THE ANGRY ARAB: Distorting the Iranian-Saudi Conflict

Kim Ghattas’s new book ‘Black Wave’ is  getting rave reviews, but As`ad AbuKhalil calls it pure empire advocacy.

By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News

This book by Kim Ghattas, “Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East,” has received rave reviews.  But it does not weave together as a book at all.

It is a compilation of disjointed “reporting”-style articles, dealing with the Iranian intellectual Ali Shariati; Rafiq Hariri, the assassinated former Lebanese prime minister; Pakistan’s General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq; Musa As-Sadr, the Shia leader who disappeared in Libya; and Iraq’s Saddam Husayn. 

The subtitle tells the problem: the author wanted to compile her reporting over two decades and pretend they fit into a coherent narrative. The author was a BBC correspondent, in Beirut and then in Washington, D.C., and wrote a star-struck hagiography of Hillary Clinton.

Ghattas represents a trend of native journalists who realize the only way to reach Western media is by internalizing the biases and orientations of Western correspondents in the Middle East. Worse, the native reporters feel they have to outbid the Westerners in their racism, bigotry and hostility to the causes many Arabs hold dear.

In her book on Hillary Clinton, “The Secretary,” Ghattas explains her outlook right away: that she is not a full-fledged native of Lebanon. She informs the reader that her mother is Dutch (not sure why that is relevant) and that she is secular and “connected to the West” (p. 2) and that for her, Europe and U.S. represented hope (not war, destruction, occupations and Zionism). 

She goes further, “informing” the reader that she — unlike “many” of her compatriots — never identified with “the Soviet Union, Iran or Syria.” The link between Iran and the Soviet Union can only be there to assure Western readers  that she disliked all enemies of the U.S., even while growing up in the Middle East. (Mainstream media and D.C. think tanks loved the book, as you can read from the praise on her website.)

Hostile to Islam

For somebody who is (at least partly) connected to the region, she is woefully ignorant of the culture and also hostile to the religion of Islam.  Her treatment of Islam in the book would have been branded anti-Semitic had she discussed religious Jews the way she talks about religious Muslims. 

This is someone whose bigotry prompts her to qualify any praise of a Muslim who is pious. At one point, for instance, she writes favorably of a “pious but progressive” Muslim Arab. And the man she happens to like is none other than Ma`ruf Dawalibi, a reactionary adviser to the Saudi king who was a chief propagandist against communism and socialism during the Cold War (p. 102). She adds that he married a French woman as a sign of his progressiveness.  

But this is not surprising in this book: all her Arab heroes either work for the Saudi regime or write for (and/or appear in) Saudi regime media (Jamal Khashoggi, Hazem Saghieh, Badia Fahs, Baysan Ash-Shaykh, Subhi Tufayli, Hani Fahs — and many others are listed in the acknowledgement section). 

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Her problem with — or phobia of — Islam is manifested in so many ways.

For one, she has a deep problem with the veil. She is obsessed with the veil: who dons it and who removes it.  For her, removal of the veil is a sure sign of liberation and she doesn’t give Muslim women agency.  She even goes as far as claiming that Egyptian actresses who retired from film and wore the veil (which is a small percentage of Egyptian actresses) were motivated by lucrative bribes. Those rumors were often spread against them but it is not beneath Kim Ghattas to report rumors (p. 165).  The “black wave” of her title is the sight of the black veiling.   

The Grand Mosque during night prayers in Mecca, Nov. 23, 2009. (Al Jazeera English, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

She is also quite ignorant of basic Islam and yet this book deals with many aspects of the religion. Astonishingly, she does not know that Wahhabiyyah is strictly not within the Hanbalite school of jurisprudence and—from the standpoint of Wahhabiyyah—all schools of jurisprudence were a deviation from the true Islam.

She assumes that Hizbullah “prolonged” the process of mourning known as the rituals of “Ashura” (p. 203) which she describes as “one period of wailing and chest thumping.” Can you imagine her mocking Jewish rituals in this fashion, and not (rightly) facing a backlash in the media? But when the target is Islam, one can get away with mockery and vilification.

But this book has other problems: it lacks credibility.  As a journalist in Beirut the author supported March 14, the right-wing coalition set up by the U.S. and Saudi governments, and never hid her admiration for corrupt pro-Saudi politicians, such as Walid Jumblat, Fu’ad Sanyurah, and Rafiq Hariri.

Ghattas is easily conned by her interlocutors and does not bother to verify information.  The most glaring case is that of Husayn Husseini. She portrays the Lebanese politician as an influential regional Shiite leader when, in fact, his only claim to fame was serving as a leader of the Amal movement from 1978 until 1980 and then being installed by the Syrian regime as speaker of parliament to replace Kamil As`ad in 1984.

Husseini (or one of his two children who are listed in the acknowledgements) tells the author tall tales throughout this book. He claims he resigned from Amal when he in fact lost the election in 1980 to Nabih Berri (p 113).  Ghattas  makes him into a courageous opponent to Hizbullah when he actually used to run on Hizbullah’s parliamentary lists in Baalbak. She does not note (because she does not know) that Husseini  has consistently supported Hizbullah’s right to arms and never vocalized opposition to it, her opposing propaganda claims notwithstanding. 

Ghattas claims that Husseini used to have influence on the Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s former supreme leader, even in the 1960s (p. 25). This is laughable because Husseini (who was not elected to parliament until 1972 and was unknown till then) was in his 20s at the time. She claims that Husseini educated Khomeini on Palestinian and Lebanese affairs and that his family were behind the circulation of Khomeini cassette tapes in the world.

Hussein el-Husseini. (FiveRupees, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

I only mention the example of Husseini to maintain that this author (and this book) can’t be trusted at all.  She makes numerous unsubstantiated or bombastic claims.

Ghattas, for example, mentions that Imad Mughniyyah has a “good sense of humor” (p. 112). How would she know that? Did she exchange jokes with him? She claims that Jean-Paul Sartre once claimed that “I have no religion, but if I had to pick one it would be Shariati.” (p. 33).  There is no evidence that Sartre ever said that (although it did appear in a French magazine) and it certainly does not sound like something that Sartre would ever say. 

Denying US & Israeli Roles 

There are two themes in the book really.  One: the U.S. and Israel have no role whatsoever in Middle East affairs. Her contention is that all the conflict, turmoil and bloodshed in the region are the work of Muslims fighting each other. 

Ghattas realized in the conclusion — and only in the conclusion — that it may seem glaring that she left out the U.S. entirely from her narrative.  How does she explain that? By maintaining that Saudi Arabia and Iran have “agency” (p. 274), as if the U.S. empire does not.  In her version, the U.S. has merely made “mistakes” (p. 274) and its invasion and occupation of Iraq were also merely “misguided” (p. 188).

This is empire advocacy, pure and simple. Furthermore, in talking about the Pakistani or Saudi regimes’ promotion of Islamic conservatism and fundamentalism she does not concede that the U.S. was a major partner (and driver) for the duration of the decades of the Cold War in this campaign against Arab leftists and communists. If anything, conservative Middle East regimes invested in promoting fundamentalist Islam because it was a key part of U.S. foreign policy (See Joseph Massad’s “Islam in Liberalism.”)

“Shock and awe” televised U.S. bombing of Baghdad, March 19, 2003.

As for Israel, it has no presence in this book and one gets the impression that Ghattas perceives Israel as a mere victim of Arab terrorism.  She clearly harbors animus toward the Palestinian people (which is not uncommon among right-wing Lebanese nationalists) and claims that Palestinian resistance in Lebanon deliberately and exclusively targeted civilians in occupied Palestine who were from Lebanese territory (p. 113).

Successive brutal Israeli attacks on Lebanese civilians don’t trouble this reporter.  Even when Israeli historians now admit that many of the Palestinians were forcibly expelled by Zionist troops in 1948, her account had the Palestinians simply “fleeing” (p. 24) from their homeland.

Iran Blame 

The second theme is that the Iranian regime is largely responsible for the Sunni-Shiite conflict in the region.  While she does not subscribe to the narrative of Muhammad Bin Salman — to the effect that the Saudi regime only promoted Islamic fundamentalism in response to the Iranian revolution — she does absolve the Saudi royal family of responsibility by implying that the royals were helplessly under the sway of the extremist clerics, when the reverse was true. Clerics have always been tools in the hands of the royals, and if they dissent the regime quickly cracks the whip. 

Her account does not harm the Saudi narrative because her obsession is consistently targeted against the Iranian regime.  In fact, she harbors clear nostalgia for the regime of the Shah. In her book, the Shah appears horrified at the sight of the violence employed by his own regime, which she blames on the Islamic opposition (p. 24).

In sum, this is an unreliable book and there is no space to count the lies, fabrications and falsehoods.

She claims that Hizbullah banned political parties, music and alcohol from South Lebanon, which I can personally refute, since members of my own extended family, the AbuKhalils, continue to live there, belong to secular political parties and enjoy music, alcohol and dance. 

She claims that Shiites fought the Israelis for God only, while non-Shiites fought for the nation (p.121).  And her documentation — if we can call it that — is based on Western newspapers and interviews with Saudi officials and regime journalists, or with Arabs who work for and support Saudi policies (she lists three Saudi princes she interviewed for this book while not bothering with people from the Iranian regime.)

The same goes for the Hizbullah leadership, with the exception of a former Hizbullah official who now is part of the Saudi axis.  Sadly, the book will be well received because U.S. and Israel come out favorably, while their enemies are the object of her bitter hostility.  This will fit the D.C. Establishment narrative.

As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the “Historical Dictionary of Lebanon” (1998), “Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and “The Battle for Saudi Arabia” (2004). He tweets as @asadabukhalil

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

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6 comments for “THE ANGRY ARAB: Distorting the Iranian-Saudi Conflict

  1. Yek Khanoom E Irani
    June 13, 2020 at 18:12

    Back when Europeans were still in the Dark Ages, and burning apostates at the stake for the slightest questioning of Christianity, Al Razi, the Greatest Mind of Islam’s Golden Age was publishing books criticizing Islam, Religion, Mohammad and even the Quron, centuries before any such dialog in the West and Europe. Yet somehow, if a Middle Easterner follows in that fine custom and old tradition of the region, they are Westoxicated or trying to be like Westerners?! Au Contraire mon ami, We are practicing one of the finest traditions of the Middle East and all the magnificent ancient civilizations it once had, lets not forget that Islam is but a blip in a longer, greater, richer, and more diverse history. For me as an Iranian immigrant to the west, it is following in the footsteps of my ancestors from Ferdowsi to Sadegh e Hedayat. In Farsi we have a saying “Boro Baba ba Een Mozafrakaht”, or “Go away Dady with this garbage”. Jews have been criticizing their religion for a long time, I have no Jewish friend who does not do that, same for friends from Christian backgrounds. All groups criticize the excesses of the religions of their ancestry, its human nature, the west has no special hold on it, and neither does any other group, all are free to practice it while expressing the authentic experience of their ancestry.
    As for the Middle East today, when I meet recent immigrants from Iran, they openly trash Islam in ways almost no Iranian American I know dares to. So, the Middle East has changed, and while there are still the devout, the denial of the existence of the non devout and secular, and the very real authenticity and relevance of their experience is completely out of touch with the reality of contemporary Middle Eastern Life. Maybe instead of go away daddy, or boro baba, I should say, get real and smell the coffee!

  2. Aaron
    June 12, 2020 at 14:11

    The notion that Israel/US has no role in affairs there is absurd. And it seems like it would be difficult to find more examples of vile racism than Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, which is hugely hypocritical of our government, virtually all who are professed staunch Zionists, that they care about black lives, but actively support a state that is so appallingly racist to Palestinians. It’s not clear how America benefits from an alliance with Israel, I mean, I know politicians like Clinton benefit hugely from financial contributions, but I mean the American people. At least Saudia Arabia has tons of oil, but what do we get in return from Israel for our largest foreign aid in the billions to them every year, and worse yet, all the weapons? I’d rather give all of that money to friendly neighbors like Mexico, that at least would make some sense, and actually serve the purpose of foreign aid. It just makes enemies for the US naturally, if we’re always taking the side of Israel in every conflict over there, and that really hurts America in so many destructive ways.

  3. Marshalldoc
    June 11, 2020 at 15:06

    It’s a shame AbuKhalil couldn’t have written the preface to the book…

  4. vinnieoh
    June 10, 2020 at 15:57

    Does great Britain also escape scrutiny or culpability in this book? BBC correspondent. I doubt that any discussion of the ME over the last century and a half would be accurate or honest without discussing the role of GB during its empire heyday and slow decline. Before the rise of organized socialism or communism, before the USSR there was “The Great Game” – GB vs Russia – and Iran (or the remnants of Persia) was collateral damage. In the last century Iran was a fully extractive colonial project of GB. The grass-roots democratic movement headed by Mosaddeq demanding Iranian sovereignty and Iranian oil revenue for Iranians was a non-starter for GB; they told them to go pound sand. What is not well known is that UK/US coup operatives enlisted the resentment of some clerics to the rise of secular influence and their own perceived loss of authority.

    Of the historical accounts that I’ve read (admittedly, only a smattering) there was of course Soviet sponsorship of socialist penetration into Iran (the cold war) but apparently it had little traction, and is admitted by even western historians to have had little popularity there. The current MEK is the bastard offspring of those efforts (MEK originally billed itself as Marxist Islamists)?

    Immediately after the ’79 revolution Ayatollah Khomeini called for an Islamic revolution in Iraq and throughout the region as the only way to rid the region of the proxy puppets of the west (and the Soviets?). That the commonality of their Islamic faith was the only binding force that could reclaim the right to their own destiny. Sadam then launched the incursion into SW Iran and ten years of war ensued. What is lost on most USAians is that the US armed both sides – the Iranians fought that war with the military largesse bestowed on Iran by the US during the Shah’s installment from ’53 to ’79, and the US as well as many European nations supplied Iraq during the conflict. I believe it was Kissinger, when asked who he would prefer to prevail, said “neither,” that both should pummel each other into collapse.

    I see that this piece is a special to CN. I would appreciate it if Prof. Abu Khalil or others knowledgeable of the region and the events would correct anything factually incorrect in my comment, or my conclusion regarding the potential role of Islamic faith in this civilizational struggle.

    “She is also quite ignorant of basic Islam and yet this book deals with many aspects of the religion. Astonishingly, she does not know that Wahhabiyyah is strictly not within the Hanbalite school of jurisprudence and—from the standpoint of Wahhabiyyah—all schools of jurisprudence were a deviation from the true Islam.” I will confess to not understanding what is said here, and so I will do some research.

    After composing what I did above I repeated an exercise that I performed some years ago during the Bush and Obama administrations – I used the following search strings to understand the collapse of civilization that the US was bringing about with GWOT:

    Pope Urban II and “It is the will of God”;
    Theory of Just War;
    The Islamic theory of Just War (and the true meaning of Jihad – the greater jihad, the personal struggle against one’s own demons, and the lesser jihad, the struggle against temporary injustice.)

    I never read any of Ayatollah Khomeini’s deliberations, so I don’t know how they equate with the early discussions of Islamic jurisprudence and the Islamic religious moorings wrt Just War (as opposed/compared to western secular conclusions of same.) Perhaps someone here can provide a brief synopsis of his statements.

    Curious in Ohio.

  5. AnneR
    June 10, 2020 at 13:40

    Thank you Prof. Abu Khalil for this distinctly depressing, but totally unsurprising review of this woman’s “book” (propaganda really).

    Her mother was Dutch, huh? Was her school education (up to 18 years), perchance, at an international/American school? One propagating pro-western, especially pro-American perspectives on the world in general, America’s place in it and the West Asian/Middle Eastern world in particular? It rather sounds as though this were the case.

    Mind you, listening, as I unfortunately do (gotta keep up with the latest US-UK Orwellian take on the world) to the BBC’s World Service what strikes strongly is that the individuals “reporting” and the “interviewees” almost always are English speakers. Hmm. And Always, Always pro-western and anti Iranian, Hizbullah, anti-Syrian. Always. And oddly they nearly always seem to “report” from Beirut.

  6. ben
    June 10, 2020 at 02:42

    the kim ghattas book is no more than what might be expected from a correspondent who works for the bbc, which has run nothing but propaganda on the syrian conflict and has provided the same service for all wars launched by the ‘west’ in the middle east in living memory. however, one remark in asad abu khalil’s review took my interest: ‘…. the man she happens to like is none other than Ma`ruf Dawalibi, a reactionary adviser to the Saudi king who was a chief propagandist against communism and socialism during the Cold War (p. 102). She adds that he married a French woman as a sign of his progressiveness.’
    anti-communism was common in the 1950s, extending beyond the ranks of arab nationalists and islamic thinkers deep into the general population. dawalibi was certainly anti-communist but he and mustafa al sibai, the leader of the muslim brotherhood in syria and, after the imprisonment of hasan al hudaybi, the supreme guide of the whole movement, were also in the forefront of resistance to israel and western ‘defence’ plans for the region.
    despite their ideological opposition to communism, they both called for closer relations with the soviet union. dr. dawalibi wrote that the ‘west’ needed to know that arabs would prefer ‘a thousand times’ to become a soviet republic than ‘fodder for israel.’ similarly, mustafa al sibai, equally strident in his summary of the damage done by the ‘west’ in the middle east, up to and including the establishment of israel, remarked that against this background, ‘whatever russia is we would bind ourselves to her were she the very devil.’
    while he and dr dawalibi may have been ‘reactionaries’ their prominent role in speaking out against israel and the ‘west’ in the early 1950s needs to be noted as a corrective to the somewhat summary dismissal of dr dawalibi by as’ad abu khalil.

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