The brutal punishment of 1000 lashes for a Saudi blogger for criticizing the country’s clerical establishment, suspended after global protests by human rights activists and some (largely European) governments, was reinstated last week by the kingdom’s supreme court. Mobilized protest, largely among Westerners, is now underway once again on Twitter and social media.
The Saudi Wahabist government claims they have a right to punish severely the blogger (in light of sharia law) because he has “insulted Islam.” QUICK TAKES posed the following question to its contributors, and received from one of them a response. To what degree does this case replicate, and in what measure does it differ from, the now familiar controversy about “insulting Islam”, and how should Westerners with their prioritizing of secular human rights law react?
QUICK TAKES is a feature managed by PTT Current Affairs Editor Carl Raschke. If you would like to be part of the “rapid response teams” that responds in this section to news of the week, please send the editor an email along with a brief description of the general topics on which you would like to comment.
Saudi Arabia’s grizzly human rights record is on display again. It should be, but perhaps not for the reasons observers most often point toward.
The kingdom’s wretched rights record is not so much rooted in reactionary Islam as it is in a more familiar kind of modern politics. In recent months the case of Raif Badawi has drawn significant attention in the Western media.
Imprisoned in 2012 for setting up a website and speaking critically about the privilege enjoyed by religious elites in Saudi Arabia, Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes for allegedly “insulting Islam.”
It is a grave offense in the kingdom, one that can be grounds for execution. Facing the whip is only marginally less devastating, horrific as an instrument of both physical and psychic terror.
Badawi received the first round of flogging in January. The remaining 950 are to be carried out 50 at a time, although the next round has been postponed repeatedly, including this past Friday. Badawi’s “crime” ostensibly boils down to violating Saudi Arabia’s restrictive rules on what passes as permissible speech and for seemingly for criticizing the privileged place of religion and religious authority in what is often characterized as a deeply conservative Islamic state and society.
Western observers frequently describe Badawi as a liberal – a tragic figure that seems culturally and perhaps even historically out of place pitted against systemic and unrelenting piety of the worst kind. Western observers who lament Badawi’s terrible dilemma celebrate him as an exemplary model of a liberal tradition of tolerance and free speech. He is routinely lionized as a secularist battling against the forces of retrograde Islamic orthodoxy and the powerful grip that religiosity purportedly holds over Saudi Arabia and other Muslim societies.
These claims about the West are absurd, of course, considering the ways that faith has been used to undermine civil rights, freedoms, and as an arbiter of “secular” violence against the global south still today. Whatever secularism is supposed to be, its most powerful attribute is that it is mythical everywhere. Indeed, the framing of Badawi’s case as a test of “the secular” versus religion obscures more than it reveals, particularly about the assumptions we most often make about Islam in Saudi Arabia, the religious character of the state there and how to make sense of the terrible sacrifice that some Saudi citizens are forced to make.
They tell us very little about the politics of piety and religious authority, not to mention the ways that people like Badawi and countless others like him, are pawns in a complicated game that has less to do with theology or liberalism than it does good old fashioned power politics and autocracy.
It is of course true that a particular interpretation of Islam, one that is austere, holds sway in Saudi Arabia. And it may be the case that Badawi is committed to a form of politics that is critical of this system. But Saudi Arabia is not an Islamic state. It is an autocratic one, one in which a ruling elite has struck a delicate bargain with a set of religious authorities, both of which impose themselves on society.
Religion matters to a large number of Saudi citizens, although it is a complicated country, home to diverse views, sectarian difference, and in which religiosity is impossible to measure. Badawi’s case tells us nothing about the grip of Islam or “Wahhabism,” a term that is supposed to have explanatory power in making sense of religion in Saudi Arabia, but that in reality is analytically empty.
What it does tell us, and in particular what it tells us about the nature of the bargain between Saudi rulers and the religious elite, is more interesting. Badawi’s actions have been criminalized, and he is set to suffer not so much because he is a liberal or that he has insulted Islam, but rather because he challenged (along with thousands of others who languish in Saudi prisons) the basic architecture of a delicate political system. He is being sacrificed not because of ideology, but because the kingdom’s rulers see him as easily sacrificed in the interest of keeping the zealots quiet.
That is hardly the outcome of social consensus. Rather it is the product of a political system that is coercive and imposed, a system patched together historically through a combination of violence, oil wealth, modernization, American political-economic patronage, and the criminalization of ideas that counter the interests of religious elites rather than theology itself.
Saudi Arabia’s political pathologies are not religiously rooted. Rather they reflect a perfectly familiar kind of political sensibility, one that is common to all states in the modern world. The kingdom’s treatment of Badawi, and the underlying logic at work in his punishment – the preservation of a centralized political order dominated by the few – is more akin to Western liberalism that many observers would like to admit.
None of that is meant to excuse what is happening to Badawi and others like him in Saudi Arabia. But rather than seeing Saudi Arabia as exceptional, it is much more useful to understand its behavior and its use of state terror to challenge the country’s political order as familiar.
In an era of heightened anxiety and fear mongering about terrorism, xenophobia, and political polarization in the West, it should not be so easy to forget that free speech and critical politics are under surveillance and assault there as well, including the militarization of police, the criminalization of being black, the siege against free speech on campuses, and the systemic use of torture. These are only less awful than public whipping because too many choose to see them this way.
Toby C. Jones is associate professor of history and a Chancellor’s Scholar at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey.