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Superficial Comparisons - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Sometimes, I am amazed at some superficial comparisons that are presented. For example, is an apple tastier than a date? For a fair, equal and logical comparison, an apple should be compared to another apple and a date to another date. This makes things easier to understand and more equitable.

This idea occurred to me as I read an article by the American columnist Thomas Friedman that was published in The New York Times on January 31. The gist of the article was that Iran is a state of progress and enlightenment and is closer to American culture and policy than Saudi Arabia.

It seemed that he felt that this idea and comparison sounded slightly odd, thus Friedman resorted to using an immature method of comparison — Country A and Country B.

Friedman puts forth the image as follows:

Country A helped the U.S. defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Country A regularly holds elections. The women of Country A vote, hold office, constitute the majority of its university students and are fully integrated into the work force.

Friedman proceeds with his “hypothetical” image, calling to mind that Country A has a strategic interest in the success of the pro-U.S., Shia-led, elected Iraqi government. Although it’s a Muslim country that borders Iraq, Country A has never sent any suicide bombers to Iraq. This is Country A from the perspective of the American citizen and writer, so what about Country B?

Friedman emphasizes that Country B gave “us” 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11. Country B does not allow its women to drive. It is illegal in Country B to build a church or synagogue. Country B helped finance the Taliban. Furthermore, Country B’s private charities help to sustain Al Qaeda. Young men from Country B’s mosques have been regularly recruited to carry out suicide bombings in Iraq. [We would like to remind Friedman that the entrance of these young men is facilitated by Iran’s ally, Syria!] Country B does not want the elected, Shia-led government in Iraq to succeed. While Country B’s leaders are pro-US, polls show many of its people are hostile towards America.

The above is a summary of the negative image of Country B from an American perspective and again from the perspective of the writer who wrote, or attempted to, in the name of the Americans.

Needless to say, Country A is Iran and Country B is Saudi Arabia, and accordingly, the message portrayed by the article is that Iran is the natural ally of the United States of America, the leader of the free civilized world, rather than Saudi Arabia. This is because Iran is a civilized, progressive state with regard to the issue of women and most importantly it is America’s ally in the war that ousted the Taliban and the war that brought down the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In addition, it never sent a single suicide bomber against the Americans, whereas the Saudi nation hates America, (what about the Cubans, North Koreans and Venezuelans and the hatred towards America throughout the world?], and provided 15 of the 19 hijackers of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and recognized and supported the Taliban.

The truth is that Friedman’s comparison is incomplete because it fails to refer to other aspects of the matter.

Due to the limited space, I’m not going to investigate all his statements; however, I will refer to one point. Before that, it must be emphasized that Friedman knows too well the difference between Saudi and Iranian foreign policy. What is even stranger is that at the pinnacle of overlap between the Iranian and Saudi visions in the region- an overlap between the vision of peace and the vision of war- Friedman draws an odd comparison when he knows too well who pushes for peace and who for war in the Middle East.

It is Iran, which Friedman says did not provide suicide bombers against American targets, that created Hezbollah in Lebanon and that has nurtured its great military and terrorist symbol Imad Mugniyah, who masterminded the killing of 250 Marines in Beirut in 1983.

With regard to the present day situation, Iran, the revolutionary guards and intelligence services of which are ravaging Iraq, not only against the Sunnis but also against the Americans. According to the Baker-Hamilton Report, which Friedman perhaps favors, the Shia militias that are committing sectarian killings and systematic displacement are linked to the government, the one that Friedman dubbed a friend, and it is Iran that backs this government.

Who is supporting the Sadr militia that has declared itself an anti-US militia from the outset?! Is it not Iran and the coalition government?!

Setting this aside, who kidnapped and killed the five US soldiers in Karbala in January at the Provincial Joint Coordination Center? Has the accusation not been leveled to Iranian or Iranian-linked parties, especially following the Irbil operation in which the Americans detained Iranian intelligence agents?

Friedman’s statement that the Saudis, contrary to Iran, back Al Qaeda is odd as it comes from a well-informed writer and observer!

On the Saudi popular and semi-popular levels, there is sympathy with and bias towards Al Qaeda, and a few days ago the Saudi authorities announced the detention of an Al Qaeda-financing network that involved Saudis and others.

On the official political level, however, and among the intellectual milieu and the elite and even in some popular milieu, especially after Al Qaeda targeted Saudi work sites, the situation is one of fierce combat against Al Qaeda. Television screens conveyed this during, for instance, the famous Al Ras gun battles [between Saudi security forces and militants].

As observers we are critics of the inadequate combat on intellectual and educational levels and we have said so on a number of occasions. We know that some are hesitant to complete the task, but the fundamental official decision is one of fighting and defeating Al Qaeda in all spheres.

But what about Iran?

Did it not ally with and use Al Qaeda? Did it not harbor the Al Qaeda spokesman Sulaiman Abu Ghaith? Haven’t many of Al Qaeda’s leading figures resorted to Iran?

Did the Americans not find a letter from Ayman al Zawahiri addressed to the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, dated June 5, 2005, in which he cautioned al Zarqawi against targeting the Shia as that would anger Iran and endanger Al Qaeda’s interests and relations with Iran, particularly as al Zawahiri said in this letter that Al Qaeda has members under the surveillance of the revolutionary guards?!

Even Saudi intelligence indicates that the Riyadh bombings on May 12 were directed from somewhere in Iran by Saif al Adel, a leading Al Qaeda figure and former Egyptian officer of the Special Forces.

How could Friedman reduce the picture and its complexities in such a prejudice manner?!

Revolutionary Iran knows how to weave alliances regardless of the sect, culture and camp of its ally!

Did Iran not ally itself with the “Great Satan” – a term that Friedman is certainly familiar with since it was coined in Iran – during the Taliban war then in the Iraqi war? It is willing to ally itself with, or at least use the “smaller Satan,” namely Al Qaeda, to annoy the Great Satan.

The Iranian interference in Iraq, which disturbs the Americans more than the Saudis, has become an unquestionable truth and everyone knows about the death squads and hostage-takers that are directly affiliated with the revolutionary guards, the Iranian intelligence agency [Savak] or Al Quds Force, small death squads, not to mention the larger groups such as al Hakim’s council or the Sadr current.

What is interesting is the issue of recognizing the Taliban, as if America was not pleased with this or did not encourage it, as if Saudi Arabia was the only state that recognized the Taliban and as if Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the then enemy of the Taliban and the Taliban’s anti-American ally today, was not an enemy of the Americans. There was the illusion that the Taliban could have been used!

In fact, Friedman’s approach is a highly superficial one concerning the diagnosis of the Iranian foreign policy and a stereotypical approach to the Saudi foreign policy that we might accept from Hollywood films that present a Saudi as a flirtatious womanizer with a “towel” on his head. However, for the person who once wrote about King Abdullah’s Arab-Israeli peace initiative to take this approach is very odd.

Something important remains, that is, Friedman’s appreciation of the Iranian experience regarding women and women’s rights and in this regard he is correct. The Iranian woman has proven that a Muslim woman can take part in public life vigorously and confidently. In this respect it surpassed several experiences in other countries, at the top of which is Saudi Arabia. This is the truth that one must admit.

In short, the current Iranian policy is a harmful one that pushes towards militarization and fuels political fundamentalism – Hamas and Hezbollah are examples. How have matters turned around whereby the right has become the left and the left has become the right?

The correct diagnosis of matters, rather than manipulating facts in the American fast-food manner, is the real beginning of solving crises.

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi

Mshari Al-Zaydi is a Saudi journalist and expert on Islamic movements and Islamic fundamentalism, as well as on Saudi affairs. He is Asharq Al-Awsat’s opinion page editor. Mr. Zaydi has worked for the local Saudi press, and has been a guest on numerous news and current affairs programs as an expert on Islamic extremism.

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