The Walter Duranty of Saudi Arabia
by Stephen Schwartz
In its June 2007 issue, the monthly magazine Commentary revives the genre of gullible travels. "My Saudi Sojourn" is Joshua Muravchik's account of his recent trip to Saudi Arabia and a servile love letter to the most benighted of all Sunni Arab regimes.
"My Saudi Sojourn" might as well have been titled "Walter Duranty goes to Arabia," after the New York Times journalist whose accounts of life in Stalin's USSR downplayed the great miseries inflicted by the regime. Duranty spawned a journalistic genre that could be described as "propaganda tourism," cheerful travelogues that littered American newspapers and magazines in the 1930s and painted a benign picture of Stalin's regime.
Commentary was born, in part, as a protest against this brand of "useful idiocy" among Western intellectuals, and the magazine's benevolence to Wahhabi autocrats stands in bleak contrast to its once-fervent opposition to totalitarianism. With the publication of "My Saudi Sojourn," the decline of this once estimable neoconservative journal is now complete.
Joshua Muravchik has anti-Communism in his blood — his father was a Social Democratic labor activist — and today serves as a Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He authored an AEI volume, Exporting Democracy: Fulfilling America's Destiny in 1991, and a book on the history of socialism, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism, in 2002. The titles now take on a painful irony: perhaps exhausted by his efforts to export democracy, Rip van Muravchik seems to have fallen asleep and awakened in a surprisingly pleasant Saudi Arabia.
Instead of the hard questions one might have wished for from a tough-minded neoconservative, Muravchik's foreign correspondence displays four classic characteristics of propaganda tourism: 1) He draws conclusions from anecdotal evidence 2) He shows only a superficial understanding of the culture 3) He accepts the regime's party line 4) He avoids topics unflattering to the regime.
"My Saudi Sojourn" begins ominously as Muravchik tells of his discussion with Saudi prince Turki al-Faisal, who claims that Saudi Arabia has never excluded Jews from entering the kingdom, but only Israelis. The prince cites two Jews who had visited: anti-Israel activist Elmer Berger in the 1950s, and Henry Kissinger in the 1970s. "Respectful of royalty," Muravchik writes, "I did not reply that, given Kissinger's lofty position in the U.S. government, and Berger's notoriety as the then leading Jewish opponent of the state of Israel, his examples were of mixed import."
Too "respectful of royalty" to challenge the propaganda by which Saudis seek to deny a bigoted policy directed at Jews? This from a democracy-promoting scholar? This from Commentary?
Alas, Muravchik is only setting the tone for an article in which the two greatest outrages committed by Saudis against the United States—the role of 15 Saudi citizens in the attacks of September 11, 2001, and the role of Saudi clerics in recruiting its citizens to martyr themselves in Iraq—go utterly unmentioned. The hard questions are left for another reporter.
Why does al-Qaida financier and global property owner Yasin Al-Qadi still walk free in Saudi Arabia? Why does Adel bin Abdul-Jalil Batterjee—named as a terrorist financier by the U.S. government in 2004 for his role as head of the Benevolence International Foundation, a worldwide Islamist charity—also go unmolested? Why do the Saudis keep the activities of the terror charities discreetly confidential, even while claiming to restrict them? Why has Saudi Arabia never carried out an inquiry into the involvement of its nationals in 9/11, much less established any body comparable to the U.S.'s 9/11 Commission? Why do the Saudis provide state sanction to clerics who call for the murder of American servicemen?
Instead of asking such questions, Muravchik showers us with pleasant anecdotes that conflict with broader, nastier realities. In one brief but typical passage, a "handsome young crewman" aboard a Saudi airliner suggests that Muravchik convert to Islam in order to visit the Muslim-only cities of Mecca and Medina. Muravchik happily recounts that this comment was made with "earnest kindness." In fact, Wahhabi Islam is virulently anti-Jewish, and Jews are commonly referred to as "killers of the prophets."
Muravchik was in an all-around good mood during his visit to the Kingdom. Sure, the U.S. embassy cautioned him about security problems, but "after a few days, and despite the warnings, I came to feel at ease." How nice that he should find the atmosphere agreeable in a country where state-subsidized clerics incite their hearers to cross the country's northern border into Iraq to kill and die as terrorists.
To cite one notorious example, Salman al-Awda, a Saudi supporter of Osama bin Laden who has been implicated in the Madrid metro bombing, has never renounced his signature to a 2004 fatwa urging Saudis to cross the northern border to martyr themselves. Yet al-Awda continues to enjoy the freedom of the kingdom, running his own website, Islamtoday.net, and traveling hither and yon, unmolested. But why should Joshua Muravchik worry us with of any of that, when he felt so delightfully "at ease"?
In fact, Muravchik tells us he was "warmly received everywhere in Saudi Arabia" despite identifying himself as "a Jew and as a neoconservative." Even the single antagonistic encounter he does experience ends in glowing mutual understanding.
As Muravchik participates in a salon with a roomfull of Saudis, one man speaks up to slur Israel as a "‘cancer' made up of the ‘garbage of Europe.'" Quickly, devastatingly, Muravchik retorts to the room that this man has just demonstrated why Israel needs nuclear arms. Our hero then spends the rest of the evening fiercely "pounding on the guy." Inevitably, Muravchik triumphs: At the end of the evening his hapless antagonist smiles, laughes, and apologizes. He hadn't really meant what he said, he confides.
What joy it is to know that Saudi Jew-hating and anti-Zionism are so half-hearted, and yield so easily to dialogue! The moral of this story: these Saudis ain't so bad after all—and, of course, Muravchik doesn't take guff from anyone. Is there any cold, Islamist heart that could not be melted by an evening of "pounding" by Joshua Muravchik?
Perhaps not, because in fact Muravchik's experiences seem to have left him in doubt as to whether Wahhabi Islam—the official Saudi creed that is the most extreme, radical, and violent form of Islam—exists at all. This is revealed in the first of his few references to radical Islam, where he informs us that "Not all Saudis are salafis, as Muslim puritans are known. (We often call them Wahhabis.)" Seldom has so much regime boilerplate been packed into a single sentence.
Muravchik seems surprised here by the incapacity of the Wahhabis to impose absolute conformity on the Saudi people—even though as a veteran anti-Communist he should know that no regime can enforce total acceptance. And indeed, there are large Shia minorities in the east and south, and a considerable non-Wahhabi Sunni constituency in Hejaz, the western region where Mecca and Medina are located. But they are repressed, often with extreme brutality. How diplomatic of Muravchik to offer this nod to the religious diversity of the kingdom without mentioning the profound ugliness with which religious minorities are treated.
Muravchik also misidentifies the term "Salafi" as a reference to Islamic puritans. It isn't, but I can well imagine some Saudi or an American pawn of the Saudis telling him so, perhaps with the intention of calling to mind America's Pilgrim Fathers. And it is a staple of Wahhabi apologetics that there are no "Wahhabis," only "Salafis." To accept this claim — as Muravchik does by writing of "Salafis" in each of his few references to radical Islam—and to mistakenly define "Salafis" as "puritans," requires either ignorance of Islamic history or a willingness to repeat what one is told by propagandists.
The "Salafis" were a 19th century reform movement that sought to modernize and simplify Islam, but they were not puritans in the Western sense, nor were they totalitarians or terrorists. Wahhabis have angered traditional Muslim scholars by employing "Salafi" as a camouflage term comparable to the renaming of American Stalinists as "progressives." Similarly, Al Qaida groups in Algeria and Iraq have sought to promote themselves as "Salafi." It will be a great victory for al Qaida and its Saudi financiers if they are able to persuade Western governments and media that Wahhabism should not be mentioned by its name.
Later, Muravchik's ignorance of Saudi Islam allows him to mischaracterize the crisis in the country as pitting "ultra-traditionalists" against "modernizers." Like the Nazis and Italian fascists, the Wahhabis claim to represent modernity. And their record is one of destroying traditional Islam, not promoting it. Muravchik's categories are backward: the struggle in the country is between traditional, anti-Wahhabi Muslims and Wahhabi totalitarian modernists.
Muravchik is strikingly incurious about topics unflattering to the Sauds. He never inquires into why beheadings and floggings are common, nor cites the international human rights reports or Muslim dissidents who have reported on them. In fact, the word beheading appears nowhere in Muravchik's narrative. Instead, he tells us that he opted not to visit the site of this barbaric punition, a place he coyly refers to by its popular euphemism, "chop-chop square."
He later tells us "[T]he progress in freedom of expression was greater than I expected. True enough, I read no criticism whatsoever of the royal family or the basic system of government." Truly, it is the mark of a sojourning dupe to juxtapose those two sentences. Perhaps Muravchik might have better understood the absence of criticism had he taken that visit to chop-chop square.
Such indelicate topics would only interrupt a lovely vacation: so many sand dunes to admire, friends to make, lectures to deliver. Muravchik clearly had a wonderful time. Yet despite his kind words on their behalf, the journalist only incurred the suspicion and scorn of his hosts. He has been savaged in the Saudi media. The Wahhabi media enterprise Al-Sahat used the occasion of his Commentary piece to attack Muravchik and reaffirm its hostility toward Israel and Zionism.
Pity Commentary and Joshua Muravchik, both of whom must be pining for the 1930s. Back then, at least totalitarians flattered the useful idiots who serviced them.