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American Values Abroad

The Institute for American Values engages Saudi Arabia--with a little help from Al Jazeera.

11:00 PM, Oct 28, 2002 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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BURIED UNDER ALL THE coverage of the snipers' capture was a news story whose sequel makes it worth retrieving.

Last Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Saudi Arabia had banned editions of the Saudi-owned, London-based newspaper al Hayat containing the latest installment in an exchange of open letters between U.S. and Saudi intellectuals about September 11. The new American letter apparently bothered Saudi censors. Then Al-Jazeera TV decided the banning was news.

Al Jazeera is the independent Arabic news service funded by the emir of Qatar and famous--or infamous--for airing on its satellite broadcasts throughout the Middle East everything from tapes of Osama bin Laden to interviews with Israeli ministers and Saudi dissidents. On Friday, it showed an hour-long interview with the man who launched the dialogue last winter, David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values in New York.

Back in February, Blankenhorn's group published What We're Fighting For, a letter signed by 60 American intellectuals including prominent neoconservatives. It made the case for military action against the Taliban and al Qaeda as necessary to defend "universal human morality" against "organized killers with global reach."

It drew several responses, including one signed by 153 Saudis, mostly academics, and reportedly orchestrated by Safar b. Abd al-Rahman al-Hawali, the Wahhabi former head of the department of theology at Umm al-Qura University. Their central point was that America had itself to blame.

The painstakingly courteous American reply to this missive is what the Saudi censors tried to suppress. They were foiled by Al Jazeera's Washington bureau chief, who read long passages of the American letter on the air, then interviewed Blankenhorn at length, along with signatory Kevin Hasson, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Hasson calls the TV exchange "very lively" and possibly useful. He was pleased to be able to underline his satisfaction that the Saudi scholars' letter cites a basis in the Koran for the dignity of all human beings. This is the principle, he argues, on which Muslims can build a respect for pluralism and freedom of conscience that comports with a commitment to religious truth--just as the Catholic church did with Vatican II. (For Hasson's discussion of freedom rooted in truth as opposed to freedom rooted in relativism, see his interesting op-ed of last December.)

Then Sunday, in a striking development, al Hayat published a piece by daily columnist Dawud al-Sharyan strongly endorsing a key point made in the American letter: It is indeed indefensible for the Saudi scholars to write of the "alleged perpetrators" of September 11. We all know who the hijackers were. It's high time for Saudis to stop denying incontrovertible realities.

The column--which implicitly accepts Saudi responsibility for the spread of extremism--deserves quoting at length (in a translation by Hassan Mneimneh, co-director of the Iraq Research and Documentation Project at Harvard University):

"We seek a dialogue with the Americans, but we ignore the root of the problem, and we avoid facing the accusations directed at our religious discourse, school curricula, our attitude towards others, and our responsibility for extremist thought in many Islamic countries. This approach prevents us from engaging in an internal dialogue, as well as one with others. The objection of the American intellectuals to our approach is not surprising, since denial of truth is prevalent in both our writings and our debates. It is no longer possible to deny the truth.

"The denial for which the American intellectuals fault us does not serve as a means to defend our image. Maintaining it extends the life of the false information that is invented to explain events away, out of our fear of transparency and our refusal to face others and defend our position. What is hopeful is that the position of the Saudi 'intellectuals' is contrasted by an openness at the official level. The speech of the Crown Prince 'Abdullah bin Abdulaziz at the Petroleum University is a clear indication of the importance of facing up to the truth, with openness and sincerity, since time no longer allows us to indulge in silence."