award-winning British journalist and broadcaster at Al Jazeera English. He is host of the Al Jazeera interview program “UpFront” and a columnist for The Intercept. He is also a contributing editor to the New Statesman magazine.
We get response from Al Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s recent controversial column, “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last.” Hasan argues the piece is absurdly sympathetic to Saudi Arabia, and that Trump’s friendly relations with the country mean he “is not just a liar and a conspiracy theorist, he’s a hypocrite. He goes on about ‘radical islamic terrorism’ but cozies up to Saudi Arabia, which many would argue has done more to promote ideologically and financially radical Islamic terrorism than any other country on earth.”
NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to go to another issue, which is related to what we’ve just been covering. A recent opinion piece by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman titled “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last.” Friedman writes in this piece, quote, “Though I came here at the start of Saudi winter, I found the country going through its own Arab Spring, Saudi-style. Unlike the other Arab Springs—all of which emerged bottom up and failed miserably, except in Tunisia—this one is led from the top down by the country’s 32-year-old crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, and, if it succeeds, it will not only change the character of Saudi Arabia but the tone and tenor of Islam across the globe.”
Friedman then goes on to say that Mohammad bin Salman is not only leading an anticorruption drive in the kingdom, but is also bringing Saudi Islam “back to its more open and modern orientation.” To what MBS described as, quote, “A moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”
Now Mehdi Hasan, in an article for The Intercept headlined The Reverse Midas Touch of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince is Turning the Middle East to Dust, you have presented a completely different perspective on the kingdom. So could you respond to Friedman’s piece, and then also the fact that as Trump vocally criticizes practically everything to do with Islam, he chose to make his first state visit to Saudi Arabia?
MEHDI HASAN: Yeah. Let’s just deal with Friedman, first. A nauseating piece, as a lot of people have pointed out in recent days. An embarrassment of a piece. I mean, if the Saudi Arabian government were to set up a Ministry of Truth and Propaganda, they could offer the job of minister to Tom Friedman. He did a great job for free, for them, on that visit to Saudi Arabia. I mean, it was absurd on every level.
Let me just start with the most offensive part of the piece, Nermeen, and you guys on Democracy Now! have covered the conflict in Yemen. It’s the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Mohammad bin Salman is at the heart of that catastrophe. It’s a war he started as defense minister, pushed for, defended, promoted, escalated. Is continuing to do so, as Crown Prince. And Friedman gives it one passing reference, one passing paragraph, in the piece, as if that’s not—you know, “Oh, here’s a moderate modernizer, who by the way is bombing the Middle East’s poorest country and starving them into submission, or trying and failing to starve them into submission.”
As for this nonsense about returning Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam, Saudi Arabia has never been the home of moderate Islam. This idea that MBS, Mohammad bin Salman, is pushing, and that journalists like Tom Friedman in the West credulously just repeat and regurgitate, that pre-1979 Saudi Arabia was some kind of moderate bastion of liberalism and pluralism, a multi-faith utopia, is absurd. As long as the Saud family have been in charge of that country and imposing their brand of very intolerant, very reactionary Salafi Islam, it has not been moderate in any shape or form.
The Saudi Arabians have been exporting their particularly puritanical, intolerant brand of Islam to the rest of the Muslim-majority world since 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. So this nonsensical argument from the Crown Prince that “Oh, if we could just go back to pre-1979, pre the Iranian Revolution, pre the attack on Mecca by extremists, we would all be moderate again” is absurd.
Yes, it is very easy to say we will give women drivers the right to drive. You know, something—the only country in the world that didn’t do that to begin with. Great, we all applaud that. But there is much more that this Crown Prince has to be done before he can even begin to talk about a moderate Islam coming out of Saudi.
And yes, you mentioned, Nermeen, Donald Trump, after accusing Saudi Arabia of being behind 9/11 during the election campaign, President Trump decided to make his first trip in the world not to Mexico or Canada, as previous U.S. presidents, but to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where he danced with swords and received lovely gifts and endorsed every Saudi geopolitical plan in the region from blockading Qatar—full disclosure, I work for Al Jazeera, owned by Qatar—to bombing Yemen, to escalating a conflict of a war of words which could become a hot war with Iran.
So Trump, shock horror, he is not just a liar and a conspiracy theorist, he’s a hypocrite. He goes on about ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ but cozies up to Saudi Arabia, which many would argue has done more to promote ideologically and financially, radical Islamic terrorism, than any other country on earth.