LONDON - We were just finishing a lunch hosted by a U.S. diplomat for Arab editors in London when one of the editors turned to me and said: "I hope you will not be insulted, but I have to ask you this question because it's around: Are Jews in the media behind the campaign to smear Saudi Arabia and Islam?"
Wow. It is not a question I often get over coffee, but it was asked sincerely, by a serious Arab journalist who wanted a serious answer. I said that I was not insulted and that I knew this question was everywhere - everywhere - in the Arab-Muslim world today, so let me take a stab at it.
My first instinct was to ask a question back: When Jewish reporters in Beirut and Israel were at the forefront in covering such stories as the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinians, why did no one in the Arab world ask whether they were part of a Jewish conspiracy? When Jewish congressmen and commentators led the campaign for U.S. intervention to save the Muslims of Bosnia and Kosovo and to roll back the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and protect Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf war, why did no one in the Muslim world complain about a Jewish conspiracy?
The truth is that Jewish commentators and lawmakers have probably been more outspoken in support of using American force to rescue Muslims in the last 15 years than any other group - including American Muslims.
So, to begin with, maybe - just maybe - there is no Jewish conspiracy against Muslims or Saudi Arabia at work here. Maybe, just maybe, many Americans are upset because 15 Saudis took part in the Sept. 11 attacks, private Saudi charities financed Osama bin Laden and hundreds of Saudis fought with al-Qaida against America in Afghanistan. And these hard facts have hardened U.S. opinion against them.
It would be a tragedy if Arabs and Muslims were to adopt the position that there is no conceivable reason why Americans might be upset with them today and that any criticism they face in the U.S. media is entirely the result of some Jewish campaign of vilification.
Why a tragedy?
First, because it would reinforce all the reasons the Arab-Muslim world has fallen behind in economic development, education, science and democratization. Because whenever a people reduces all its problems to a conspiracy by someone else, it absolves itself and its leaders of any responsibility for its predicament - and any need for self-examination. No civilization has ever prospered with that approach. (And several courageous Arab journalists have started to point that out.)
Blaming someone else is not a substitute for analyzing or coping. (That also applies to Israelis who say Yasser Arafat alone is the source of all their problems.) Only in a society that embraces self-criticism can the political process produce real facts to cope with real problems.
Look at the excruciating process of analysis, self-criticism and accountability that America went through after Vietnam. Few Arab-Muslim countries have ever done anything like that after a war, let alone after Sept. 11. Until they do, their conclusion that America or the Jews are behind all their problems is escapism, not analysis.
Second, persisting in this would only widen the gulf between America and the Muslim world because such conspiracy theories are based on a total misunderstanding of America. The standard view of America in the Arab-Muslim world is that America is rich and powerful because it is crass and materialistic. And since America is just about material interests - not values - why can't it understand that its real material interests are with the Arabs, not with Israel? The Jews must be manipulating things.
The truth is exactly the opposite. America is successful and wealthy because of its values, not despite them. It is prosperous because of the way it respects freedom, individualism and women's rights and the way it nurtures creativity and experimentation. Those values are our inexhaustible oil wells. Americans naturally gravitate toward societies that share those same values, and they recoil from those that don't.
There are two kinds of blame: one that is a result of self-analysis and self-criticism, and one that is an attempt to avoid self-analysis and self-criticism. We have all known people who endlessly blame their mothers or fathers for all their shortcomings, never themselves. Some eventually grow out of it and thrive. Some never do - and they go through life angry, miserable and never achieving their full potential.
Thomas L. Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.