Bush must not ignore the Saudi connection
ANATOLE KALETSKY (courtesy of The Times, UK)
Who says that the war against terror is a war against Islam? Not George Bush, despite his characteristically inept use of the word “crusade” in the early days of the conflict. And certainly not Tony Blair, Jacques Chirac or any other Western leader.
Media commentators, scholars and religious leaders across America and Europe have also gone to enormous lengths to visit mosques, express their respect for the Muslim religion and emphasise that Islam is no more responsible for the bin Laden terror network than Christianity was responsible for the murderous activities of the Ku Klux Klan.
Who, then, apart from Osama bin Laden, is to blame for the widespread impression that America is at war with the Islamic world? There can be only one honest answer. It is the Muslim countries themselves. Many Muslim governments, which ought to be thanking America for trying to make the world a safer place, have denounced the bombing of Afghanistan as a war against Islam. It is therefore these countries — or at least their governments — that promote the war of civilisations and besmirch their own religion by publicly associating Islam with the al-Qaeda killers and the monstrous fanatics of the Taleban.
The Taleban are a rabble of sadistic torturers and drug-pushers. They have never been recognised by the UN as the legal government of Afghanistan. They deserve no moral sympathy and cannot claim the privileges of an internationally recognised sovereign state. Among their many crimes, the Taleban have enslaved all the women and millions of the men in Afghanistan in an unprecedented reign of terror that could not have been sustained without the support of bin Laden’s military and financial network. Indeed, the few Western diplomats who have taken much interest in the region have for years viewed the Taleban as the first example of what can happen when contempt for morality and international law is taken to its logical conclusion — state-sponsored terrorism mutates into the terrorist-sponsored state.
Under these circumstances, there was only one reasonable criticism that any humane, law-abiding nation could have levelled at the US-led campaign to overthrow the Taleban. Why did America initially support the Taleban and why did it wait until September 11 before trying to liberate the people of Afghanistan? That has, in fact, been precisely the criticism of American policy heard in many parts of the world, including a few moderate Muslim countries such as Jordan and Morocco. Pakistan’s decision to lock up terrorists who masquerade as religious clerics, and to dismiss senior army officers who were openly in league with the Taleban, suggests that this pivotal Islamic country may be about to rejoin the civilised camp.
Such moderation has not, however, been the predominant reaction of the Muslim world. Instead, America’s belated effort to free Afghanistan and the world of the Taleban/al-Qaeda nightmare has been condemned as “an attack on a Muslim nation” – and not only by such outlaw states as Iraq and Iran, but also by supposedly pro-Western governments in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Malaysia. The real shock is that the Saudis in particular should have the temerity to deny America the use of their military bases, on the ground that any attack on the Taleban and bin Laden would be an attack on fellow Muslims. Curiously, this argument does not seem to apply to US bombing of the equally Islamic Iraqi people, whose ruler just happens to be a mortal enemy of the Saudi regime.
The first question raised by this squeamishness about supporting America’s war aims is whether there is any outrage so heinous that it would justify the Western world defending itself against the Saudis’ “fellow Muslims”. A second and bigger question relates to the next phase of the war against terrorism, after the overthrow of the Taleban.How will the United States and other Western nations protect themselves from future atrocities if they succeed in ending the terrorist state in Afghanistan? The Bush Administration has offered a very clear answer. The US will follow the chain of international terrorism all the way back to its two primary sources: state protection and state funding. This chain will then be cut, either by persuasion (as in Pakistan and perhaps Sudan) or by military action (as in Iraq and perhaps Iran).
But the question that people in Washington are now beginning to ask is what happens if the chain of money and state support does not lead to such pariah states as Iraq, Iran or Syria. What if a great deal of the money, training, and religious and political inspiration comes from Saudi Arabia, America’s main “strategic ally” in the Gulf? Israel has for years been warning of Saudi involvement with the suicide bombers of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Now there are numerous circumstantial links with September 11. Many of the US hijackers were Saudis, as is bin Laden. In several cases, their terrorist indoctrination began at fundamentalist Islamic colleges, funded by Saudi money. Their political attitudes reflected an anti-Western religious zeal that is widely promoted in the Saudi media, even though these media are subject to some of the strictest censorship in the world. Saudi Arabia, it should also be remembered, is the source of the ultra-fundamentalist Wahhabi sect of Islam that inspired the Taleban regime. Saudi Arabia is also the only country apart from Afghanistan that practises the medieval version of Sharia in all its horror. And the head of the Saudi intelligence service, believed to be the Royal Family’s main link with the Taleban, resigned abruptly within 24 hours of the horror in New York. When you put these facts together, there is surely a risk that the trail of money and blood that started at the World Trade Centre could ultimately lead to Riyadh.
What could the West do if evidence emerged of active Saudi involvement with bin Laden? Military action and economic embargoes would be out of the question. Even in a global recession, the world couldn’t live without eight million barrels a day of Saudi oil. Moreover, the Saudi financing of anti-Israeli terror has always been through private “charitable and religious foundations” with no direct links to the State. But public opinion would find it hard to understand why US forces continue to defend a Saudi Royal Family that rules with an iron rod over every corner of civil society but seems unable or unwilling to control the monstrous behaviour of its religious extremists. Americans might even start to wonder why they are protecting Saudi religious zealots, with their anti-American blood lust, against an ordinary secular dictator such as Saddam Hussein, whose lust is for Saudi oil.
If the Saudi rulers want to stay in power, they may have to think about whether US protection is a more reliable defence against their numerous enemies than literal implementation of the Koran. The Saudi elite would in effect be forced to confront the moral and political choice that sooner or later presents itself to every fundamentalist theocracy: render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.
Religion may inspire. It may even contain the ultimate truth. But — whether by God’s will or in consequence of the laws of biology and physics — religion has never been a sufficient principle for running a successful state.
That is surely the real issue in the anti-terrorist campaign. This is not a war against Islam, still less a Christian crusade. But it is a war against fanatical Islam — and against fanatical blind faith of every other kind. The killers of September 11 are not fundamentally very different from the Jewish zealot who murdered Yitzhak Rabin, the Branch Davidians of Waco, the medieval crusaders who joyfully slaughtered the women and children of 12th-century Jersualem and the butchers of Pol Pot.
Islam is no more a threat to world peace than Christianity, Buddhism or communism have been in the past. But slaughter disguised as religion is no more acceptable than slaughter motivated by racial hatred, political ideology or a naked lust for power. Religion can offer neither excuses nor sanctuaries for terror. After the Taleban are toppled, this lesson must be firmly impressed on every nation — in the Islamic world and outside.