n April 1988 Saudi Arabia asked the U.S. to withdraw its newly appointed ambassador, Hume Horan, after only six months. News reports said King Fahd just didn't like the U.S. envoy. What the Saudis didn't like about him, though, was that he was the best Arabic speaker in the State Department, and had used his language skills to engage all kinds of Saudis, including the kingdom's conservative religious leaders who were critical of the ruling family. The Saudis didn't want someone so adroit at penetrating their society, so — of course — we withdrew Mr. Horan.
Ever since then we've been sending non-Arabic-speaking ambassadors to Riyadh — mostly presidential cronies who knew exactly how to penetrate the White House but didn't have a clue how to penetrate Saudi Arabia. Yes sir, we got the message: As long as the Saudis kept the oil flowing, what they taught in their schools and mosques was not our business. And what we didn't know wouldn't hurt us.
Well, on Sept. 11 we learned just how wrong that view was. What we didn't know hurt us very badly. On Sept. 11 we learned all the things about Saudi Arabia that we didn't know: that Saudi Arabia was the primary funder of the Taliban, that 15 of the hijackers were disgruntled young Saudis and that Saudi Arabia was allowing fund-raising for Osama bin Laden — as long as he didn't use the money to attack the Saudi regime.
And most of all, we've learned about Saudi schools. As this newspaper recently reported from Riyadh, the 10th-grade textbook for one of the five required religion classes taught in all Saudi public schools states: "It is compulsory for the Muslims to be loyal to each other and to consider the infidels their enemy." This hostile view of non-Muslims, which is particularly pronounced in the strict Saudi Wahhabi brand of Islam, is reinforced through Saudi sermons, TV shows and the Internet.
There is something wrong with this picture: Since Sept. 11, the president of the United States has given several speeches about how Islam is a tolerant religion, with no core hostility to the West. But the leader of Saudi Arabia, the keeper of the Muslim Holy places, hasn't given one.
The truth is, there are at least two sides to Saudi Arabia, but we've pretended that there's only one. There is the wealthy Saudi ruling family and upper middle classes, who send their kids to America to be educated and live Western-style lives abroad and behind the veil at home. And there is an Islamist element incubating religious hostility toward America and the West, particularly among disaffected, unemployed Saudi youth.
It is said that truth is the first victim of war. Not this war. In the war of Sept. 11, we've been the first victims of our own inability to tell the truth — to ourselves and to others. It's time now to tell the truth. And the truth is that with the weapons of mass destruction that are now easily available, how governments shape the consciousness, mentality and imagination of their young people is no longer a private matter.
We now have two choices: First, we can decide that the Saudi ruling family really is tolerant, strong and wants to be part of the solution, and thus we can urge its members to educate their children differently and ensure that fund-raising in their society doesn't go to people who want to destroy ours. If so, I don't expect the Saudis to teach their kids to love America or embrace non-Muslim religions.
But if countries want good relations with us, then they have to know that whatever religious vision they teach in their public schools we expect them to teach the "peaceful" realization of that vision. All U.S. ambassadors need to make that part of their brief. Because if tolerance is not made universal, then coexistence is impossible. But such simple tolerance of other faiths is precisely what Saudi Arabia has not been teaching.
If the Saudis cannot or will not do that, then we must conclude that the Saudi ruling family is not really on our side, and we should move quickly to lessen our dependence upon it. I was for radical energy conservation, getting rid of gas-guzzlers and reducing oil imports before Sept. 11 — but I feel even more strongly about it now.
"Either we get rid of our minivans or Saudi Arabia gets rid of its textbooks," says Michael Mandelbaum, the Johns Hopkins foreign policy specialist. "But one thing we know for sure — it's dangerous to go on assuming that the two can coexist."