Who is Becoming Like Whom?

A key goal in the war on terrorism is the promotion of democracy and pluralism in the Islamic world. It’s expected that these Western ideals will cripple radical Islam by reducing the number of potential terrorist recruits, and by making the Middle East more like the West. Apparently, someone in Blacksburg, Virginia, didn’t get the word. Blacksburg is home to Virginia Tech, Virginia’s largest public university. This past summer, Virginia Tech was paid $246,000 to host a program in “faculty development” for King Abdul-Aziz University in Saudi Arabia. Such arrangements aren’t unusual, but what was unusual was the Saudis’ request that the classes be gender-segregated. University officials said that the Saudis wanted the courses to “mirror classroom settings at their home institution.” As one Virginia Tech spokesman put it, the university “chose to respect the Saudi culture ‘rather than impress our culture on them.’” Well, that explanation did not go down well with Tech faculty members. One professor even filed a grievance. Virginia Tech’s provost issued an apology-of-sorts and called the flap a “learning moment” that will guide Tech’s future actions. This particular issue is moot because the Saudis will be long gone by the time the grievance process is over. What isn’t moot is the way that Saudi Arabian oil wealth buys an exemption from our professed values and ideals. A decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the Virginia Military Institute’s (VMI) single-sex policy violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. As a public institution, VMI couldn’t do, as a matter of conviction, what its sister institution, Virginia Tech, now gladly does for money. Please. Our bending over backwards to accommodate Saudi sensibilities isn’t limited to American college campuses. As scholar Daniel Pipes puts it, “In Saudi Arabia, the U.S. government submits to restrictions on Christian practices that it would find totally unacceptable anywhere else in the world”—including foregoing saying grace before Thanksgiving dinner during a 1990 visit by then-president George H. W. Bush. As recently as 2002, American servicewomen, when they went off-base, were expected to wear “abayas,” the black head-to-foot garments worn by Saudi women. Meanwhile, we allow Saudis to finance schools that teach hatred of the West and send Korans into prisons. These and numerous other examples prompt an obvious question: Who is becoming like whom? There can be no doubt which one needs to change. After all, Americans didn’t hijack their planes and fly them into the Kingdom Centre in Riyadh. Yet, Americans are expected, by both their government and ours, to become more like Saudis. And as the price of oil rises, this leverage and influence can be expected to rise with it. Let’s be clear: This is not “respect” for another culture; it is cravenness. It is letting oil wealth blind us, not only to our values, but also to our best interests. In any war, it helps to know who your adversaries are. The poor, misguided folks in Blacksburg may have done us a favor if this wakes us up to the double-standard we practice with the Saudis.


Chuck Colson


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