BOB GARFIELD: We're back with On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. And we're joined once again by the multi-talented and multi-lingual Martin Walker, senior correspondent for United Press International to review the foreign press. This week the subject is Saudi Arabia, reflecting some remarkable cultural shifts in its pages. Martin, glad to have you back.
MARTIN WALKER: Hello there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: An interesting occurrence in the Saudi press recently. A commentary about the ancient slander against the Jews - the, the blood libel - and then a retraction!
MARTIN WALKER: Yes. There's been a huge furor in the, in the Arab press generally about this. On March the 10th, Al Riyadh [sp?] which is one of the, the main Saudi dailies, published an op-ed piece from an academic, a professor at King Faisal University called U Maima Al Jalachma [sp?]. What he said, quite simply, was that on the -in the, during the "Jewish holiday of Purim in March blood must be taken from a non-Jew, dried and mixed with dough to make the pastries." It goes on to say that "using human blood to prepare these pastries was a well-established fact historically and legally throughout the history of mankind, and this was one of their main, the main reasons for their persecution and exile in Europe and Asia at different times." Now in fact it is the age old blood libel, one of the most horrendous libels against the Jewish people, and-- the instant reaction came from Michael Melchoir, the - Israel's deputy foreign minister who cited it as a classic example of the anti-Jewish hate and incitement in the Arab media. Normally it would end there, but this time the editor of Al Riyadh, Turkey Abdallah Al Suderi [sp?], wrote an-- an editorial in which he condemned this piece. He said he was out of town when-- when the article appeared. He hadn't known it was appearing. He'd only found out about it in a call from his newspaper's New York bureau chief, and he's instantly disavowed it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It strikes me that the being out of town excuse probably dates back as far as the blood libel.
MARTIN WALKER:Well and the check is in the mail; it's as old as that one as well. And he wrote that "I found it unworthy of publication because it is not supported by any scientific or historical facts. The information in it doesn't go beyond the nonsense that's always carried by the yellow media, the yellow press." In other words he's absolutely denouncing it, and not simply trying to walk back halfway from this particular libel. And that's why it's had such a huge impact in Saudi Arabia and it's coinciding with this other huge impact in Saudi Arabia which is the dreadful case of the, the 15 school girls who died in a fire because the rescuers were kept back by religious police who said it would be "sinful" for the rescuers to see the school girls without their veils on. And this has been thoroughly denounced by the effective ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah; denounced by several other leading members of the government. And it, it's the first time, really, that there's been a, a hint of a crackdown upon the Islamic fundamentalists, whether in the religious police or, in the case of the newspaper, with the Islamic fundamentalist academics who have been pursuing and pro--promoting this extreme view of, of anti-Israeli Wahhabism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Well is there some sort of connection between the condemnation of the blood libel commentary and the condemnation of the actions of the religious police?
MARTIN WALKER: What we're seeing is, is this, this long fraud that the Saudi Arabian government has maintained of being broadly pro-Western in public but-- intensely Islamic fundamentalist in private. That fraud is, is beginning to fray; it's beginning to become untenable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because you really can't separate what you say internationally and what you say locally any more.
MARTIN WALKER:Well that's right. And in, in a sense it's, it's because of programs like this where people who can read the Arab press and can, and can say what is being said in the Arab world to Arabs -- that's no longer private. We're now into an, an international media world where in effect what you say within your own national or family circle is pretty much spread and diffused everywhere. In a world of no secrets, it's kind of hard to maintained the two-faced policy that the Saudis have, have played with such success for so long.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And so when you have the Zinni/Cheney Middle East peacemaking trip and obviously there would be reactions for Western consumption and reactions locally, how do those differ now?
MARTIN WALKER: Well, what I've been really struck by is that we've been seeing the classic Arab defensiveness from Al Riyadh -- that's the same paper that printed the blood libel --"Cheney came to the region to force the American view upon us and to attack Iraq. Arabs didn't like his views, and in return he refused to meet with Arafat. This is undiplomatic, arrogant behavior typical of the American world view."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So as we consider the, the postures and the positions taken by the Saudi press in recent weeks, what we see I, I guess is an ability, a willingness to bend on a number of issues important to the United States but not on Israel.
MARTIN WALKER: I think that's right. I think it's because for the Arab world and for the Saudis in particular Israel is such an essential symbol. I mean if it weren't for Israel there -- one really couldn't talk about any kind of unified Arab opinion, and you probably couldn't, if you were a Saudi leader, find it very easy to justify the nature of your regime unless you were able to cite -- ah, but we are solid on this whole issue of evil, which is why I find it so interesting that the only peace plan out there at the moment that seems to have any traction at all is the one pledging normalization with Israel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And floated by Saudi Arabia.
MARTIN WALKER: Exactly. Floated by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Once again you've wrapped it all up for us. Thanks a lot.
MARTIN WALKER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin Walker is the senior correspondent for UPI and author of the Washington Post best-seller The Caves of Perigord.