Note: Contributing Writer David Dietz is based in Cairo and doing freelance reporting. For more of his opinions and coverage of Middle East politics, see his blog, TheMidEaster.com. This story is adapted from there.
A few months ago, while everyone was distracted by the festivities of the holiday season, the U.S. Air Force rather discreetly let slip that it had reached a deal with the Saudi Royal Air Force to train a contingent of pilots from the Kingdom in how to fly F-15 fighter jets at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in southwest Idaho.
Didn’t a Saudi pilot crash a Boeing 757 into the Pentagon? Weren’t 15 of the 9/11 hijackers Saudi? Wasn’t a recent college student from Saudi Arabia arrested on bomb plot charges in the U.S. just over a month ago? You would think a story of this magnitude would be all over the conservative news, worthy of a least a few Sarah Palin tweets. But, until now, it has not.
In truth, however, this shouldn’t be a big news story, just as the Cordoba House should never have caused such a controversy either.
Back in December 2009, The New York Times reported plans for the construction of the Cordoba House, a 13-story Muslim community center near the site of Ground Zero. The announcement received scant attention until May of the following year, when the proposal was reviewed by the local community board. It was at that point that right-wing bloggers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer, founders of the extremist website Stop Islamization of America, dubbed the community center “The Ground Zero Mosque.”
As the term caught on, a national controversy exploded. It was Islamophobia in its most hideous form. It didn’t matter that the community center was not actually a mosque, or that it was actually located two blocks away from the site of the World Trade Center. Nor did opponents care much that the advocates of the center had promised that it would be a space to promote interfaith dialogue. Critics also overlooked the fact that the space would include a theater, a fitness center, a basketball court, a childcare area, a swimming pool, a bookstore, a culinary school, an art studio, a food court, and most significantly, a memorial to the victims of the September 11 attacks. It sounded a lot more like your average neighborhood YMCA, no?
The only aspect that critics focused on was the prayer space for worshipers (gasp!). As the storm brewed, even those originally in favor of the community center wilted in the mounting onslaught of criticism.The 9/11 Families for s Safe and Strong America union said the proposed mosque community center was “a gross insult to the memory of those who were killed on that terrible day.” From the backwoods of Alaska, Sarah Palin felt compelled to insert herself into the debate, tweeting “Peace-seeking Muslims, pls understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing."
Newt Gingrich, another possible GOP presidential candidate, was even more scurrilous in his remarks. “You know, Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center,” he said.
Suddenly a leading conservative and GOP presidential hopeful in 2012 was equating a community center with Nazism, yet few on the right cared to make the distinction (or decided it was politically beneficial to do so). Among the list of those opposed was an impressive Rolodex of influential Republican figures ranging from Senator John McCain and Tim Pawlenty to Mitt Romney and New York's own Rudy Giuliani.
Given that these figures opposed the proposed community center two blocks from the Ground Zero, it is surprising that they were not more enraged by the Pentagon's deal with Saudi Arabia that will bring dozens of Saudis to the U.S. to learn how to fly, and well … how to kill.
But, the reality is that we can’t hold the majority to the standards set by a radial few. Just like Arabs shouldn’t hold all Americans accountable for Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s actions, the United States can’t blame all Saudis for the action of two dozen evil and twisted individuals.
There is no reason to oppose training Saudi pilots in the U.S. We train pilots and military units from all over the world. Many in Lebanon’s armed forces trained at Fort Benning and Indonesian pilots already beat the Saudis to Mountain Home Air Force Base where they are currently learning to fly. Both of those two countries have large, if not majority, Muslim populations with radical elements among their populations, so what’s the heightened concern if Saudis come as well? This Saudi-American agreement is a typical military training exercise that the American military offers to countries around the world.
Plus, Saudi has typically been one of our strongest allies. As a retired military officer from the Idaho air force base explained, “From a military standpoint, I think it’s an awesome thing for the free world forces. Culturally, it’s going to be a great benefit to both cultures to be able to intermingle and learn from each other.”
These two dozen or so Saudi pilots come highly disciplined and it’s more likely they will be joining American forces in the no-fly zone over Libya than attacking us on our home soil.
Still, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a Kuwaiti-American Muslim Sufi who was described by The Economist as a “well-meaning American cleric who has spent years trying to promote interfaith understanding,” attempts to build a community center in central Manhattan and the conservatives go crazy. The Pentagon commits to instructing Saudis how to use fighter planes to kill and inflict damage and… hardly a peep.
I wonder how Idaho Senators Jim Risch and Mike Crapo feel about the Saudis' coming to their home state. After all, Senator Crapo was vehemently against the community center saying, “This construction proposal is proving highly divisive to Americans across the political spectrum who are still seeking to recover fully from the emotional, economic, and social scars caused by the terrorist attacks.” Senator Risch echoed such anxiety remarking, “Considering what occurred at Ground Zero in New York City I completely sympathize with those who object to a mosque being built in that area.”
But, both Senators supported the 60 billion dollar arms deal that would bring the Saudis to their home state. Funny. I wonder if the 60 billion dollars had anything to do with their support?
At the end of the day, both the community center and the Saudi military agreement should both be allowed. Allowing one but not the other is not only a duplicitous and insincere political calculation, and it hurts our image in the Arab world.
Ask anyone in Cairo about the “mosque in New York city” (they know the one) and people whistle in disapproval over America’s outrage. One shopkeeper told me "it is why we don’t like America" and another restaurant owner asked me, “How do you expect us to have good relations if you dishonor our Islam?”
When I followed up with them asking their opinion on the American-Saudi deal, they quivered in anger. How, they asked, was this OK? As the restaurant owner told me, “You [referring to Americans as a whole] don’t like Islam? OK. This is your opinion. So don’t like it. But only like it when there is 60 billion dollars? This is why the Gulf maybe likes you, but other Arabs [don't]. This my friend is shameful.”
If American conservatives choose to take a stand against “radical Islam” (although a community center and military training cooperation are hardly that) then they must be consistent.
What say you Miss Palin?
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons