saudi arabia Mohammed bin Salman Khashoggi

In the midst of the heady 2016 US presidential campaign, candidate Trump sat down to a video interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who asked the future president about the state of the West’s relationship with “Islam”.

“I think Islam hates us,” the former reality TV star replied gravely. It was a statement that could have been ripped straight out of the pages of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisations — a still wildly if inexplicably popular book from the mid-‘90s in which the late Harvard professor predicted that the decline of communism would see global conflicts triggered by cultural, rather than ideological, difference.

In a remarkable self-fulfilling prophecy, Huntington named “Islam” as the next great enemy of the West — a thesis that still undeservedly permeates so much of Western attitudes to the Middle East. From the rhetoric of political leaders to the hysterical campaigns against the “Islamisation of America” and the halalification of Australia, the public is dutifully buying into the fallacy that Islam the religion is engaged in a war against the West.

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If anything should (but likely won’t) dispel this fanciful notion, it’s the US tour of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS for short. The 32-year-old alleged reformer received quite the rock star welcome in his tour of the country that he, as one of the most powerful Muslim leaders in the world’s most powerful Muslim nation (one that is strictly governed as an authoritarian theocracy no less) supposedly “hates” and is in the process of Islamising.

His roundly and deservedly panned fawning interview with 60 Minutes saw a gushing Norah O’Donnell exclaim, “You are 32 years old. You could rule this country for 50 years! Can anything stop you?” A strangely curious compliment coming from a journalist working in a free country that has been vainly trying to democratise the recalcitrant Middle East for decades.

“Only death,” MBS replied.

60 Minutes was castigated by The Intercept columnist Mehdi Hassan who questioned why MBS was rewarded with a softball interview for presiding over what the UN calls the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in the world today, and the relentless bombardment of Yemen.

60 Minutes can at least console itself that it is not alone. Shortly after the public relations exercise in which MBS again compared the leader of Iran to Hitler, The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg repeated the crown prince’s not at all exaggerated political analysis — “he makes Hitler look good”.

This is not the first time within the last year that Hitler has been somewhat rehabilitated by the strange bedfellows that are Saudi Arabia and the United States. Last April, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer was widely mocked for claiming “even Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons”. He was referring to the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran.

It’s almost like there is a pattern emerging here.

MBS has received no shortage of positive coverage on his tour. In The New Yorker, Dexter Filkins unquestioningly relayed the Trump administration’s desire to reshape the Middle East, as if determining the political and social structures of other countries is the most natural thing in the world for the US to be doing (ahem).  

The prince even booked out the entire Four Seasons in Beverley Hills ahead of a lavish dinner with Rupert Murdoch and Hollywood elites including Morgan Freeman and Michael Douglas. According to Vanity Fair, before eating, guests listened to a speech from the prince in which he “touched on his hope to return Saudi Arabia to a more open, moderate form of Islam (the Crown Prince has blamed Iran for Saudi Arabia’s long history of fostering extremism).”

So much for the clash of civilisations. This fawning coverage should disturb anyone with a modicum of knowledge or interest in the state of the media if not the state of the Middle East. Long heralding itself as the fourth estate, Western media has supposedly positioned itself as a guardian of the public interest and watchdog for democracy.

And yet, decades of academic research have consistently found that mainstream media that describes itself as “objective” is often far more deferential to political power than any watchdog has the right to be, often acting as little more than a mouthpiece for the administration.

And so it is with MBS.

Saudi Arabia — and MBS has admitted this — funded the Afghan mujahideen that would become the Taliban, telling The Atlantic he would do it all again. The Saudi kingdom is also known for, in addition to its decimation of Yemen, sending tanks to literally squash Bahrain’s short-lived “Arab Spring”, bankrolling Islamist militant groups in Syria and elsewhere, funding mosques in countries all across the world in the proviso they preach the kingdom’s strict and sectarian branch of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism (which the prince curiously claims does not exist), executing political prisoners including Shia clerics on bogus charges, oppressing its Shia population, persecuting atheists, and imprisoning, lashing, and beheading journalists and bloggers.

But hey, at least MBS finally “let” women drive.

On the one hand, we have politicians deliberately and seemingly indiscriminately stoking fears and hatred of Islam and Muslims, with a media either endorsing their positions or glossing over them. On the other, these same political leaders form close alliances with some of the most draconian “Islamic” governments and insurgent groups, aiding and abetting conflicts and oppressions committed by Sunni leaders while simultaneously blaming Shia Iran for funding terrorism.

“We can’t succeed in the Middle East without Saudi Arabia,” The New Yorker reported Jarrod Kushner, inexplicably tasked with “reshaping the Middle East” by his father-in-law, as saying.

Of course, Iran is not without culpability when it comes to its own oppressive rule and its role in regional conflicts, but this concerted and sustained effort to absolve Sunni Arab states of blame for rising extremism and terrorism flies in the face of reality.

Mohammed bin Salman is engaging in an obvious sectarian soft war designed to deflect his own country’s support for extremism and terrorism by shifting the blame to its arch enemy, essentially condemning the entire Shia sect in the process. Sadly, the US media, in taking its cues from its own government’s hostility to Iran, is lapping it up; such is corporate media’s propensity to act less like a watchdog and more like a puppy.

It’s one thing, however unjust and short-sighted, for politicians and crown princes to discard honesty and humanity for the sake of strategic political interests, it’s quite another when the media of the so-called free world praises them for doing so.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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