A blogger, and beacon of hope, for Saudi Arabia
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In awarding its most prestigious human rights prize to an imprisoned Saudi blogger, Europe's Parliament reminded the world just how odious any Western alliance is with the puritanical Kingdom one writer calls "an Islamic State that’s succeeded".
It’s been 27 years since the first Sakharov Prize – named after the late Russian physicist and human rights activist, Andrei Sakharov, and often described as a sort of EU version of the Nobel Peace Prize – was bestowed on Nelson Mandela.
At the time, the founding father of modern South Africa was still behind bars on Robben Island and unable to collect his award in person.
This week, the latest recipient of the prize, Raif Badawi, faced the same constraint, as Saudi authorities barred Badawi from travelling beyond the jail where he’s serving a judicial sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years.
His wife, Ensaf, came to Strasbourg from exile in Canada to claim the prize on behalf of her husband.
Badawi’s official “crime” is “insulting Islam through electronic channels”. In other words, he set up a liberal website that he then used as a virtual podium from which to pillory the country’s ultraconservative religious clergy and to call for an end to the influence of religion in public life.
He was, basically, using social media to do what millions of us do, unblinkingly, every day: express our opinions and share ideas.
Executions at 20-year high
Except Badawi was doing it in an ultraconservative realm where a puritanical and fundamentalist branch of Sunni Islam – Wahhabism – is the dominant faith.
It prescribes a strict form of Sharia law that allows for execution by stoning and beheading, and ensures that men hold precedence over women in every aspect of daily life.
Saudi Arabia has put to death 151 people this year – the highest execution rate since 1995, according to human rights groups. The kingdom ranks just behind Iran and China, in terms of death penalties carried out – but ahead of the United States.
And if stoning and beheading sounds chillingly familiar – that’s because it is.
Kamel Daoud, an Algerian writer, says that Saudi Arabia’s regime bears many of the hallmarks of the Islamic State group, even if that comparison is brushed under the rug in the halls of global diplomacy.
The Saudi’s vast oil wealth and historical legacy of close geostrategic alliances with the West (French Prime Minister Manuel Valls signed 10 billion euros of contracts with the House of Saud on a recent visit) means that Saudi Arabia has been able to successfully cast itself as a needed Western ally in a region fraught with danger.
As the US reliance on Saudi oil begins to wane, and regional fault lines shift, Saudi Arabia’s virtual exemption from harsher scrutiny – you might say it’s gotten a free pass – may also fall by the wayside.
But for now, the kingdom’s Western allies would like to believe that the advent of a new king and promises of civic reform – women voted for the first time in recent municipal elections – are a harbinger of greater openings to come.
‘Black Daesh, White Daesh’
But no such advances are possible so long as the religious clergy remains entrenched.
Daoud, the writer, sees this hardline religious doctrine as the greatest impediment to change.
“Daesh has a mother: the invasion of Iraq," he says. “But it also has a father: Saudi Arabia and its ideological industry.”
He describes a “Black Daesh and White Daesh".
"The first one cuts throats, kills, stones, chops off hands, destroys humanity’s patrimony and detests archeology, women and non-Muslim foreigners. The second is better dressed, but does the same thing,” he says.
Saudi Arabia, for its part, vehemently rejects any such comparison, arguing that while ISIS (another name for IS group) stones and beheads innocent hostages, it only does so in the case of convicted criminals. And as far as beheadings are concerned, it has argued that a single clean sweep by the sword is more “humane” than the lethal injection used for executions in the United States.
Despite this, Saudi Arabia…wait for it… sits on the 47-member UN Human Rights Council. A reality that some see as an indictment of a body that is supposed to uphold fundamental rights and freedoms.
Pyromaniac as fire chief
"Saudi Arabia has arguably the worst record in the world when it comes to religious freedom and women’s rights," Hillel Neuer, the UN Watch executive director, said in a recent statement.
"This UN appointment is like making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief, and underscores the credibility deficit of a human rights council that already counts Russia, Cuba, China, Qatar and Venezuela among its elected members."
The European Parliament has called on Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to grant Raif Badawi clemency – releasing him from jail and sparing him the 950 lashings he is yet to receive. His wife fears that her husband, already reportedly suffering from poor health, might not survive further flogging.
Andrei Sakharov fought the Soviet system for years before it collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. If enough Raif Badawis refuse to go quietly into the night, and can hold out long enough against an ageing clan of diehard clergy, perhaps the same fate will befall Saudi Arabia.
Will King Salman show the wisdom of a King Solomon – and help bring his kingdom into the modern age?
This article was originally published on December 16, 2015.