The left has a penchant for choosing heroes based on their well-constructed anti-Trump narrative. Occasionally, however, this approach backfires, causing the left to defend and prop up individuals it should most decidedly not. This behavior is most readily apparent on the international stage, particularly since foreign policy decisionmaking based solely on opposing Trump resembles really no foreign policy at all.
Recently, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) fell into this unfortunate trap of defending the indefensible, offering a glowing defense of the infamous anti-Semitic Saudi preacher Salman al-Awda, who currently faces multiple counts in Saudi court, including for incitement against the ruler, sedition, and aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, among others.
In his statement, Leahy initially focuses his condemnation on the parameters of al-Awda’s confinement, which he argues violates international law. If the statement stopped there, it would be an honest statement of advocacy.
However, Leahy dramatically shifts gears, heaping saccharine praise on the cleric and portraying al-Awda as a mere dissident facing persecution at the hands of the Saudi government. To buttress his words of affirmation, Leahy cites the UN Special Rapporteurs, who in calling for al-Awda’s release referred to the preacher as a “reformist” and “an influential religious figure who has urged greater respect for human rights within Sharia.” Leahy himself refers to al-Awda as a “prisoner of conscience” and a “courageous cleric” who represents a “true reformist.”
But performing a quick background check on al-Awda would assure you that this representation is far from thorough or accurate. Although al-Awda has made some redeeming statements in recent years, including an open rejection of his Islamist behavior in the 1990s, he carries a long and painful history of virulent antisemitism and anti-Americanism in the 2000s, the antsemitism remaining an enduring phenomenon of the past decade. There’s a strong desire among leftists to recast al-Awda as a hero, but it appears to be at best wishful thinking and, at worst, liberal windowdressing for much more nefarious beliefs.
Indeed, it’s not a stretch to say that al-Awda harbors a deep hatred of Jews. As recently as 2012, al-Awda went on Rotana Khalijiya TV, a Saudi network, discussing how Jews consume human blood to “bring them closer to their false god.” In that same interview, he declared that Jews use the Holocaust to “extort many governments” and then proceeded to declare that the Jews were “carrying out a Holocaust in Gaza.” In 2006, al-Awda appeared on al-Hayat Kalimat TV, declaring Jews to be “the worst enemy” and advising that “when any party fights the Jews, we should rejoice out of spite for the Jews.”
Al-Awda’s unsettling statements are not confined to a hatred of Jews. Just one month before 9/11, al-Awda praised the Taliban, declaring that he “believed that the Taliban [had] a significant impact on the maintenance of security in Afghanistan and the unification of its territory.” In the past, he has also pushed for a boycott of the United States, encouraging his listeners to ultimately hate the country and “reject all things American.”
Al-Awda also has shared some unsettling views on women. In 2001, al-Awda spoke out against women wearing pants, lest they “show the size of a woman’s organs,” thereby causing “a lot of sedition and excitement.” In 2017, he similarly expressed disapproval of fathers buying TV sets and installing them in their living rooms, in case their daughters might become attracted to the athletes featured in televised sporting events. These shouldn’t strike you as the statements of a reformist, because they are not.
Due to his wide range of extremist views, Al-Awda was banned from entering Denmark for two years starting in 2017 and has had several confrontations with Saudi authorities. But readers of Leahy’s statement will hear none of these things. The only message Leahy wishes audiences to internalize from his outpouring of support is that al-Awda is suffering at the hands of the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, a Gulf leader with whom Trump has made an effort to establish stronger diplomatic relations in a 180 pivot from the Obama administration.
According to Leahy, al-Awda’s situation demonstrates the “hypocrisy” of the Saudi regime, which has marketed itself as “reformist.” By propping up the anti-Semitic al-Awda as some hopelessly tragic figure, it’s likely Leahy hopes to undercut Trump’s diplomatic efforts, which include a softening of relations with the Saudis.
The only problem with Leahy’s approach is the same thing that has plagued the left since Trump won the election in 2016—they are simply terrible at picking heroes because their primary criteria is “Does this oppose Trump?” They have thus developed a strange habit of elevating alleged anti-Semites, if only because such individuals similarly revel in their own Trump bashing. From Linda Sarsour to Rep. Ilhan Omar to Tamika Mallory, the left props up hateful individuals in an ironic attempt to combat what they deem to be Trump’s hate. They haphazardly choose cause celebres, and they’re exceedingly bad at it.
Indeed, the case of al-Awda is no different. Although the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi sparked thunderous criticism of the Saudi royal family, arguably becoming a weapon of the left to undermine the U.S.-Saudi dynamic under Trump, many have attributed Saudi’s progressive reforms, which include a crackdown on Islamist rhetoric, to the younger crown prince.
Thus, it’s President Obama’s foreign policy tack—which included a swivel away from partners like Saudi Arabia in favor of Iran—that seems in need of a more rigorous defense. Perhaps the Democrats’ foreign policy is not only about thwarting Trump but also about preserving the legacy of Obama. Principled, indeed.