Monday, November 15, 2010

What the Saudi Royals Really Think of America: The Unkind Musings of Princess Reem Al-Faisal

by Michael Kaplan

I came upon a reference to this article in the conclusion to Amy Chua’s book, Day of Empire. Chua, who teaches at Yale Law School, was discussing the impact anti-Americanism, which is most virulent in the Islamic world, might have on America’s future prospects as a democratic hyperpower and civilizational empire. The author of the op-ed, in the English-language Arab News, is Princess Reem Al-Faisal, a professional photographer and granddaughter of the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. The princess wrote this screed, worthy of the most rabid America haters on the left, early in the Iraq War in 2003.

Mekkah Mosque during the Haj. By Reem Al-Faisal

The American people, her royal highness proclaims, must get over their obsession with American exceptionalism; for American history is nothing more than a chronicle of unrelieved oppression, atrocity, and misery without precedent in human existence. The American character, in Princess Reem’s considered opinion, is evil and rotten to the core. Here is the full piece:

The Americans insist that most criticism directed toward their policies stems from a deep-seated anti-Americanism, which the entire world has been suffering from since the founding of the US.
In fact I find that the world has been more than forgiving toward the Americans from the very beginning.
If you take a quick look at American history, you will realize instantly that the atrocities committed by the Americans on their fellow man might be one of the worst in human history, and that’s saying much—one, because humanity has reached levels of evil that no other creature on earth can compete with, and two, because the very short history of the American nation makes its crimes even more shocking when compared with other, more ancient lands.
The Americans are responsible for one of the most thorough and extreme genocides in history, that of the Native Americans. Yet the world still sees it as a benign and innocent state which faced great challenges and surmounted them through ingenuity and perseverance. As the Americans proceeded to the extermination of the native people of the land they were conquering, the world looked the other way even though it was generally well documented and the few of them who are left still suffer from discrimination to this day.
After the Native Americans came the African continent. An entire continent was depleted of its richest resource — its people. Four hundred years of a predatory policy in Africa left it crippled and mutilated, and it will take several centuries for it to be restored to its original self—a land of plenty and wealth, a dignified land.
How dare America look the rest of the world in the face, when it refuses even to admit or ask forgiveness from just these people it has so wronged.
You talk about anti-Americanism. I say the world is besotted by an America which never even existed. The land of the free and the home of the brave only exists in the song and nowhere else.
It is time for us, the rest of the world, to see America as it truly is, just another nation with great gifts and terrible faults.
There is nothing special about America, and we, and most of all the American people, must begin to admit this. When we begin to view America in the light of reality, then we might begin to avoid the horrors which have been wreaked on humanity by those who think they are above the rest.
It is time for the American nation to acknowledge its crimes and apologize and ask forgiveness from the many people it has harmed. Beginning with the Native Americans, followed by the Africans and South Americans, right through to the Japanese, who have suffered such horror by being the only race to know the true meaning of weapons of mass destruction.
The US should leave Iraq after apologizing for over a million dead after an unlawful embargo and a colonial war which at best is a farce and at worst a crime.
Finally, ask an American how many died in Vietnam, and he will tell you 58,000. That is because they have wiped out from their mind the three million Vietnamese as they have forgotten every race and nation they have harmed since their inception.
Are the Americans willing to admit their mistakes? This is the most important question of the 21st century, since much of the world’s safety depends on it.
This is the type of bilge that makes Jacksonian America’s blood boil. Princess Reem launched nothing less than a deliberate assault on the honor of the American people and nation. A pampered princess from a repressive society, who’s had everything handed to her and lives off unearned oil wealth, presumed to speak in judgment on the hardworking citizens of the United States. In fact the American people are paying for her royal highness’s lavish lifestyle with the money we pay at the gas pumps, which is reason enough to search for alternative energy sources. Statements like this make Jacksonians understandably suspicious of the intentions of people in the Muslim world. It’s why Jacksonians adamantly reject the idea of a mosque near Ground Zero. By painting the United States as an unregenerate evil nation, Princess Reem lends legitimacy to the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, which were carried out largely by her countrymen (15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi, as is Osama bin Laden). Perhaps she was sending a message to her own country that it should indeed be proud of what was done on 9/11.

According to Josef Joffe, publisher of the German weekly magazine Die Zeit, anti-Americanism “is not criticism of American policies, not even dislike of particular American leaders or features of American life, such as gas-guzzling SUVs or five hundred TV channels. It is the obsessive stereotypization, denigration, and demonization of the country and its culture.” Joffe refers to Reem Al-Faisal’s article as a vivid example. (Joffe, Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America [New York: Norton, 2006], p. 77). Now as I have pointed out in these posts, American history has its share of sins of commission and omission, as the princess was kind enough to remind us. No nation’s past is unblemished. But America is most exceptional in our willingness to confront our national sins and shortcomings, sometimes at great cost, and make our nation better. American history is the story of how we as a nation have struggled to put the ideals of our founding into practice. Democracy and the advancement of liberty and justice are always works in progress.

The Consumation of Empire. By Thomas Cole, 1836.

American history, like the histories of those other civilizational empires, Rome, China, and the early Islamic caliphate, illustrates what archaeologist and historian Ian Morris calls “the paradox of violence.” The wars and civil wars that were an inevitable part of the process of empire building and nation building eventually created peace, prosperity, and an upward arc of social development. “When the rivers of blood dried,” Morris writes of the rise of the Roman and Han empires in the third and second centuries BC, “their imperialism left most people, in both East and West, better off.” Edward Gibbon famously wrote in the fateful year 1776, “If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus.” Echoing Gibbon, Morris concludes:

The payoff from all the wars, enslavements, and massacres of the first millennium BCE was an age of plenty. . . . Its fruits were unevenly distributed—there were far more peasants than philosophers or kings—but more people were alive than in any previous age, in bigger cities, and on the whole they lived longer, ate better, and had more things than ever before.
(Ian Morris, Why the West Rules—For Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010], pp. 264, 281, 290).

How much more apt this description is for the America that emerged from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the Industrial Revolution, and three hundred years of savage conflict with the Native American Indians for control of the continent. When the long and painful process of nation building was complete, there would be no peasants or slaves in America. Just free citizens employing their God-given abilities to create wealth and pursue happiness. This is not something one can expect a royal princess to appreciate.

Andrew Jackson understood this process of nation building when he told his victorious troops after the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814, “The weapons of warfare will be exchanged for the utensils of husbandry, & the wilderness which now withers in sterility & seems to mourn the desolation which overspreads it, will blossom as the rose, & become the nursery of the arts.” Jackson went on to explain, “But other chastisements remain to be inflicted before this happy day can arise. How lamentable it is that the path to peace should lead through blood & over the carcases of the slain!! But it is in the dispensations of that providence which inflicts partial evil, to produce general good.”

Reem Al-Faisal declared that the settlement of America was “one of the most thorough and extreme genocides in history.” She has no idea what she’s talking about. The Indians were not helpless victims; they fought tooth and nail against the European settlers and their independent American descendants for control of North America. Indians gave as good as they got. The Americans won, in the end, because they had technology, social and political organization, and most important perhaps, demographics, on their side. Again, it was Andrew Jackson who said it best:

Humanity has often wept over the fate of the aborigines of this country, and Philanthropy has been long busily employed in devising means to avert it, but its progress has never for a moment been arrested, and one by one have many powerful tribes disappeared from the earth. To follow to the tomb the last of his race and to tread on the graves of extinct nations excite melancholy reflections. But true philanthropy reconciles the mind to these vicissitudes as it does to the extinction of one generation to make room for another. . . . Nor is there anything in this which, upon a comprehensive view of the general interests of the human race, is to be regretted. Philanthropy could not wish to see this continent restored to the conditions in which it was found by our forefathers. What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which art can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12,000,000 happy people, and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization, and religion?
Jackson’s sorrow over the fate of the Indians may have been contrived and hypocritical. His words show that in 1830 white supremacy was taken for granted. Yet most Americans, then and now, would endorse Jackson’s analysis without reservation. The truth is that most nations (including Muslim nations like Reem Al-Faisal’s Saudi Arabia) came into being through long histories of invasion, conquest, bloodshed, exploitation, persecution, and dispossession. Most don’t give it a second thought today. When all is said and done, history is about winners and losers. One cannot deny that the Indians have been the biggest losers in American history. As Ian Morris observes, “European germs, weapons, and institutions were so much more powerful than Native American ones that indigenous populations and states simply collapsed. . . . Native Americans could no more resist European imperialists than native European hunter-gatherers could resist farmers seven or eight millennia earlier.” (Why the West Rules, p. 430.) But again the tragedy of the Indians made possible the creation of the greatest concentration of economic power and human potential in history, institutionalized in a democratic republic, and embodied in a culture devoted to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And the United States has contributed more to the sum total of human happiness and liberty than any other nation in history. America’s sins are those shared by all nations. Her triumphs are uniquely her own.

Princess Reem would have done better to look at the sins and shortcomings of her own country. Slave traders from Arabia were plying their trade in East Africa hundreds of years before European slave traders swooped down on that continent’s west coast. African slavery continued in Saudi Arabia long after it had been abolished in the United States. The American people fought a Civil War in the 1860s, which turned our land red with blood, to put an end to the evil of slavery. Africans toiled as slaves in Saudi Arabia until 1962. And let’s not forget the high value placed on women in Saudi society. Female virtue is so important that it must be protected at all costs, including letting 15 schoolgirls die in a fire in 2002 because they did not have proper Islamic attire. Nor did the princess see fit to acknowledge that without the support of the United States military, Saudi Arabia could well have been invaded by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, once he finished with Kuwait. Princess Reem denounced America’s wars in Iraq as colonial wars of conquest. Who knows, without the sacrifices made by America’s young men and women in uniform, her royal highness, instead of pursuing her career in photography, might have found herself residing in one of Uday Hussein’s infamous rape rooms.

All of this goes to the point that Saudi Arabia is the source of the radical Islamic jihadism that threatens the world today. Reem Al-Faisal’s family, the House of Al-Saud, which now rules as a corrupt oligarchy, rose to power as the champions of the radical Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam. Wahhabism is the ideological source of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda and other radical jihadist groups, whose ultimate objective is the creation of a worldwide Islamic caliphate. Saudi oil money has bought favor with Wahhabis by funding a network of madrassas (religious schools) worldwide; the Wahhabi madrassas of Pakistan were the incubators of the Taliban. Until recently, Saudi policy in the “war on terror” has been decidedly two-faced: suppressing jihadist terror at home while encouraging it abroad. Private Saudi donors are the most important source of funding for Al-Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist groups. The Al-Saud family made a corrupt bargain with the jihadists, allowing them to raise the funds to spread their poison and attack infidels outside the kingdom, so long as they left the family and its interests alone. We have seen the results in the nightmare that was Afghanistan under the Taliban and in the ruins of the World Trade Center. Princess Reem’s family and nation have much to answer for to the world.

While I have been quite critical of her vicious tirade against America, I find Reem Al-Faisal to be a compelling artist. Her photographs, all in black and white, cover many parts of the world and reveal a mythopoetic sensibility. Much of Princess Reem’s work documents the practice and rituals of Islam in different lands. She is especially concerned with evoking Islam’s central ritual, the Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, in all of its mythopoetic grandeur and sublimity. Reem Al-Faisal has also studied the subtle interplay of light and shadow on the landscape in a series of breathtaking portraits from all over the world.

Guilin II. Landscape portrait of rural China. By Reem Al-Faisal.

“I’m generally an extremely shy person, especially in crowds,” Reem Al-Faisal observed in an interview. “But when I have a camera I can stand in front of a huge group, get up on a table. I do things that I would never do without the camera. It’s like I’m someone else.” Art has often been a tool of self-transformation. The princess has used her art to engage the mystery of the Divine.

I like to define myself as a Muslim artist, sprung from my native Saudi culture and history. In my art I am seeking to show signs of the Divine in nature and in Man. For me, light is one of the many manifestations of God. Which He casts in our path through life to remind us of His constant presence in ourselves and in every place. Every photograph is a pattern of light and shade. For me, my photography is a way to praise God's glory in the universe.
Princess Reem’s pursuit of her artistic vision has at times put her in some dangerous situations. Traditional Islamic Saudi society still sees photography as taboo and so tends to be suspicious of photographers. While she was photographing the Haj, a number of the pilgrims in the crowd, believing the princess was an apostate, tried to attack her. Even with bodyguards, she found that she had to run to avoid harm. That Reem Al-Faisal has been able to pursue such an artistic career is all the more remarkable given the restrictions imposed on women in patriarchal Saudi Arabia. Then again, royalty does have its privileges. What is really sad is that such a gifted artist would choose to exacerbate the already toxic levels of hatred in the Muslim world.

President Obama bows to King Abdullah, great uncle of Reem Al-Faisal, April 1, 2009.

It is in response to critiques like Princess Reem’s that President Obama has issued an unending stream of apologies for American power and American history (and bow to Reem’s great uncle King Abdullah). The princess expresses the resentment felt by many, especially in the Islamic world, at America’s success in the pursuit of happiness, which leaves them feeling humiliated. But Americans also have to take note that our attempts to export liberty, democracy, tolerance, and free markets, have provoked the wrath of those, such as the jihadis, who see them as a threat to their vision of God’s society. This does not mean that we should retreat from or apologize for our values and our way of life. But as Jacksonians have long understood, American exceptionalism means that America’s culture and institutions of liberty are exceptional; they are not easily exported to societies with their own ancient cultures and traditions.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan


  1. I would like to correct a minor thing. The photograph you have put as representing Princess Reem Al Faisal is incorrect. It is in fact the photograph of Princess Reem Bint Al Waleed who is himself the nephew of King Faisal and not of the Faisal branch.

  2. Oops,wrong princess. Thanks for the correction. I'll remove the picture.