to Sheikh Saleh Al-Shaikh, Saudi Arabias Minister of Islamic Affairs. I was pleased that you revealed your inner belief that for the United States, Saudi Arabia was "a big gas station to be pumped and defended but never to be taken seriously as a society." I am also pleased that you have confirmed what is also my belief, that only PR and meetings with Washington elites (who usually murmur sweet nothings) do not resolve problems.
I beg to differ with your assertion that Saudi Arabias schools, and the thousands of Islamic schools and charities financed by us, were responsible for depriving several thousand American children of their parents. By making that statement and thus indirectly equating Saudi Arabia with terror you are posing a veiled threat that Saudi Arabia will now be considered just as the Soviet Union was considered during the Cold War.
I do not know what motivated you to write your memo. Have you taken it upon yourself to become a modern-day Boswell, merely penning down for the world the ideas and utterances of the American President and his officials? Your motives are anyway of little concern to me. However, what you say is, and I wish to set the record straight.
Neither the school curriculum in Saudi Arabia nor our charity organizations preach that non-Muslims are inferior to Muslims and must be converted or confronted. That would be absurd. They are not focused on preaching hatred. While this is certainly not part of the national school curriculum there are individual teachers with extremist ideas just as there are in any country. The job of both our governments is to root them out.
If a school curriculum leads directly to the violence perpetrated by the students who follow it, then America too must as a top priority radically alter its curriculum. After all, have there not been numerous incidents of violence at many schools right across America?
Charles Whitman, the university student who climbed up the university tower in Texas in 1966 with an arsenal of weapons, and then killed 17 of his fellow students and teachers and injured many more, was not a product of Saudi schools. The Columbine school massacres were committed by schoolboys who did not receive their primary education in Riyadh. The followers of Charles Manson, who believed the latter was God and blindly obeyed his orders to go on a killing spree, were not educated in Dhahran. Timothy McViegh did not attend a madrassa. The Una bomber was neither a student nor a professor at a Saudi university. The thousands who accepted without question orders given by Rev. Jim Jones to commit suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, on Nov. 18, 1978, were not educated in Hofuf.
It is your education system which produced these demented individuals who became slavishly devoted to self-styled gods and gurus David Koresh, founder of the Children of God, Moses David, L. Ron Hubbard and so many others.
So, before advising others, you should focus your attention on whats happening in your own backyard. Otherwise, you leave yourself vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. In terms of education, the United States has one of the highest rates of adult illiteracy in the developed world. Even an impoverished country like Cuba, which you have been trying to choke to death for 42 years, has a higher literacy rate than the United States.
It is Congress that has prevented educational reforms, health service reforms and welfare reforms that would have helped the many millions of your citizens who live below the poverty line. It is Congress which provides the weapons that allow Israel to commit mass murder against Palestinians and the billions of dollars that help that country build settlements on stolen land, while, at the same time, allocating relatively little money for the renovation of the many decaying inner cities across the United States.
Your armed forces are ever at the ready to bomb other countries and overthrow or install their leaders. At the same time, your internal security forces have proved themselves incapable of combating organized crime or defeating the drug lords who, in practical terms, control large parts of your major cities.
It is important that you balance your views by dealing fairly with the facts about the country you are criticizing. In Saudi Arabia, we believe in a global education system, one that promotes tolerance and understanding. I personally would like to see a restructuring of the Muslim education system, not because of what you have said but because we need an education system that is on a par with the most developed in the world one that will ensure our people can compete in the worlds most progressive and competitive societies.
As for the 15 young Saudis who, you claim, were responsible for the deaths on Sept. 11: if we go by the latest Osama Bin Laden tape which the Pentagon has presented as conclusive evidence of that mans guilt, those individuals were pawns in a game about which they had little if any knowledge.
Even if they knew what they were up to, these individuals were just that individuals. Their organization and leaders were long ago outlawed in Saudi Arabia and all of those alleged hijackers would have been jailed if the authorities here had gotten the merest hint of what they were planning to do. To criticize the Kingdom because of the mad acts of a few of its individuals is grossly mistaken.
They were responsible for their own actions, unlike the US Marines who committed the My Lai massacres or the pilots who dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
However, better than this hurling of accusations would be a dialogue of civilizations. In order to have such a dialogue, we should focus on what we have in common. Saudi Arabia now the whipping boy of your media has since its founding been a promoter of international political understanding. As a founding member of the Arab League, the United Nations and several international bodies, it has striven to promote progress and understanding around the world. As the base for the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), the Islamic Development Bank (IDB) and the International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), this country has offered moral and material help to alleviate the sufferings of millions of people, irrespective of their religious affiliations, all around the globe. As a leading OPEC member, Saudi Arabia played a major role in stabilizing the price of oil to the infinite benefit of developing nations. The Kingdom earmarks a high percentage of its GNP for foreign aid. All of this is a result of its belief in Islam.
We grieve personally for the victims of the Sept. 11. We also grieve for the hundreds of innocent Palestinians who have been killed and the many thousands who have been left permanently disabled during the latest intifada alone. It is not our schools or madrassas that breed bitterness against the United States. It is the unqualified support your country gives to Israel. Unless you look at this fact impartially, you will never even come close to understanding why there is anger directed against your government.