Being Respectful Pays Dividends

by Will on August 31, 2010

A Decisive Moment

Seeing the way that demogogic hucksters are using the Cordoba House controversy for short-term advantage, I find it depressing that people don’t see how much we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by making so much noise about this.

I’m reminded of a little-remembered, but very consequential, moment of history, which illustrates the power of showing a little respect.

It was 1945. Saudi Arabia was ruled by a badass warrior and religious zealot named Abdulaziz Ibn Saud. He had recently learned that his country, which he’d conquered years earlier and ruled with an iron fist, also happened to have lots and lots of oil. The western countries were big fans of oil, and were willing to pay a lot for it. World War II was winding down. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both went down to Saudi Arabia to meet the monarch and try to strike up an alliance. I’ll let Rachel Bronson take it from there:

The Americans gave an aircraft and the British gave a car. Churchill met with King Abdulaziz after the Great Bitter Lake meeting with FDR but it just didn’t go as well.

For instance, on one hand FDR, a smoker, was determined not to smoke in Abdulaziz’s presence. He could have but he wanted to be respectful. There are stories of FDR finding a room and smoking in a stairwell quickly before he would meet with Abdulaziz.

Winston Churchill, on the other hand, was a smoker and he was going to smoke. He had a drink and a smoke and all that was fine, but Abdulaziz was really taken with the respect shown by FDR.

The result was that the US and Saudi Arabia forged a strong alliance, profitable to American oilmen from J.R. Ewing to George W. Bush. Great Britain and Saudi Arabia… not so much. Churchill, ever eager to show his contempt for non-Anglo-Saxons, blew it, where FDR hit it out of the park.

Suppose Roosevelt had instead loudly denounced Islam as a violent cult, and insisted that Ibn Saud stop building mosques and switch to English Common Law. Do you think the meeting would have gone well? Do you think that Chevron and Exxon would have been granted lucrative contracts to develop Saudi oil fields?

Meanwhile, today we’re in a situation where we’re trying to convince a large number of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and elsewhere: “you should stop fighting against us, and throw in with the thugs we want running the country; you’ll be better off under them than under the other thugs who want to rule you.” How likely is it we’ll be successful in convincing any Muslim of this, when we’re also conspicuously demonizing American Muslims who are moderate and reject violence? Will the median Iraqi Muslim think, “the Americans are trustworthy, so I’ll become moderate and reject violence?” What reason would he or she have to think that?

In travels abroad, I learned very quickly that I got better service if I learned at least enough of the language to explain that I couldn’t speak it, rather than just expect everybody to have spent years learning English. That gesture signaled that I understood that they had their own, valid way of doing things, and that I didn’t see the whole world as some sort of playground for Americans. I believe that I also get better service at taquerias here when I order items with the correct Spanish pronunciation. This is not rocket science. Why do so many people seem to be so blindly oblivious to it? Oh, right. They have no shame.

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