Those Saudi Students

It’s not irrational to be wary of this deal.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

On the fifth-year anniversary of September 11, 15,000 Saudi Arabian students are supposedly on their way to the United States. The State Department, and cash-hungry universities eager for premium out-of-state tuition payments, are understandably delighted at the return of such openness.

The idea in theory is commendable:  Five years after 15 Saudi Arabians, some here on student and flight-school visas, blew up four planes and killed 3,000 Americans, we apparently have let bygones be bygones, and are looking to reestablish old ties.

Of course, we are confident that the Saudi monarchy will screen its own subjects. It knows well that if another Saudi helps to blow up 3,000 Americans, the ensuing Götterdämmerung might be as unpredictable as it would be terrible for them. And our immigration service promises it can now track such visitors far better than it can the 11 million illegal aliens inside the United States or the recent Egyptian students who failed to show up at Montana State University.

Most importantly, as a free and progressive people we believe that such exposure to American tolerance and liberal values will serve as an important bridge to the Arab Muslim world. Surely these Americanized students will return to the kingdom and spread the knowledge that United States is a force for good in the world and is sorely misunderstood.

More realistically, it is never smart to antagonize a kingdom that sits atop a quarter of the world’s known oil reserves — and in the past has enforced petroleum boycotts against the United States.

Nevertheless, for a variety of reasons, allowing 15,000 young (mostly male?) Saudi students into the United States is a bad idea — and these reasons have nothing to do with the hysterical and irrational fear present in the reaction to the Dubai port deal, when an internationalized company from a much more open society sought to oversee American ship facilities.

First, the verdict is out on whether experience with, and even long residence in, the United States (or for that matter, in Europe either) mitigates or enhances Islamic extremism. Considering the profile of the 9/11 hijackers and the Hamas suicide bombers, the number of Iranian mullahs and Hezbollah who have family members in the United States, and the recent public demonstrations in Michigan on behalf of Hezbollah, it is by no means clear that resentment is not the more common reaction for those who are relatively educated, not poor, and have some exposure to America.

That is, for many traditional Muslims, the openness, candor, and occasional randiness of American society create conflicting passions. Hand-in-glove with a visitor’s curiosity and desire to dress, talk, and read freely seems to arise a commensurate disdain for what is often termed “Western decadence.”

And even more disturbing, such conflicting passions of desire and shame at that desire, when coupled with an apologetic academic culture — steeped in multiculturalism and ready to offer America’s foreign critics ample ammunition for their displeasure — often result in a strange sort of irrational anger.

For some 20 years I taught a number of foreign students from the Middle East in the United States, and sometimes noticed a disturbing tendency. Over their four- or five-year tenure, many exhibited a predictable evolution in their thoughts about their newfound freedoms — especially as the time for graduation and for reckoning with a return home approached.

Initial exuberance at America’s openness often was followed with deep uncertainty whether our rejection of traditional repression was healthy — especially in the permissive campus landscape of risqué female fashion, open homosexuality, easy mixing of the races and religions, atheism, sexual promiscuity, and drug use.

We are not usually talking about the transition from a cosmopolitan Beirut to a somewhat comparable Salt Lake City, but from the most repressive conditions in the Arab world to the most liberal in the West — from the eighth-century code of behavior of Saudi Arabia to the 22nd or 23rd century postmodern world at a Berkeley or a Madison.

Often coupled with such abhorrence at our license is awe at America’s wealth and technology. From that volatile mixture a predictable confusion often emerges:  Why is America so much richer and stronger than the Arab world, when it is clearly more decadent and godless?

This questioning is often answered by a variety of conspiratorial exegeses, laced with pop history and mythology that are the products of the media, mosques, and madrassas back home. Surely colonialism, or Israel, or the CIA, or American-backed dictators, or secret agreements, or oil companies best explain the current mess in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, or Amman, those cities that were once the proud towers of the ancient caliphate.

But there is also a second reason to be concerned about these incoming students, one that likewise involves innate human nature, and especially the American sense of self. During the Cold War, we were not at war with the people of Eastern Europe, but we still did not readily admit into the United States very many students from Albania, Bulgaria, or Poland. It wasn’t just that we worried whether some were informants or worse, but also that, in such an ideological struggle, it was important to remind the masses in those countries of the wages of their repressive governments.

In the current war, such thinking would translate into something like the following: The popularity of bin Laden in the Arab Street, the continual hatred expressed for America and Jews in the state-controlled Middle East media, and the constant bombings and killings of Westerners by Muslims that are as often rationalized as condemned by Arab voices — all this surely must have consequences, if only to show that Americans sometimes are as unpredictably emotional as we are usually coldly rational.

Thus for now it is perhaps better that travel from the Arab Middle East is made problematic — if only to remind everyone concerned of the consequences of their hatred that still emanates from the Middle East. Many Americans are not convinced that our magnanimity with the Islamic world wins praise as liberality, rather than earning contempt for our perceived weakness. And if we must let in thousands of students from the Middle East, why not the children of those kindred brave souls fighting for democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan?

The problem of the United States, despite disavowals from our own State Department and universities, is not that we are seen as too cold-hearted, too chauvinistic, or too legalistic, but rather just the opposite:  We have lost a great deal of our sense of national self. We don’t worry too much about our borders. We seem perversely to enjoy constant criticism. And from time to time we accept the blows of our enemies as the inevitable wage of our regrettable conduct.

So, yes, there is the utopian logic of allowing 15,000 Saudis as goodwill ambassadors into America. But don’t expect millions of us to like it — and don’t expect us to worry whether our anger and concern seem illiberal.

For my own part, in this brief life I already have seen too much mention of the wicked al-Ghamdi tribe of Saudi Arabia:  young Ahmad, who crashed Flight 175 into the south tower of the World Trade Center; Hamza, who was on board with young Ahmad; and yet another equally earnest young Ghamdi, who in December 2004 blew up 18 Americans in Mosul. And who knows, maybe even Saeed Ghamdi was part of the murderous clan, the killer who helped overpower Todd Beamer and company in crashing Flight 93 into the Pennsylvania countryside. And I remember right after September 11 the feigned surprise of Princess Haifa Al-Faisal, the wife of the Saudi ambassador, when it was disclosed that one of her “charitable” contributions had in fact wound up helping two of the hijackers of Flight 77, Khalid Almidhar and Nawaf Alhazmi.

I have no doubt that the vast, vast majority of these students are wonderful people, but, given the one-eyed-Jack nature of the Saudi government, and the past utter ineptness of our own immigration service, I also have no assurance whatsoever that one more surviving Ghamdi or another Alhazmi is not among them — and just one in this war has been quite enough already.

©2006 Victor Davis Hanson

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