The New York Times Blames American Mores for Saudi Students’ Misbehavior
It’s one of the horrible ironies of history that September 11, 2001, was the day that the New York Times chose to publish an adulatory feature about a domestic terrorist, Bill Ayers, that began with the quote, “I don’t regret setting bombs.”
This week, the Times nearly matched that amazing feat of poor timing. The morning of the Islamist terrorist attacks on Brussels, the Times featured a front-page article about students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait who attend Idaho State University.
At first blush, it seems like a hard-hitting report by the Times about bad behavior by the Arab students. But read it a little more closely, and it becomes clear that it is actually a misleading and flawed attempt to blame America for the misdeeds of the Arabs.
One key sentence comes near the beginning: “Free from the strict cultural mores of their home countries, some students have faced charges like drunken driving and stalking.”
It’s a highly idealized and inaccurate view of the Middle East that no stalking or drunk driving happens there. And it’s a false, blame-America-first narrative that makes our own supposedly loose cultural mores — rather than the Arabs themselves — to blame for Arab student misbehavior.
Anyone who thinks drunk driving doesn’t exist in Saudi Arabia need only check the clips of the Arab News, an English-language Saudi newspaper.
Here is one such dispatch:
JEDDAH, 17 November 2007 — A summary court here sentenced an international Saudi player to 80 lashes for driving under the influence of alcohol and then causing an accident, Al-Watan newspaper reported yesterday.
The player — whose name, the game he plays and the name of his club have all been withheld — was said to have been driving on King Abdul Aziz Road in Jeddah under the influence of alcohol. He crashed into another car and caused heavy damage to both the vehicles. The driver of the other car was seriously injured.
Here is another dispatch from 2010: “JEDDAH: The Jeddah General Court sentenced a Saudi man to death for causing the death of a university student while driving under the influence of alcohol on Palestine Street a year ago.”
A 2007 article in Arab News complained of drunk drivers returning home to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province after nights out on the town in neighboring Bahrain: “At night on the roads and highways leading into Saudi Arabia from the Causeway, for safety’s sake it must be assumed that every driver is at least somewhat impaired and perhaps five percent are outright drunk.”
The book Teen Life in the Middle East reports that in Kuwait, “There is a big black market for alcohol,” and “Drunk driving by teenagers is a major source of accidents in the country.”
As for “stalking,” the Times‘ suggestion that Saudi Arabia or Kuwait have stricter cultural mores than America when it comes to appropriate treatment of women is preposterous. One website warns foreigners considering working in the kingdom: “Sexual assault in Saudi Arabia is common. Women in the Kingdom are often victims of harassment and stalking — it’s not uncommon for a woman to be followed by a local male on foot or in a vehicle.”
The Times pulls a similar blame-America-not-the-Arabs stunt when it comes to academic dishonesty. Here is the key passage:
David Rodgers, an associate dean of science and engineering, described the challenges many students have faced.
“In engineering, every single class is scripted,” Dr. Rodgers said. “There’s not a lot of room for a screw-up. If you fail a class, you can make it up perhaps by taking 18 hours the next semester. You know your funding is running out. You know you’ve come to America to be an engineer. The cultural change, the language barrier, all these things stress kids.”
That might explain why several professors said Middle Eastern students seemed prone to cheating and plagiarism.
By this Times-proffered explanation, it is “stress” and “challenges” that cause the Saudi or Kuwaiti students to cheat and plagiarize. Left entirely unexplored is the possibility that these students have different values and definitions of honesty than Americans do. One academic paper that looked at the issue found, “Saudi participants reporting incidents of academic misconduct mentioned how grades are more important for them than learning and the precedence of obtaining the degree over acquiring the knowledge and skills matching to their respective degrees… The Saudi participants’ other justification of cheating was about the definition of cheating. Participants reported that as long as they do not take something that belongs to another student, they do not consider themselves cheating.”
The director of international student services at the University of St. Thomas, Lori Friedman, talked to Minnesota Public Radio about the issue:
Students from Eastern cultures are generally used to working in groups toward a common goal in ways that can run counter to the American tradition of independent scholarship, Friedman said.
“Plagiarism is a new word, intellectual property is a new word and idea,” she said. “What we might call cheating, they might call it sharing.”
And Magied Alsqoor, an international student from Saudi Arabia and who was president of the International Students Association at St. Cloud State University, explained the plagiarism or cheating issue as a clash between American individualism and Saudi Arabia’s more communal culture:
I think people in Saudi Arabia are very close to each other and so we grow up helping each other. It’s a good thing, but it becomes a problem for Saudis in the U.S. We often get out of an exam and share questions with others and we think it’s a common thing because we grow up in a society that tells us to share things and wish the best for your friends. In Saudi Arabia, your accomplishments are not recorded by your name, but by your tribe or family. For instance, when a guy from Najran succeeds, it’s considered as a success for the whole city. In the U.S. this is not the case.
In other words, it’s not that America is stressing the Saudi or Kuwaiti students out — just like it’s not lax American “cultural mores” that are causing the Saudi or Kuwaiti students to drive drunk or stalk women. The real issue is that the American concept of original work by an individual is somehow foreign to the Saudi students.
What does all this have to do with the terrorist attacks in Brussels? Though facts about those attacks are still emerging, it’s not unreasonable to see the bombings in the context of the same global war of militant Islam versus the West, a war in which September 11, 2001, was one battle. This Times article propagates two myths. One is that Islamic states are somehow better (“strict cultural mores”) than America. Another is that they are the same as America (it’s not that the Arab students have a different definition of cheating, it’s just that they got stressed out). Both myths prevent us from understanding what we are up against.
That is not to say that Kuwaiti or Saudi Arabian college students are our enemies. American-educated Arabs can become some of the West’s best allies, as I learned from the example of the Iraqi patriot Ahmad Chalabi, who went to MIT and the University of Chicago. But victory for the West in this war depends in part on accurately assessing the motivation of Muslim misbehavior. In that department, this ill-timed Times story obscures as much as it illuminates.
More of Ira Stoll’s media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.