Saudi Arabia Under Attack

Published: November 2, 2005

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Saudi Arabia is under attack again, with critics going to new lengths to not only portray the Kingdom as hostile to the US, but to smear any groups and individuals who have even remote connections with Saudis.

A new study on what American school children are being taught about Islam and Arab history produced by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) demonstrates the dangerous direction taken by this assault. Arguing that “teaching programs funded by Saudi Arabia [are making] their way into elementary and secondary classrooms.” The JTA report attacks any and all materials being proposed to help broaden understanding of Arabs and Islam in the US.

The JTA report cites three ways that then “Saudi-inspired” materials are influencing US educators:

1) “teacher training seminars that provide teachers with graduate .. credits,”

2) “the dissemination of supplemental teaching materials designed and distributed with Saudi support,” and

3) “school textbooks paid by taxpayers, some of them vetted by activists with Saudi ties, who advise and influence major textbook companies.”

As evidence to buttress their claim the JTA report singles out respected university-run programs at Harvard, Georgetown, and Columbia and also groups of educators and diplomats who have committed decades of their lives to correcting past errors and omissions in US educational programs. Using smear tactics, reminiscent of McCarthyism, they are accused of Saudi links.

Specifically targeted, for example, is the group of Arab American educators who produced the Arab World Studies Notebook (AWSN), an extraordinary and comprehensive effort designed to provide teachers with supplementary materials to enhance their teaching of Islam and Arab history, and the Washington-based Middle East Policy Council (MEPC), the group which has, for over a decade, helped to distribute the AWSN.

Because the group of educators who produced the AWSN received a grant from ARAMCO and because MEPC is chaired by the former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Charles Freeman, and has received grants from Saudi businessmen, the JTA dismisses both and suggests that they are tarnished and suspect.

Quoting criticisms of the AWSN by the American Jewish Committee, the JTA study virtually endorses efforts to have the materials banned and even endorses Congressional legislation to interfere in educational programs.

Equally dangerous as this effort is the most recent campaign of former CIA Director James Woolsey. In a bizarre speech before a Prague conference I attended, Woolsey observed that the US is “at war today with three major ideological movements” which he identifies as: Ba’athism, Shi’ite theocratic totalitarianism, and Sunni theocratic totalitarianism (of two types: “Jihadist and Salafists such as al-Qaeda and loyalist Salafists, such as the Wahhabis.)

Woolsey was to have enlarged on this near hysterical rant in testimony he was to have given last week before a Senate hearing on “Saudi Arabia: Friend or Foe in the War on Terror.” (That hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee was cancelled. The list of witnesses invited to testify was shamefully biased. Included was: a former Israeli intelligence official, two individuals with long records of antipathy to Saudi Arabia and Islam and a Muslim American who fashions himself as leading “the only Muslim group opposed to terrorism.” While the hearing may be rescheduled, there is no confirmation of a new date.) [Ed. Note: The hearing has been rescheduled for November 8, 2005.]

In his testimony, made public in advance of the hearing, Woolsey describes Wahhabism as a totalitarian movement which he compares to Nazism and Communism. Shameful, yes, but also dangerous, because motivated by this extremist rhetoric Woolsey concludes with the proposal that the US government take measures to deal with domestic affiliates of the Wahhabi threat (by which he appears to mean some mosques and Muslim groups) the way it dealt with the Communist threat, i.e. “make their lives miserable” by making “Wahhabi affiliated” groups “register” (presumably as “foreign agents”) and infiltrating them with “large numbers of FBI agents.”

The Woolsey proposals and the JTA report are not US policy. Both efforts will be vigorously opposed by civil libertarians and educators who understand the dangers inherent in using such tactics to limit freedoms and stifle an open educational system. At the same time, however, it is important to recognize the threat they pose and the extent to which, at least among some extreme currents, anti-Saudi propaganda has become a tool to smear critics and target efforts to build ties between Saudis and Americans.

[“Saudi Arabia Under Attack” was published in Washington Watch on October 31, 2005. It is reprinted here with permission.]

About Dr. Zogby and AAI
Dr. James J. Zogby is founder and president of the Arab American Institute (AAI), a Washington, D.C.-based organization which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community.

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“Washington Watch” is a weekly policy column by Arab American Institute President Dr. James Zogby. It appears in over one dozen countries worldwide.

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Also by Dr. Zogby
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Threats to U.S.-Saudi Ties By Dr. James J. Zogby – SAF IOI – Jun. 15, 2004