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The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Islam and the United States

I've gone to several Islam-related events at Harvard recently. Today I went to a lecture about Saudia Arabia at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The presenter painted a bleak picture of the country due to its corrupt ruling family, its high unemployment rate (about 25 percent), its rising numbers of aimless young men, and the Islamist opposition to the royal family that supports terrorists like Osama bin Laden.

Saudi Arabia has been portrayed as a villain in world affairs by many, from Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 9/11 to Craig Unger in House of Bush, House of Saud. Its sponsorship of terror groups, its hatred of Israel (Israelis cannot enter the country), its violations of women's rights (the secret police prevented Muslim schoolgirls from fleeing their burning building because they were not dressed properly, condemning them to a fiery fate), and the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis have all created hostility toward the country from many in the West.

What distinguishes Saudi Arabia among states with repressive policies is, of course, its command of significant oil reserves. While the United States now commands access to a sizeable amount of Iraqi oil, this pales in contrast with the barrels under Saudi control. This makes the kingdom an instant player on the world economic scene.

Yet is the Saudi government actively trying to change the situation in the Middle East and the world in general, or is it responding to the actions of other countries? The argument has been made that it is Iran, and not Saudi Arabia, that is the chief culprit in the Middle East. From funding Hezbollah in Lebanon to developing its uranium supplies with Russian help, from the anti-Israel slurs of Iran's new president to its attempts to woo the Shiites of Iraq, Iran is seeking to become the dominant power in the Middle East -- and not for the better.

Let us say, then, that the two greatest threats to stability in the Middle East are: the Iranian government, and the disaffected elements of the Saudi population. One is trying to do what Saddan Hussein was prevented from doing -- create weapons of mass destruction -- and foment Iraq-style anarchy across the region. The other is trying to export terror on a more personal scale, whether as mujahideen in Afghanistan or hijackers in America.

Curiously, each country has an element that has been viewed by the West as a possible fulcrum for change. American commentators have high hopes for the young people of Iran, who appear far more amenable to Western influence than, say, their Saudi counterparts. Meanwhile, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has been lauded for his honest dealing. But he is also 81 years old, and presides over a largely free-spending, out-of-touch royal family with hazy succession plans.

Is the Middle East a Sarajevo 1914-style tinderbox? Or can a nuclear crisis be averted? To achieve this, the government of Iran must be stopped from descending into further repression, and the condition of Saudi Arabia must be prevented from falling into Hobbesian (or Iraqi) anarchy.


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