A Double Standard on Bigotry

President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at Al-Salam Palace, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

President Biden’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia has provoked a rash of harsh commentary. While it’s appropriate for writers to air policy differences with the Kingdom, the tone and content of comments and political cartoons about Saudi Arabia are filling the press with racist diatribe masking as political commentary.

Biden has been excoriated for betraying American values and selling out his commitment to human rights to secure “Saudi oil.”

The daily political cartoons were even more vile—depicting racist Arab caricatures and Biden prostrate before a fat robed Arab or Biden’s hand being grasped by an Arab hand dripping with blood.

While this hostility has been around for generations, what’s new is how it’s become publicly accepted liberal discourse.

Four decades ago, I wrote a paper with Mowahid Shah, comparing Czarist Russian and pre-Nazi German anti-Semitic cartoons with anti-Arab cartoons being published in major US papers in the 1970s and ‘80s. The fat Jewish banker was replaced by the fat oil sheikh and the blood-thirsty Jewish subversive became the Arab terrorist. The similarities in content and form were striking: dark, sinister, hook-nosed men who had taken advantage of us, absconded with “our wealth,” and were now holding us hostage to their evil intent.

In the 1980s, we were kept busy protesting many instances of this anti-Arab bigotry in films, political cartoons, and commentary.

Flash forward to the 2008 Democratic Convention, when the issue of dependence on oil was a regular applause line— with subtle but revealing differences in how it was raised. When speakers referred to “ending our dependence on fossil fuel” (a legitimate environmental concern), there would be applause. When they would decry “our dependence on foreign oil” (a legitimate concern about trade deficits), there would also be applause. But when a few speakers denounced “our dependence on Arab (or Saudi) oil” the rafters shook with thunderous applause. By giving the fuel an ethnicity or nationality, the speakers exploited a deeply held anti-Arab bias. To make it clearer, one such convention speaker, a Western state governor, was quoted afterwards telling a group of visiting Canadians that when he railed against “imported oil” he didn’t mean Canadian or Mexican oil. He meant Saudi oil.

Around this same time, a liberal Washington-based think tank sponsored a TV ad featuring a Gulf Arab in the foreground against a backdrop of oil wells. As Arabic music played, an announcer, in ominous tones, warned about the dangers that fossil fuels posed to the environment. We complained noting that if global warming was the target, why the music or the Arab? Why not target American oil companies?

We’ve learned to be mindful of anti-Semitic tropes. The same must apply to how we talk about Arabs, including Gulf Arabs. It is legitimate to raise serious policy concerns about the environment, trade, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, or other human rights abuses. But it unacceptable to use racist caricatures or bigoted stereotypes in making those legitimate points.

Regarding human rights, political pundits have spent weeks arguing that President Biden shouldn’t go to Saudi Arabia because of its human rights record. Meanwhile, there hasn’t been a single question raised about whether the President should go to Israel or what demands he should make of Israeli leadership about the killing of American citizens, including an American citizen journalist, or their human rights record.

If current political discourse suggests that holding Israel to a different standard than other countries is a form of anti-Semitism, then shouldn’t the same metric be used when the victim group are Arabs? Shouldn’t we acknowledge that after our horrible human rights record in Iraq and the civilian casualties resulting from errant US drone strikes, that our moral outrage is marred by our own past and present actions.

We must all to check our bigotry at the door when we write. There is a legitimate way to criticize US, Israeli, and Saudi policies. While American political commentators have become sensitive to the first two, they fall far short of the goal of fairness when it comes to dealing with Arabs. Calling a country “depraved” or using racist stereotypes to depict its people is wrong and should be rejected in our discourse.

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