Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Malady of Saudi Arabia

Abdelwahab Meddeb, in his book The Malady of Islam, 2002, advances three “urgencies” upon the U.S. The first was the urgent need was to get rid of Saddam Hussein. The second was the Israel/Palestine problem, and his recommendations are not far from those of Francis Fukuyama’s. “The third political problem that deserves to be addressed is one that concerns the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States. An urgent debate should be opened on the nature of this alliance. Why are such privileged ties not dependent on the political obligations of freedom and democracy? How can the United States treat as a friend a country whose women are demeaned to the point that they are not even allowed to drive? How long will the United States refuse to consider Wahhabism, which in its fanatical version of the truth is implicated morally in the events of September 11 that struck the heart of America?”

Further down, Meddeb makes his recommendation specific: “The Americans will have to explain themselves to the Saudis; they will have to tell them eye to eye, that Wahhabism in itself is enough to lead to murderous fanaticism. To the Saudi official who thinks, ‘We Saudis want to modernize and not necessarily westernize ourselves,’ a phrase Huntington reports to illustrate his thesis, the Americans should dare to say, ‘You’re free to act as you like, but don’t be surprised if you engender monsters with such policies, all the more dangerous since they are sure of their innocence. Osama bin Laden is not an accident; he carries to its ultimate consequences the Wahhabism in which he was educated.’”

This recommendation assumes that America could assume the moral high ground and would be willing to behave toward Saudi Arabia in a disinterested fashion. We learn from Meddeb’s later articles, however, that America isn’t capable of that. It places its National Interest above moral concerns.

I don’t think we would ever be inclined to do what Meddeb wants, and I tend to doubt that France would either. We have our Wilsonian moments, but they aren’t well supported. Historically we might want a foreign nation to behave toward us in a way that favors something we are interested in, and while we may engage in “nation building” of defeated enemies, it has never been our policy to “nation build” allies.

Kennan in his doctrine of containment recognized that we couldn’t afford to be everywhere and so should prioritize our containment concerns. He thought Korea a great concern, for example, but didn’t think the same thing about Vietnam. Moving now into Meddeb’s world, our criteria wouldn’t be the containment of an enemy but the curing of Islam. A fully cured Islam would become a part of Europe. Meddeb tells us that Dante considered Islam European by placing Muhammad in the center of hell. Averroes, Salidin and some others were on the fringe of heaven.

Meddeb doesn’t trust America, but Europe, especially France has made good progress in understanding Islam. Meddeb’s ideal Islam is the pre-Wahhabian condition, especially the time when Islam was both scholarly and tolerant. He describes it in some detail, and if Islam were as he describes it, Middle-Eastern nations might indeed be welcomed into the EU. How are we to get from now to then? Well, it would be ideal if France and Western Europe could get their act together and build a military force capable of accomplishing Meddeb’s dreams. But in the meantime there are a few things the U.S. can do. It is botching the first task because of bad motives (freeing Iraq), and it is falling down on getting the Israel/Palestine problem solved. But it would be a big help if the U.S. would wake up, lean on its ally Saudi Arabia, and encourage it give up its Wahhabism.


Lawrence Helm

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