More than a month has passed since we rang in the New Year with renewed hope, vigor and optimism, but the world beyond our shores is still a somber sight.
At least this would appear to be the case with President Donald Trump’s first tweet of the year, a strong condemnation of the Pakistani government and its association with “radical Islamic” terrorist organizations and a reminder of the kind of fight with which the U.S. government has tasked itself.
But exactly how fair was this criticism, and by extension, how fair is the responsibility that the U.S. has borne in fighting it? And more generally speaking, how fairly has Trump framed the discussion around terrorism and national security?
We begin first with the substance: certainly, there is a grain of accuracy in what Trump said, because Pakistan has, in fact, harbored terrorists as it was clearly explained through a 2013 Human Rights Watch report.
As is the challenge with making foreign policy 140 characters at a time, Trump’s statement was entirely reductive and only contained merely a sliver of truth. The fact is simply this: “radical Islamic” terrorism, as Trump has previously called it—is mostly funded, perpetuated, and sustained by Saudi Arabia and weaponized by China and America. In short, there exists a vast and complicated enterprise behind this so-called “radical Islamic” terror threat, and many U.S. presidents (Trump included) have turned a blind eye to our government’s complicity in negligently perpetuating it.
There truly does exists a global military-industrial complex that weaponizes the same violent groups that are responsible for the deaths of many people—including U.S. citizens, but primarily Muslims (our media coverage would have you believe it’s other way around). This is particularly poignant given what our government intelligence agencies already know about the kind of Islam that Saudi Arabia particularly exports—virulently Wahhabist and virulently Salafist.
So, America’s continued reticence in 1) naming the countries that are most directly responsible for exporting these bastardized interpretations of Islam and 2) naming the specific sects that perpetuate hatred and violence has always frustrated true counter-terrorism measures. Moreover, the ambiguity of the term “radical Islam” (or “Islamic extremism”, for that matter) makes suspect the entirety of Islam and the whole body of its adherents because there is no specific entity or interpretation upon which blame rests. The mere use of such a term should prompt questions like A) Who’s a radical Muslim? and B) Who practices radical Islam? The U.S. government does not answer these questions despite having the intelligence to do so.
To compensate for their ignorance, people become hostile toward all Muslims, while government entities can discriminate against all Muslims under the guise of “National Security.” Essentially, the term “radical Islam” is too vague and goes against the specificity of our current information.
Yet our leadership’s continual and knowing use of this vague term has proven to be rather beneficial for the true perpetrators of Wahhabi-Salafist jihadi violence. How? Because its relative ambiguity creates an open space for a broad enough interpretation that does not define a particular root or cause upon which to lay blame—meaning the perpetrators cannot actually be blamed because they are not pinpointed.
Essentially, the ambiguity allows for a safe hiding space, which is precisely the kind of benefit that Saudi Arabia has been able to reap for so long. But why this country? Because most Wahhabis and jihadi-Salafists can be directly linked to Saudi Arabia and Saudi funding.
But current and past administrations have claimed there is an entire foreign policy and web of important geopolitical strategic alliances that would be deeply compromised should the U.S. specifically and openly refer to Saudi Arabia and to the specific sects that have stemmed from this country.
Yet, not doing so only adds to sustaining a false narrative about Islam at large and Muslims in general. It makes innocent Muslims—the non-Salafi/Wahhabists—suspect, while allowing the perpetrators to walk free of government condemnation. The reason behind this comes from the Quincy Agreement—a secretive pact that was formed between Saudi Arabia, the United States and Great Britain aboard the USS Quincy in 1945.
Before the agreement itself, FDR and his advisers were looking for ways to become increasingly involved in the Near East. Those reasons were discovered in 1942 when the American military was in greater need of both oil and a military base free of either British and French influence to continue fighting alongside the Allied Powers. Since then, sending military and monetary aid to Saudi Arabia has been a standard point of our Middle East foreign policy.
A year later and at the behest of his military and economic advisors, Roosevelt made concessions but also looked further to the question of what to do with the Jewish diaspora scattered primarily throughout Europe. Direct support for Saudi Arabia was provided in exchange for access to Saudi oil fields and the construction of a US airbase in the Saudi city of Dhahran to protect American economic interests and personnel.
The arrangement was later solidified through FDR and Ibn Saud’s friendship aboard the Quincy. The Jewish question of resettlement in Palestine (now Israel, of course) was left relatively abandoned until President Truman reversed FDR’s promises not to support the creation of a Jewish state, which would radically alter the lives of the Palestinians living there already, because of mounting pressure from Jewish communities in the States.
As for how this would affect the agreement between Saudi Arabia and United States, the leaders of the Kingdom were clearly upset with what they called a betrayal but did nothing to reverse the policies of monetary and military aid they would be receiving. Now, the country has become an important diplomatic ally in the Middle East for the America’s involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict— often pitting itself as the neutral arbiter between the two groups.
So, simply referring to Wahhabists and jihadi salafists as terrorists and simultaneously indicting Saudi Arabia risks a potentially important U.S. ally in the Middle East, which is something the United States remains unwilling to accept.
But one would reasonably argue is still is not fair that Saudi Arabia should get a free pass for any of the violence that stems from it. If Americans are serious about sharing the best elements of western democracy around the world, they must put pressure on Saudi politicians to institute greater reforms for freedom and greater equality. American officials cannot in good conscience continue to lay blame on Pakistan’s doorstep and ignore the offenses committed by the Kingdom to its south. In practical terms, that means Saudi Arabia should face consequences for not doing enough to curb the rise of Wahhabi/Jihadi-Salafi terror. While terror mastermind Osama bin Laden, for example, may have spent much of adult life in Afghanistan and Pakistan, people conveniently forget he was raised and educated in Saudi Arabia.
That said, the U.S. should not task itself to continue to combat this kind of violence because its unwillingness to condemn the true perpetrators has only enabled them. Further, the evidence would suggest America’s direct involvement in Middle East politics and indirect involvement through weapons transfers has proven to be a failure, and continuing such practices seems ill-advised at best.
If we truly want to usher in any significant change, then we need fact-based consistency in our terrorism policies, and we need to be fair in how terrorism is treated and prosecuted. That means, while Saudi Arabia and its affiliates should be held accountable, it should not just be jihadi-salafi/Wahhabi terror that should be prosecuted. The proverbial lone-white-male, right-wing super-patriots who commit acts of terror must not get a free pass either since they are terrorists as well. But in order for any of this to actually happen, government officials must speak truthfully, guided by verified facts (not alternative ones) on the issue of terrorism in this country.
The risks of remaining quiet still far outweigh the benefits.
And as our government’s reluctance deepens, so too will its guilt as our political conscience is crushed beneath the weight of lives lost, justice silenced and liberty imprisoned.